Back to School With Confucius

09/17/2011 11:03 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Ah, the beginning of fall and with the change of seasons, the yearly ritual of the return to school.

The first sentence of the first passage of the Confucian Analects reads, "Is it not a joy to learn with a constant effort and application?" (Analects I:1): a statement that should capture the quintessential feeling of this time of year!

Yet the report card of the vast amount of education in America is a travesty and an embarrassment of extraordinary proportions when compared with other nations of the world. We watch math and science scores plummet. We see the humanities and the social sciences as only increasingly irrelevant in a world of travail. We see our youth as no longer competitive with the world's youth. We see our edge of educational leadership that has for so long been the pride of America slip away.

Do our students make a constant effort in learning? Do we?

We in America inherited the great traditions of our own Western heritage that has for millennia sought to venerate the richness of learning. One need only consider the role of a Socrates as a basic metaphor of the role of learning virtually ubiquitous throughout our cultural heritage. And what of the hallowed traditions of the Abrahamic roots, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as repositories of and for learning -- have they not also venerated the human capacity to learn?

Do our students find joy in learning? Do we?

Not only have we created an educational system that fails to deliver excellence, let alone adequacy, but we are living in times where a broad cultural backlash questions even the most fundamental premises of the knowledge humankind has acquired. We would appear to be marching in reverse!

What would Confucius say?

To understand Confucius' emphasis upon the role of learning lets look more closely at that opening passage of the Analects.

The term "learning" (hsüeh) points directly to the acquisition of knowledge with the belief that knowledge can provide humankind with the tools they need to understand themselves and their world. The Confucian perspective remains always a belief in the rational order of things and the capacity of the human mind (hsin) to comprehend and understand that rational order through the process of learning.

Thus, for Confucius all things good come from learning!

However, learning itself is not easy. Perhaps for that very reason it is too often shunned today. In an age of ease where information is at our fingertips instantaneously, learning still requires perseverance, tenacity and strength-of-will. It is something different than "finding it on the web," more than a simple factoid gathering. One of my favorite quotes from the philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) hits the mark: "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

Several passages from the Analects reinforce Confucius' emphasis upon not just the importance of learning, but the rigors of learning as well.

"The Master said, 'I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge. ... When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson'" (Analects VII:8).

Oh, back to school! But wait! Look at the standards Confucius presupposes.The bar is set high, very high!

The student must be eager to learn, just as any of us should be as well. Such eagerness ultimately is rooted in the acceptance of the fundamental importance of learning for the individual as well as for the world. This is the joy of learning that should be not only in the classroom, but also in society in general.

And there must be a basic level of intellectual curiosity and tenacity. In a statement that has become the hallmark of the Confucian emphasis upon learning across the millennia, Confucius suggests an extraordinarily rigorous standard. One corner of knowledge given out -- three corners demanded back!

A tough standard in the classroom today, to say nothing of society in general.

Delving more closely into the nature of learning, we find that learning is more than just the gathering of information. Confucius discusses the relation of learning (hsüeh) and thought (ssu).

"The Master said, 'Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous'" (Analects II:15).

The relation of learning and thought is critical to Confucius. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge. Thought is the capacity to reason, understand, synthesize and ultimately apply the knowledge acquired.

The passage suggests that knowledge for knowledge's sake is "labor lost" and any attempt to understand without adequate knowledge is counterproductive and even dangerous!

Knowledge without thought is perilous indeed. My, my, are we not at the heart of much of today's problem?