Testing and Blogging: What Would Confucius Say?

07/24/2012 07:33 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

For the Confucian tradition, and Confucius specifically, there is no time that is not a time for learning. Every event, every activity, every encounter is yet another occasion for learning, and to think of them in any less a fashion is to shortchange our capacity to engage always in the process of learning.

What is the technical nature of learning? The Chinese term translated as learning, hsüeh, suggests a broad base of engagement in the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge is understood as we would understand the term visa vie Webster's dictionary, "the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned." Knowledge is information about things, data or facts, if you will.

For the Confucian, however, and unlike Webster's definition, learning is a broader term and a much deeper and more profound term than just knowledge acquisition alone.

The Confucian tradition has historically focused largely upon learning as textual learning, the mastery of which was demonstrated in one's knowledge and application of the so-called Chinese Classics, ching. Beyond this more narrow definition, however, learning has always extended to virtually every other form of activity, including observation of the natural world and human relationships, be they special moral relations or society at large.

While such activities produced the acquisition of knowledge, and a very broad base of knowledge, the agenda of learning is still broader than mere knowledge alone.

Such learning in Confucian terms is always directed toward becoming a moral human being, a Noble Person, chün tzu, and its sees life itself as the unfoldment of a great learning exercise. The result of such learning is self-knowledge, self-understanding if you will. And from the Confucian perspective such learning, self-learning, results directly in the development of the moral self and its capacity for moral action.

Beginning with Confucius himself learning remains as quintessential Confucian teaching to this very day! The Confucian Analects opens with a statement of the centrality of learning for Confucius, "The Master said: 'Is it not a joy to learn with a constant effort and application.'" (Analects I:1)

What then of learning in a modern context? What would Confucius say?

To address the question of modernity and Confucian learning we must understand all that goes into the process of learning from a Confucian point of view. The relevant passage from the Analects is short and to the point and yet of major import in understanding how Confucius intended his understanding of the nature of learning.

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

In this passage another mental processes is added to the understanding of learning -- thought or thinking, ssu. We have seen learning as the overarching goal, a goal that extends beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge to the creation and activation of moral knowledge and moral action.

Thought or thinking, ssu, is also a part of the larger process of learning, but is particularly directed at what we might describe as reasoning about or reflecting upon the knowledge acquired. With the addition of ssu we begin to see the way in which Confucius describes learning as more than just the acquisition of knowledge. And with this "more than" quality, we begin to see the dynamics of learning for what it can be and wherein in turn lie its dangers.

The ramifications of this seemingly very simple passage from the Analects are enormous.

The first part of the passage says, "Learning without thought is labor lost."

What's the issue here?

Confucius is suggesting that knowledge acquisition alone is not enough to count as learning. Knowledge acquisition without thought is a mere collection of data points, facts, if you will -- the simple accumulation of data/facts with no capacity to entertain thought in or about the raw knowledge acquired.

To give forth of such "knowledge" is merely to reiterate or regurgitate what has been acquired. There is no ability to learn from or about the knowledge -- data in, data out, or at its worst, junk in, junk out! There is no learning, no self-understanding, no development of a moral self and moral action. Truly labor lost!

Does it remind you of the potential fallacy today of believing, as some if not many do, that learning can be measured by "teaching to the test"?

The second part of the passage says, "Thought without learning is perilous."

What's the issue here?

Confucius is wary of thought alone without a foundation in knowledge. He is concerned with both the content and intent of thought. Thought alone for Confucius has no content, no foundation in knowledge. In turn it has no intent toward the acquisition of knowledge as part of the larger agenda of learning, moral learning and action of the self.

Thought as reasoning and reflection needs to ground itself in a foundation of knowledge. From this root arises the capacity to grow in learning toward the ideal of being a moral person. Rootless thought as an end unto itself is seen as perilous of the learning process.

Does it remind you of the potential peril of our own development of social media, where sometimes blogging runs the risk of thought without knowledge? While blogging can be a positive steppingstone in the building of a learning process, it also suggests a cautionary warning -- rootless thought runs the risk of abandoning the larger goal of learning.

Does the Confucian understanding of true learning question the limits of our use of testing and blogging or at least a reevaluation of their roles?