Thursday, February 17, 2011

Confucius, You've Still Got It

I have, at several occasions in my blogging life, invoked the name of Confucius (here, for example), the great Chinese philosopher whose wisdom I have come to appreciate even more now than I did in those halcyon days when I taught a couple sections of Eastern Civ per semester for the year between getting my PhD and landing my current job.

I got to think about, and talk about, Confucius again today in Asian Theatre class. One of the central tenets of Confucian thought is the avoidance of lengthy and complicated rules structures. Every situation is different, and one can never anticipate all the possible permutations. Confucius’s solution is not to try. He advocates placing authority in the hands of a junzi (gentleman) who is sufficiently endowed with both wisdom and ethical sensibility to be able to adjudicate disputes.

As an example of where Confucian principles might help out in today’s society, I cited the recent case of Stephanie Plato, the 12-year-old girl recently suspended from school in Houston because she (gasp!) got red and blonde highlights put in her hair. Seriously. I mean, clearly everything is going so well with the educational system in this state that school officials have time to worry about stupid shit like this, right? I mean, what’s not to like about being 43rd in the country in graduation rates? The idiot principal who pointed to the student handbook as if it had been divinely inspired, and who was unsurprisingly too cowardly to even face the press would have been lucky to have been laughed out of Confucius’s presence. More likely, we’d have found out the ancient Chinese word for “bitch-slap.”

Ultimately, I can’t improve much on the commentary of Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, who tersely and accurately observes that such episodes “teach students that the concept of adult intelligence and wisdom is a myth, and that they are under the thumbs of foolish, power-abusing, inconsiderate, child-loathing fools who deserve little respect and only whatever obedience that is necessary to avoid their desire to bully, insult, and harm.” (C’mon, Jack, don’t sugar-coat it. How do you really feel?)

Unfortunately, such cases are not uncommon. I mentioned the boy who was denied high school graduation a couple of years ago because he wanted to honor his Cherokee heritage by wearing a bolo tie instead of a standard necktie, and the girl who was suspended from school for giving a Midol to a friend. I looked straight ahead, to where one of my best students executed a perfect face-palm. To my left, two other students shared a look and one confided they’d both “gone to that high school”—not literally, but to other institutions where administrators hide behind rules so they don’t have to think. Indeed, thought—theirs, their teachers’, their students’—seems to be the last thing on these people’s minds. I wish I could blame this directly on the teach-to-the-test idiocy that runs rampant through American schools in general and Texas schools in particular. But they really are manifestations of the same impulse: memorization and obedience, good; thought and curiosity, bad.

Alas, the afternoon’s revelations were not yet complete. From my right came the testimony of another student, who had been suspended from school for a month because, while suffering an asthma attack, she took her inhaler out of her purse and used it, rather than scurrying across campus while unable to breathe so that the nurse could administer the medication. Somehow the assistant principal in California who sent kids home for wearing American flag insignias last Cinco de Mayo looks almost sane.

Needless to say, a lot of students founder a little in my freshman-level classes. They get glassy-eyed stares when I refuse to tell them whether Biff or Willy is the protagonist in Death of a Salesman, mutter about unfairness when receiving less than full credit for a plausible conclusion unsupported by argumentation, panic when I disagree with an opinion expressed by the textbook author or a high school English teacher (who got a C from me in this very class a few years ago). They can't think, in other words. The more cynical among you might suspect that I play devil’s advocate from time to time, just to see if a given student really has the stuff of scholarship. To this accusation, of course, I indignantly respond, “Moi?”.

What is clear is that the educational system, indeed the body politic, could use a healthy dose of Confucius, whom I described in class today as “the anti-moron” and as “an ethical Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove, whichever one you think unethical. [sotto voce] Both.” Confucius was no anarchist; he insisted on following ritual and obeying the Emperor. But he understood the need to question, to consider, even to defy authority. (N.B. “Authority” is used here in the sense of power; Confucius would never challenge authority in the sense of expertise.)

When They Make Me Tsar™, the Analects will be required reading of all college students. And high school principals.

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