Printer Friendly

Moral education East and West: a comparison of philosophical underpinnings of ideas about childrearing in the West and in Confucianism.

Biologists often remark on the helplessness of human infants, and the extensive period of care and socialization they must undergo as they grow and mature. So it is that human parents find themselves charged with the long-term task of caring for and rearing their children, and social groups more broadly with the task of bringing their younger members fully into the fold. These endeavors require some degree of deliberateness, as it is difficult, and rather contrary to human tendencies, to embark on such efforts without some idea as to what is ultimately to issue from them. A natural way to guide child rearing and education is to tie both to more fundamental, widely shared assumptions or ideas about human nature. An understanding, in other words, of what sorts of creatures humans are, and so what sorts of creatures children ought or ought not to be growing into, gives parents and other agents of socialization some idea as to what it is they are trying to accomplish as they struggle to guide their children to maturity. Accordingly, my underlying assumption here is that there will be some connection between prevailing philosophical and religious (and where applicable scientific) assumptions or ideas about human nature, and prevailing ideas about the aims and appropriate methods of childrearing and education.

Implicit assumptions in childrearing: the West

An implicit or explicit understanding of human nature plays into ideas about child rearing and education by way of the inherently teleological nature of the latter. Aristotle's ethics makes the connection in a particularly striking and explicit manner. According to Aristotle, humans are 'rational animals'--each of us is an example of that kind of thing in the sense that each oak tree is an example of a particular kind of tree, distinct in its features and needs from an apple tree. Since Aristotle equates doing well, in the sense of living a good human life, with fulfilling one's natural potential as a human being, there is a clear sense in which human infants stand to rational animals as acorns do to mature oak trees. Upbringing and education for Aristotle, then, are a matter of guiding and shaping a child so that she becomes such a being in the fullest way possible.

Consequently, Aristotle defines the virtues as dispositions in the manifesting or expressing of our natural capacities, as qualities of character that tend us towards our natural end--the virtuous person, by having the appropriate dispositions, becomes fully human, in the sense that an acorn for which all has gone well grows into a mature oak. The result is an emphasis on the cultivation of the virtues, achieved through the control of behavior as a sort of practice that will ultimately lead to the proper dispositions. By leading a child to practice honesty by doing only honest things, by punishing and so discouraging dishonesty, the child will become habituated to honesty, acquiring a tendency to do honest things.

Change the underlying theory of human nature and you change the details considerably as to exact goals of childrearing and education, but fundamentally you don't change the teleological character of the process. Certain forms of Protestantism, such as that strand of Calvinism dubbed Puritanism, stress the notion of humans as fallen creatures with an innate tendency towards wickedness. This tendency manifests itself in a kind of self-centeredness that leads children in the direction of disobedience, idleness and selfishness. It is the goal of parenting and education to break this willfulness and turn the child towards righteousness and an appreciation of her duty to the larger community and ultimately to God. Hence, the rather notorious (if sometimes unfairly exaggerated) emphasis on punishment as a way of 'breaking the will' so as to compel the child to obedience. In a sense, then, the Puritan conception uses the idea of a child's natural will to explain what it is that parents and others should be leading children away from. At the same time, the supernatural end the child is believed meant for, namely salvation, becomes the goal towards which the child is to be turned.

Change the underlying understanding of human nature once again, and you again change the detail and emphasis, but not the underlying teleological character of childrearing. With the arrival of the Enlightenment, in writers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, the underlying view is that the essential characteristic of humans is reason and autonomy, the ability of the individual human to determine her own course of action. With this comes an emphasis on freedom and autonomy, and later an emphasis on individual self-expression. From this perspective, the goal of parenting and education becomes not shaping a child's character so that she will grow into a specific kind of person, and even less the breaking of her will so that she will become obedient to the laws of man and God, but rather the cultivation of habits of thought that allow for free and critical thinking and autonomous living. The person the child is to become is precisely one who is able to decide for herself what kind of life is good, and what sort of person she is to be. From this perspective punishment becomes inherently suspect, smacking as it does of coercion and the denial of autonomy, freedom and equality. More deeply, the idea that education is a deliberate process of shaping the child's character or thinking becomes suspect in light of the goal of teaching children to 'think for themselves.' "The child", urges Kant in a passage that anticipates much of what can be found in contemporary child rearing advice, "should learn to act out of 'maxims', the reasonableness of which he can see for himself." (1)

In the 20th century this liberal conception of the goals of childrearing undergoes a modification that sees its moral content submerged in the language of science, and more specifically psychology, so that the explicitly moral concept of the good person as rational and autonomous is hidden to an extent behind the language of a successful person enjoying good mental health. Essentially, being a good Kantian moral agent is equated with being mentally sound or psychologically well developed. This is close to explicit in the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, and implicit in much of the advice given to modern western parents in popular child rearing manuals. This psychologically informed version of the liberal conception shares with its more openly philosophical precedents in beginning from an optimistic view of human nature, and the centrality of reason and autonomy in well ordered human lives. Reflecting the influence of both Locke and Rousseau, the modern approach has emphasized both the inherent reasonableness of children, and the conviction that what they primarily need in order to grow into successful adults is protection and nurturing--care and an appropriate social and cognitive environment--as opposed to control or shaping. Parents are to allow their children to grow into more mature versions of the persons they already are, providing them opportunities and resources to pursue the individual lives they are already embarked upon and entitled to from the very beginning. Discipline is important only as a means of protecting children from their immaturity and lack of experience, as opposed to a means of moral instruction.

Modern Uncertainties

In addition to the fundamentally teleological character of Western thinking about childrearing is a pervasive and growing individualism, in the sense that the individual person is conceived of as the proper focus of childrearing. Since Aristotle in particular is often seen as, indeed appealed to as, a non-individualistic thinker, as opposed to the overtly individualistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, it is worth noting that despite his well known emphasis on the essentially social nature of humans, the ultimate concern of the Nichomachian Ethics is how the reader himself ought to live if he is to live well. Throughout, the concern is on what it is to be a virtuous person and on the rewards that brings, with pride in oneself being the 'crown' virtue. Moreover, the overtly teleological assumptions Aristotle makes, in the biological analogies, and in his conception of virtues as individual habits, belie to some degree his more communitarian moments. While I may need to be a citizen of a well-ordered polis, with friends and family, in order to live a good life, it is a well-ordered individual soul that I ultimately strive for as the grounds of my own happiness or flourishing.

In any case, the individualism of the Enlightenment vision, and that vision as it continues to inform modern ideas of childrearing as mediated by psychology, is plain enough and much remarked upon. It is also quite plausibly at the root of much of the confusions, anxieties and uncertainties that mark modern thinking about children, childrearing, and education in the West. (2) It was reasonable enough for modern liberals to want to extend the set of values centered around individual autonomy and freedom--values that include most essentially equality and the respect of individual rights--to domains such as the family that are marked by affective, often arbitrary, and demonstrably uneven relationships. However, the fit between those values and such domains has proved to be considerably more problematic than what their successes in the realms of the political and economic might have predicted.

The idea of individual autonomy--roughly the idea that the individual ought to be, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Douglas, the "master of his own destiny"--is the locus of much liberal hand wringing about both childrearing and education, and it arises as a problem precisely as it marks the intersection of the traditional teleological character of Western assumptions and its individualism. The problem is easily appreciated. Autonomy is about self determination, and the assumption is that each individual should be as free as possible to make the major decisions about her own life on her own, free of compulsion, coercion or irrational persuasion. These assumptions about childrearing would predict accordingly that liberal parents would want to raise children to be autonomous individuals, as indeed they typically do.

But parenting itself seems perversely opposed to such a goal, involving as it does the willingness of some people, the parents, to do their utmost to shape the life prospects, and indeed the very character, of others, the children, according to the parents' beliefs and values. Typically this involves not only the deliberate limiting of the ideas and values a child is exposed to, or at least allowed to consider as reasonable or acceptable, but the overt control of behavior and choices as well. In short, parenting has at least traditionally been a rather illiberal affair--children are not seen as equals, their freedom is deliberately and systematically limited: they are not allowed to be masters of their own destinies so long as they remain children. Education does not fair much better, and the problem is essentially the same: autonomy is about me making up my own mind, while education seems to be a matter of others telling me what to believe on the strength of little more than their own authority and that of a broader society whose interests are presumably being served. How to reconcile compulsory education with the idea that children must be free to 'think for themselves' or to act only on 'maxims' they freely accept is no small matter.

Recent attempts to rethink liberal interpretations of childrearing and education have focused on ways to argue that the exercise of parental authority and compulsive education can be reconciled with traditional liberal values. Despite this, however, the original tensions remain. The problems inherent in the liberal picture will not be resolved, I would argue, so long as autonomy continues to be understood along traditional liberal lines. Briefly, the deeply individualistic understanding of autonomy that we have inherited from the liberal tradition is problematic, and particularly troublesome in its inability to make sense of our inherent relatedness to others, our necessary reliance on unequal and hierarchical relationships, and our inevitable inclusion in a larger social world that is at least initially chosen for us by others. To resort for the sake of brevity to caricatures, the liberal ideal of the autonomous person as a self sufficient reasoner, free from the bounds of tradition and authority, believing nothing on faith or the word of others, and as practically self determining--as, in short, a Kantian moral agent and a modern man of science--is at best a very partial picture of how most of us are, adequate as explanation to only limited aspects of human life. It is, in particular, a deeply inadequate model to use in trying to think about children and their upbringing.

Assumptions Outside the West: Confucian Moral Education

The idea of autonomy that is the legacy of the liberal tradition--the idea of the autonomous individual as someone defined against social roles, tradition, and authority, so that deference to any of these is understood as antithetical to the exercise of autonomy--would be alien to Aristotle. It would be sheer nonsense to a Confucian. If we understand Confucianism along the lines we've been considering the Western alternatives, it would be fair enough to say that being ren, or being an authoritative person, is the end toward which children are to be raised and educated. (3) Someone who is ren is certainly portrayed as autonomous: they do what is right or appropriate (yi) as a natural expression of their character; they know what the right thing to do is in any circumstances, producing appropriate words and deeds in response to all they meet as a natural expression of their character. A person who is ren is a person of wisdom, benevolence, creativity and integrity (cheng). Moreover, Confucius repeatedly contrasts this authoritative person with the 'small' or 'petty' person who is unflatteringly depicted as unimaginative and obsequious. (4) What seems paradoxical to the liberal mind, however, is that ren is achieved precisely through the most meticulous attention to what is socially proscribed (they are a master of li, or ritual propriety) and the deliberate cultivation of respect for traditions that have come before. Li is particularly manifested in strict adherence to the dictates of the Confucian virtue of filial piety (xiao). Filiality is said to be at the 'root' of authoritative conduct, producing individuals who are both averse to rebellion and able to rise above small mindedness. The trick here is to see what kind of understanding of what it is to be human would make sense of these strands of Confucian thought. Towards this end, three interrelated things must be stressed. The first is the essential relatedness of human beings on the Confucian understanding. The second is the continuity stemming from this between families, states and the broader world. The third is the essentially dynamic character of heaven and earth and all that transpires within them.

According to Henry Fingarette, in the Confucian world "unless there are at least two human beings there can be no human beings." (5) This captures well what is meant by the idea of the essential relatedness of human beings in the Asian tradition. In Confucianism, to be human is to be related to others, as a son or daughter, a sibling, a cousin, a niece or nephew, aunt or uncle, father or mother, etc. Mindful of our thoroughly biological origins, as the offspring of these two particular humans, at a particular time, in a particular place, the Confucian emphasis is on our concrete relationships. We exist first and foremost as the particular son or daughter of these two particular persons, and everything proceeds from there. We can and do add relationships, but we can never be less than this. Things can go wrong, of course, and we can end up orphaned or homeless or estranged. But something would have to go wrong--membership in a family is where we start, and unless things go wrong, that membership remains constitutive of who we are.

To think about the person within Confucianism is, then, to begin with the family. From here the traditional emphasis on xiao, or filial piety comes easily. If the family is in the natural order of things the smallest unit of human life, maintaining the family and attending to its well-being is a natural mandate. This nurturing of the family is for the same reason inseparable from the nurturing of the child who is part of the family, and so the child's learning her place in the family--her roles and duties--is an essential part of her upbringing. Confucianism is also mindful of the natural hierarchies that exist within families. Children are born needy and dependent, lacking experience and the skills needed to navigate an often difficult world. That children should and will (mostly, with a bit of prodding on occasion) defer to their more worldly, and hopefully wiser, elders makes perfect sense from this perspective.

As it goes with the family, so it goes with society; and vice versa. It is a distinctive feature of Confucian thought, and traditional Chinese thought more broadly, to understand social relations on familial lines. As the merits of a father are measured by the well-being of his family, so rulers are judged by their abilities to lead the people into prosperity. But just as the family does well only when its members live as they should, displaying filial piety, the society does well only when the subjects have cultivated their characters so that they display a certain filial piety to their rulers. But it goes back the other way once again: just as children will be pious only if properly raised, so too will the people be pious only when well ruled. To make the connection complete, we need only note that since a child is a child first and only gradually a full fledged member of the community, the centrality of childrearing and education to governing well will be clear: even a good Emperor will struggle ruling over a nation of ill raised citizens.

The upshot of all this is the deep connection in Confucian thinking between ren, as a conception of what it is to be a successful human being; xiao as a core requirement for such success to be possible; and jiao, or education and upbringing, the process by which it all comes together. This connection is captured nicely in the classical Confucian text Zhongyong: "Understanding born of [integrity, (cheng)] is a gift of our natural tendencies; [integrity] born of understanding is gift of education. Where there is [integrity], there is understanding; where there is understanding, [integrity]." (6) Because ren is the goal, there is no sense in which jiao is properly conceived as an imposition on the individual of ideas, practices or values somehow alien or potentially contrary to the interests or needs of the child. While obviously there will be Confucian parents who parent badly by not attending to the genuine needs of their children, the picture that emerges as normative is of parents who are deeply attentive, and the process throughout is depicted as one of nurturing. At its most optimistic, the Confucian tradition sees punishment as rarely needed, and reliance on it a sign of things not being as they should. On the other hand, because the person is understood as fundamentally related, what is being nurtured is not an individual without regard to the needs or concerns of others, but rather a person whose life and welfare is inseparable from those of others. In jiao, the child's needs are met precisely through the cultivation of the child's relations with others, and her instruction in her place and duties and rights within the family. Just what should count as success from the individual's perspective is made clear by Confucius: "Authoritative persons establish others in seeking to establish themselves and promote others in seeking to get there themselves. Correrlating one's conduct with those near at hand can be said to be the method of becoming an authoritative person." (7)

The final component in the Confucian picture would be the essentially dynamic nature of the relationships and practices that it informs. Consistent with the dynamic cosmology so distinctive of classical Chinese thought, the Confucian world is one that recognizes change and the particularity of each situation and person. Accordingly, while a child is born into an existing family, and so brought up to be a part of that particular family, it is recognized both that the child will have her own contributions to make, given her particular strengths and characteristics, and that the family itself will be changed by its new addition. More broadly, sensitivity to the evolving nature of societies and the changing fortunes they experience, produces in Confucian thought a lively awareness that ren requires not mindless reproduction of choreographed behaviors, but rather an ability to respond to ever changing circumstances in ways that are both appropriate to what is new, while recognizably consistent with what is already established and accepted. In this way, Confucianism at its best provides reason to believe that deference to established authorities and mores, the sort of virtues exemplified in xiao and li, will not necessarily translate into a simple, or simple minded, uncritical obedience. (8)

Autonomy Reconsidered

Above I suggested that many of the uncertainties and anxieties that seem to accompany modern childrearing in the West originate in the heightened individualistic sensibilities that have marked much Western thinking since the Enlightenment. In particular, I argued that construing autonomy in such a way that 'thinking for oneself' or being the master of one's destiny is equated with liberation from tradition and external authority makes education seem inherently paradoxical, and the exercise of parental authority innately tyrannical. By way of a conclusion, I'd like to suggest in a brief and sketchy way that Confucius offers a way of understanding autonomy that can act as a bit of corrective to what is really a rather implausible notion. A more thorough development of this idea will have to wait for another occasion.
 Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred
 immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own
 understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is
 self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but
 lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of
 another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have
 courage to use your own understanding." (9)

So wrote Kant in a passage that captures quite well both the modern ideal of the autonomous individual and our suspicion of those who would have us defer to the wisdom of others. However powerful this ideal is (and surely it is quite powerful), Kant's formulation skirts the questions of how we are to become the person who can use his or her own understanding, of how to understand our autonomy as adults in light of the extended period of immaturity and dependence that is typical of human development, of how plausible it is to expect us to live entirely without recourse to wisdom stored in books authored by others, or the consciences of spiritual leaders, or the specialized knowledge of doctors. (10)

In the manner that using language means learning a particular language that transcends us, and deferring to some degree to how others speak that language, so too does using our understanding require our inclusion in a social world that is larger than us. At its most optimistic, the Confucian tradition sees individuals as connected to those around them in a way that avoids tension between autonomy and deference to others by appreciating how it is in the mastering of traditions that individuals gain the kind of social fluency that enables meaningful self-expression. What is needed in the West is a greater appreciation that, as David Hall and Roger Ames put it, thinking is itself a social achievement, something we do in all but the most unusual of circumstances by working from what others have already thought, rather than through radical innovation. (11) In this regard, J.S. Bach as a model of autonomy, who in mastering thoroughly and working within a tradition of composition was able to create music of staggering originality, may do better than Galileo, whose heroic stand against 1500 years of tradition was surely as anomalous as it was necessary at the time. By focusing on familial and social contexts, including the beneficial role played by the accumulated wisdom that can be bound up in traditions, the Confucian tradition can act as a counterweight to this tendency to see autonomy as an individual achievement.

Dennis Arjo, Johnson County Community College


(1) Immanuel Kant, Education, trans. by Annette Churton, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 1960, pg 83.

(2) For provocative accounts of the intrusion of anxiety and insecurity into the experience of parenting in the United States in particular, see Frank Furedi, Paranoid Parenting (Chicago: Chicago Review Press), 2002 and Peter Stearns, Anxious Parents (New York: New York University Press), 2003. For a more general account of the ambivalent relationship between American parents and the psychologists who would advise them on matters of childrearing, see Ann Hulbert, Raising America: experts, parents and a century of advice about children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 2003.

(3) I use here the translation of ren as 'authoritative person or conduct' offered by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr, in their The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (New York: Ballantine), 1998. Other translators have more typically uses 'benevolence.' Ames and Rosemont's expressed purpose in using the phrase 'authoritative' is to capture the Confucian idea that acting out of a genuine benevolence or concern for others is the hallmark of a successful human being.

(4) See, for example, Analects, 5.25, or 13.23, among many other passages.

(5) Henry Fingurette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (New York: Viking Press), 1983, quoted in Ames and Rosemont (1998), pg. 48.

(6) Focusing the Familiar: A Translation and Philosophical Interpretation of the Zhongyong, Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, trans. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), 2001, paragraph 21. Ames and Hall have 'creativity' instead of 'integrity', which is a more customary translation of cheng. While granting the appropriateness of 'integrity' (as well as 'sincerity'), they opt for the more active "creativity" to emphasize the dynamic cosmology that underlies Confucian thought, while urging the English reader to be mindful of the idea that this creativity remains true to what is given.

(7) Ames and Rosemont, op. cit., 6.30.

(8) It should be noted, however, that later Daoist critiques of Confucianism on just this point show that the danger in placing the emphasis on li would become mechanical and stifling was both real and appreciated. Consider, for example, chapter 19 of the Dao De Jing: "Cut off authoritative conduct (ren) and get rid of appropriateness (yi)/and the common people will return to filiality (xiao) and parental affection." (Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation, Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, trans. (New York: Ballantine), 2003.

(9) Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?'", available at http://ethics.acusd. edu/Books/Kant/Enlightenment/what-is-enlightenment.htm.

(10) Kant regards reliance on such things to be 'laziness and cowardice' in the exercise of the understanding.

(11) David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany: State University of New York Press), 1987. "[T]hinking entails an appropriation of the cultural tradition through the interpersonal activity of learning", pg. 83.
COPYRIGHT 2005 The Asian Studies Development Program's Association of Regional Centers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Arjo, Dennis
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:The ethics of collecting and preserving cultural property in an age of terror.
Next Article:The hold parents have: how Asian American students negotiate cultural incompatibility.

Related Articles
East and West German family policy compared: the distribution of childrearing costs (1).
Legalistic Confucianism and economic development in East Asia.
Confucius said ... He has been called the wisest man in China. But who was Confucius, and what did he really say?
Light from the East.
A Tender Voyage: Children and Childhood in Late Imperial China.
Revive the lost scholarship for the sake of world harmony.
Asian Studies Development Program 10th National Conference Kansas City, Missouri April 15-17, 2004: conference speakers.
Wheels in the head; educational philosophies of authority, freedom, and culture from Confucianism to human rights, 3d ed.
The mark of a Confucianist leader.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters