For the past few years, China’s ruling elites, like their counterparts in India, have been looking to their own culture in their quest to create a stronger national identity. After having rejected Confucian thought as a remnant of a feudal past, Xi Jinping and the Politburo are now hoping that it can provide answers to what it means to be Chinese today, in a post-Maoist landscape.

Despite what the Wall Street Journal might say, this isn’t necessarily a return to the bad old days of rigid hierarchies and rote learning. Quite the contrary, in fact. There’s a lot about the Confucian philosophy of knowledge that‘s surprisingly similar to the liberal arts. Consider instead the possibility that the Chinese simply might be looking for liberalism within their own tradition instead of importing it from a Western one.

The scholar You Guo Jiang1 argues that Confucius saw the fundamental purpose of education as the personal development of the self. Of course, social harmony was important, but the value of education was first and foremost for individual fulfillment, and only then for social development. In this, he was not so different from Socrates and Aristotle, whose ideas on the “examined life” had a great impact on the development of the modern liberal arts curriculum.

In the Confucian tradition, to promote all-round development, students were required to master six practical disciplines: the rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy and mathematics. These disciplines indirectly spoke to an education in morals, etiquette and aesthetics, in addition to academic study and physical education. The parallels with today’s liberal arts curriculum are evident.

Significantly, Confucius also took the egalitarian stand that such an education should be made available to any man regardless of his status at birth, believing in the perfectibility of all men. It would be millennia before the rest of the world caught up with this democratic approach.

None of this is to say that Confucian learning could be transplanted as is in a modern context. Critics have pointed out that the Confucian curriculum placed too much emphasis on the past. Hence China found itself in such a backward state compared to Western powers in the nineteenth century. But a similar classical curriculum was offered at the best English institutions at the turn of the nineteenth century. Classical knowledge was a prerequisite for passing the civil service examinations in the British Empire, as much as it was in the Chinese one.2 And undoubtedly, it served the British elites well.

 

On a more practical level, there are aspects of Confucian pedagogy that wouldn’t be out of place in the fanciest liberal arts college today.3 The best academies of Confucian learning had very low student teacher ratios. The student kept a diary of his readings, noting down what he had understood as well as any questions he had. These would then be discussed with the master in a one-on-one tutorial. Self-directed learning was emphasized, based on the philosophy that real learning does not occur by repeating the thoughts of the teacher.

 

The image that emerges of classical Confucian learning is very much at odds with the popular perception, especially in the West. Assuming a degree of discernment among China’s ruling elites, a return to the Confucian past could be a positive development.