Confucius goes mod

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2007, 12:00am

After teaching undergraduate students for a few semesters, I have realised that the greatest paradox for educators today is the trade-off between being an adaptive and a principled teacher.

The educators of Confucianism recently have confronted the same dilemma. In China, a heated debate has erupted between those who wish to preserve the authenticities of Confucianism and those who popularise Confucian studies through the mass media. Yu Dan, a young professor from the Beijing Normal University, is a recent victim of this controversy.

Unlike me, teachers of Confucianism aimed to educate the great many Chinese, adults and children alike, in the basic Confucian values of propriety, righteousness, loyalty and filial piety that centred around the thought of humanity.

But the underlying difficulty of teaching for all educators is the same: it is extremely challenging to effectively communicate with an audience that has become so immersed in modern living, and values knowledge as mere instruments.

As one of the guest presenters in a television programme produced by the CCTV last year, Yu Dan became a star lecturer for her presentation of The Analects, a book that recorded the conversations between Confucius and his disciples. Interpreting Confucianism values and principles in layman's language, Professor Yu proclaimed that Confucian teachings are practical tools to resolve problems of modern life, such as untangling relationships with superiors and subordinates at work, making sound decisions and achieving happiness in a complex modern society.

Professor Yu's book based on the scripts of these televised lectures has topped all other new releases, with more than two million copies sold since its release in November last year. New Confucian converts have flooded into bookstores for scholarly studies on the Analects, effectively boosting the annual sales of these books to over one million from the usual 400 copies.

Despite Professor Yu's impact on raising public interest in Confucian studies, other scholars were not so appreciative. Ten PhD students from universities across the country released a public statement that severely criticised Professor Yu for her 'bad influence' on the public. They feared that the classic book has been turned into a self-help guide as it was popularised and simplified to suit practical use. Confucian thought, they suggested, was to nurture minds while cultivating good men with principles and values.

In a nutshell, the controversy is about education in an era of mass communication. The essence of the dilemma is whether to popularise the classic teaching to the extent of simplification, as mass communication requires, so that laymen could appreciate the values in the context of their real-life experience. Doing so is to disseminate these classics at the expense of the depth and richness of these teachings. Retaining the authentic approach, on the contrary, could risk the eventual loss of a great cultural heritage because of their obscurity.

Educators today have adopted many new tools to facilitate learning, such as video clips, powerpoint displays, role-playing and case-studies.

While these new tools certainly have helped to raise the interest in study among students, it is debatable whether new modes have facilitated intellectual training as did the conventional teaching methods, such as close-reading of originals and essay compositions.

Whether adapting to the modern world or insisting on the principles of serious education remains a major challenge for all teachers. If Confucius were alive, he would feel as perplexed as educators in today's universities.

Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit