Thursday, September 04, 2008

From the lost papers of Dr.Cornelius Mucus (Vienna), eminent Sinologist, preserved for posterity by the astonishing memory of Murr

Notes on Chinese pedagogy

Socrates: What of the gods, Euthyphro? If they disagree at all, wouldn’t they disagree for the same reasons?
Euthyphro: Inevitably.

The question has been central to the Western pedagogical tradition since Socrates. Within this tradition, the question posed by the teacher and answered by the student leads the student towards new knowledge by creating an awareness of what specific knowledge the student lacks. The student is encouraged and indeed expected to work out the answer for herself. The role of the teacher is to (encourage the student to) ask the right questions. Within the Western tradition, the pursuit of wisdom is a path of enquiry, a process of discovery, in which new knowledge is applied to old problems. A new understanding of reality is created through the process of dialectic, in which different points of view have equal validity, although one of them may ultimately be wrong. The teacher is fallible and also engaged in the search for knowledge. In terms of social structure, the relationship between teacher and students is more or less equal, horizontal, democratic.

Within the Confucian pedagogical tradition, on the other hand, the relationship between teacher and students is hierarchical, vertical, autocratic. The teacher is seen as the fount of all knowledge, and the student is seen as a vessel for receiving the knowledge, in time passing it on to the next generation of students. Knowledge itself is something fixed and canonical, and reality is a single vision shared by the community, unchanging and predictable. Within this tradition, the question is regarded as highly problematic. Indeed, the concepts of question and problem are undifferentiated. Mandarin makes no distinction between ‘problem’ and ‘question’: wen ti can be translated as ‘problem’ or ‘question’. In this linguistic and conceptual context, a question poses a problem by opening a crack in the way things are, by revealing the potential for another view of reality, thus threatening the social harmony which is the goal underpinning all Confucian thought. A question from student to teacher is regarded as a possible challenge to the teacher’ authority, or at least a challenge to the teacher’s status as the fount of all wisdom. Students are more likely to ask each other questions in the event of their not understanding something than asking the teacher. An admission that the student has failed to understand is more commonly viewed as a failure on the part of the teacher to explain clearly. On the other hand, a question from teacher to the student is regarded as dishonest, because the student knows the teacher already knows the answer...

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