Confucius’s Ideas on Relationships

Confucius outlines five specific relationships – parent and child, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, friend and friend, and ruler and subject – and it is easy to compare and contrast those individual relationships within their subsequent modern context.  From an academic educational standpoint (versus social context), I enjoyed William Theodore de Bary’s humanist perspective that ‘Confucian literature, with its emphasis on ethical relationships, connects the family and the local community with the larger national and global communities.  Rather than centering exclusively on the differences that separate groups, Confucianism can provide a multiculturalism that ‘integrates human commonality as well as cultural diversity”  (Gutek, 2011, pp. 26-27).

I believe we see this in schools today.  On the one hand, educators have placed greater import on equity in the classroom, closing achievement gaps, and creating an inclusive learning environment.  At the same time, we strive to diversify our texts, celebrate the individual, create relevant learning experiences based upon our students interests, needs, and backgrounds, and instill a sense of cultural competency throughout the school’s climate and curriculum.
From a teaching perspective, I think it’s somewhat easy to view the teacher-student Confucian relationship as a ‘sage on the stage’ type mentorship, vs the Western ideal of teacher as facilitator and emphasis on small group and peer-led investigation.  However, the fact that an environment such as that – where students are ranked and evaluated, and open to constructive criticism – leads to rewards such as positive motivation and self-esteem, facets that are not present in many American school situations.  I believe all educators praise their students and reward hard work, but oftentimes we hear of learned helplessness, a lack of resiliency, and disrespect that stems from this.  This is where the social context comes into play — if we exist in a society or culture where hierarchical relationships or norms are not revered, it is hard to establish a positive environment that is conducive to struggles without meeting resistance and lack of support.  The parent-student relationship is important at that point, because a family home which celebrates effort and lessons learned (What fabulous struggle did you encounter today?) creates a student whose views on education are much more willing and open than that of a pupil who is either striving for perfection without effort, or worse places no value on academic improvement/achievement.  As parents, we must recognize the education system as a positive attribute of our society (versus an institution that is in opposition to our views); as educators, we must connect our lessons to the global context.

Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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