©2001 NewFoundations

Confucius's Educational Theory

Analyst: A. M. McEnroe

edited 4/30/14

1. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Since Confucius' goal was to reform the government, his goals for education were to produce men who were capable to serve in government in decisive roles. He attempted to produce chun tzu, which is quite similar to the English word, "gentleman." Originally both Chinese and English words meant one born into a high social station, but both came to mean one with a proper and suitable behavior and cultivation, regardless of birth. His main goal was the cultivation of character, through observation, study and reflective thought.

2. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

To know Nature and the Way of Nature, one must observe. He is quoted as saying C.A.C.H. "I have no inborn knowledge. I love antiquity and I search for it [knowledge] assiduously." He also said, "Among three men who are walking together (myself being one of them), I am certain to find my teacher, a good one in order to emulate him, and a bad one in order [recognize in him what in myself I must] correct."

But to recognize what one observes, one must process it. He is quoted as saying to a student C.T.M.A.T.M. 136, "Do you think that my way of acquiring knowledge is simply to study many things and remember them?" The student said, "Yes, isn't that the case?" Confucius replied, "No, I have one principle which I use like a thread, upon which to string them all." This sounds like a rationalist who seeks to arrange his observations (the world's phenomena) according to the principle of his own mind.

I think Confucius would say that belief is premature knowledge based on insufficient observation and/or insufficient processing. A mistake is acting on premature knowledge based on insufficient observation and/or insufficient processing. Confucius would say that a lie is having full knowledge, and deliberately misrepresenting that knowledge.

3. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Confucius was much influenced by the philosophy of his much older contemporary, Lao tzu (b. 604 B.C.), who is reputedly the founder of Taoism. T.H.O.C. 18. "Tao is Nature. Nature includes everything in the universe that proceeds on its course without interruption. Tao is the way of Nature. T.H.O.C. 19. Tao consists of many tao's, and every such tao also has a natural way of its own to follow. Nature is good; and each nature is good, at least so long as it pursues its own course without being interfered with by other natures or without imposing its own nature upon others."

Although the philosophy of Lao tzu. was not completely antisocial, it did encourage hermetic practices and tended towards anarchy. Confucius' philosophy was that it was natural for man to be social, and that the principles of T.H.O.C. 19 initiation and completion, beginnings and endings, comings and goings, (yang and yin) were a natural process in human association also, if one takes the trouble to recognize them. He believed that a truly cooperative world was the way of Nature.

Humans differ from other species in their tendency to meddle with Nature.

An individual human's potential is limited by: the individual's ability to recognize his/her true nature, the individual's ability to follow the way of his/her true nature, and by his/her true nature itself. Human potential collectively is limited by all of the above collectively, including all of the above for all those past, present, and future.

4. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Confucius said C.T.M.A.T.M. 135, "Study without thought is labor lost; thought without study is dangerous." When referring to his own way of learning, he said -To hear much, select what is good, and follow it;" Thus he saw learning as a process of observation of some type of subject matter whether it be books, objects, or people, followed by reflection, that somehow changed one. He saw learning as a highly personal and therefore, highly individual activity. He seemed to feel once awakened by any kind of real learning, this process would be repeated by the student.

5. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Confucius would have required that a teacher be one who has developed their own character. Confucius, himself was a teacher, and his methods were very informal, and taflored to the individual. He did not use structured classes or exan-dnations. Instead he suggested to each student what they should study, and then discussed it with them and sometimes just listened. He is said to have taken the stock of each student, and thenv encouraged their strengths, and improved their weaknesses. To this end, he sometimes answered the same question quite differently to two different students. C.T.M.A.T.M. 93. On one occasion the question was asked whether the student should immediately put into practice something he was taught. To one student, that Confucius thought was fiffl of zeal, he recommended that the student first consult his father and older brothers. To the other student, whom he thought was lacking in enthusiasm, he said yes, put it into practice right away. The curriculum at Confucius' school included C.T.M.A.T.M. 96 music, Li (the code and manner of proper conduct), the Book of Poetry, literature and history. Books did not hold a highly prominent role in Confucius teaching. This changed dramatically in China by 1058 A.D., when students ceased reading the classics in favor of books about the classic. Competition on exams for government service was fierce, and the more material a student could cover, the higher their chances were of getting in to government service.

6. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

In the 2 books authored by Confucius, Genuine Livinp, and Great Wisdo he clearly states that society starts with the individual, and that one must first develop oneself, to develop one's family. The family serves as a model for the community, the community as a model for the state, the state as a model for the country, and the country as a model for other countries. The educational process is first and most importantly the responsibility of the individual, then the family, then the community, then the state, and then the country.

7. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

A quote from Confucius' book Genuine Living says, "Developing in accordance with one's own nature is called "the way of self-realization." Proper pursuit of the way of self-realization is called "maturation"." In this quote, I believe Confucius proposes education for a but subject matter and form for that education would vary according to one's own nature. C.T.M.A.T.M. 78 At Confucius' own school, he would not teach "duflards", and would "only teach those who were bursting with eagerness for enlightenment." However he would not turn someone away because they had no money.

8. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

People disagree because they are focusing on themselves, and not Nature and the way of Nature. Confucius did not believe any one person was the possessor of the truth. He believed that through rational discussion the truth could be worked out between two people, and that the truth often was found somewhere between the two positions. As far as consensus on a large scale, I think he believed that people would naturally gravitate to their station in life. Once there they would be governed by what he states are the five social relationships. T.H.O.C. 93. Those: between sovereign and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend associating as equals. The three traits required in these relationships are: concern, good will, and conscientiousness. The person whose opinion takes precedence is the person whose station is assigned that type of decision.


Bahm, Archie, J. The Heart of Confucius. Interpretations of Genuine Living and Great Wisdom. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1992.

Creel, H.G. Confucius The Man and The M31 . New York, NY: The John Day Company, 1949.

Do-Dinh, Pierre. Confucius and Chinese Humanism. New York, NY: Funk and Wagnall's, 1969.

FURTHER informaton relating to Confucius can be found at Models of Teaching .