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Don't blame Confucius
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Last week, Chinese paid homage to two great scholars, Ji Xianlin of Peking University and Ren Jiyu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - the first an Indologist, linguist, paleographer, historian, and the second a philosopher, historian and religious scholar.

Their deaths are cause for worry because it's uncertain when the nation's next generation of academic leaders will emerge, says Chan Wan, a Hong Kong-based cultural scholar who earned his PhD from Gottingen University in Germany, where Ji had studied in the 1930s.

Talking to China Daily, Chan says there is ample room for reform in the education system both on the Chinese mainland and in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

He rues the fact that the emphasis on exam results is still very strong, which in some ways dilutes students' power to think, and curtails the appropriate use of their skills and social experience.

Abnormalities in college education, such as the near worship of high grades in exams, have deep social roots, he says. Employers do not want to find ways to judge the true abilities of their recruits. They are content just following the highly bureaucratic methods handed down to them.

"If you have multiple bureaucratic levels everywhere in the government and in companies you just cannot expect them to act differently from their rigid, standard practices," Chan says. The result is that if a person fails in just one exam, he or she risks being denied any more chances to prove his ability in almost any field.

This practice is a modern phenomenon and a deviation from Confucius' practice, he says. So why should Confucius be blamed for all the problems in today's education system? The philosopher belonged to a time when use of money was not widespread, and society did not have so many rules and standards.

On a philosophical level, Chan says, the education system's problem betrays modern man's blind chase of systematic rationality, or the belief in the possibility of regulating everything through a universal set of standards - like managing an industrial process.

In contrast, the kind of rationality China's wise men preached in ancient times always had some "vague areas", he says, which allowed individuals to retain their personal world, to drop out and return to an earlier point, and to not feel utterly pressured even if they failed in their efforts once or twice.

Buddhist temples, for example, had the social function of sheltering the physically and mentally challenged without letting them feel sorry for their condition, Chan says. Such a cultural milieu contributed a great deal to society's tolerance and diversity.

Now when the global economic crisis has invoked greater criticism against "market fundamentalism", the mainstream Western economic ideology of the pre-crisis days, people have got the opportunity to reflect on the narrowly defined formula for individual success, which is a by-product of the old way of thinking.

A more satisfactory situation would be possible if the change in economic realities allowed some new values and institutions to grow outside the market system.

At least, there should be more places in society where people would not feel under tremendous pressure to climb up the social ladder, and would feel free to do whatever they can and want to help themselves, their families and society.

But Chan says the chances of seeing a large-scale improvement any time soon is slim. Education reform, if it is meant to help people realize their potential as much as possible, is still a long uphill battle.

(China Daily July 23, 2009)

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