Confucius said: “I can talk to Yan Hui all day without him ever arguing with me, as if he is stupid. But when I take a close look at how he behaves in private after he has retired from my presence, I can see that he has learned everything I have taught him. Indeed, Hui is not stupid at all.”
Yan Hui (顏回) was Confucius’s favorite disciple and protégé, who died young at the age of thirty-two. Confucius was absolutely devastated by his passing, and his heartfelt laments for his loss can be found throughout the Analects.
Confucius doesn’t kid anyone with his mock exasperation at Yan Hui’s quietness in the opening section of this passage. It’s clear to all that he is setting the stage for praising him in the conclusion.
Perhaps, too, he is sending an indirect message to his other disciples that the best way to learn is to give your undivided attention to the subject at hand and not allow it to be diverted by other distractions. This is a skill we could all do with honing if we don’t want our lives to be totally dominated by our smart phones and tablets.