Confucius is almost universally (and unfairly) blamed for the style of rote-learning that has plagued Chinese education for centuries. In reality, however, he advocated a balanced and intellectually-rigorous approach to learning that remains highly relevant even today.
This approach is best encapsulated by his comments in Chapter XV of Book 2. On the one hand, he says that simply studying the classics “without thinking is futile.” On the other, he cautions that thinking without having studied the classics is “perilous” because it can lead to rash judgments and poor decision-making. In other words, he recognized the necessity of combining serous academic study and critical thinking.
In later passages in Book 2, Confucius emphasizes the importance of adopting a holistic approach towards critical thinking. In Chapter XIV he says that “a leader looks at a question from every perspective”, and in Chapter XVI he warns that approaching a question “from the wrong starting point is harmful.” He therefore saw the development of strong analytical skills as a key element of the learning.
In Chapter XI, he underlines the importance of ensuring that the content of the classical cannon is presented in fresh new ways that are relevant to students. “A man who brings new meaning to the old in order to understand the new,” he says, “is worthy of being a teacher.” Contextual learning was thus another integral component of his approach. Simply instructing students to memorize ancient texts was woefully insufficient.
Confucius saw the cultivation of a sense of intellectual honesty as extremely important, too. In Chapter XVII, he tells his disciple Zilu that true knowledge is recognizing “what you know as what you know and what you don’t know as what you don’t know.” He had no time or patience for ill-informed bluster.
One of Confucius’s main goals as a teacher was to equip his students for the moral and intellectual demands of an official position. In a lengthy passage in Chapter XVIII, he advises his young disciple Zizhang to adopt a careful, low-profile approach when embarking on such a career: “Listen for as much information as possible, but ignore anything that is suspect, and be cautious when talking about the rest; that way you will only rarely say anything out of place. Observe as much as possible, ignore anything that is dangerous, and be cautious about applying the rest to your actions; that way you will rarely have reason for regret. By making few mistakes in what you say and minimizing the number regrets for missteps, your career is set.”
Confucius is often blamed for stifling economic and technological innovation as well as rote-learning. Judging by this counsel to Zizhang, perhaps there is some justification for this charge. Still, for most people starting out in the world of work, his advice to absorb as much information as possible and not speak out of turn makes a lot of sense.