Confucius is almost universally (and unfairly) blamed for the style of rote-learning that has plagued Chinese education for millennia. 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 15 of Book 2. On the one hand, he says: “Learning without thinking leads to perplexity.” On the other, he cautions that “thinking without learning leads to trouble” because it can lead to rash judgments and poor decision-making. In other words, he recognized the necessity of combining serious academic study with rigorous critical thinking.
In Chapter 11, Confucius underlines the importance of creative thinking to ensure that content is presented in fresh new ways that are relevant to students when he says, “bringing new meaning to the old to understand the new makes you fit to be a teacher.” Contextual learning is another integral component of this approach. Simply instructing students to memorize ancient texts is woefully insufficient.
Confucius saw the cultivation of a sense of intellectual honesty as extremely important, too. In Chapter 17, he tells his disciple Zilu that true knowledge means “knowing what you know and 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 18, 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, 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 carefully apply the rest to your actions; that way you will rarely have reason for regret. By speaking cautiously to avoid mistakes and acting carefully to avoid regrets, your career is set.”
Confucius is often blamed for stifling economic and technological innovation as well as promoting 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.