At a time when education was limited to members of the elite who could afford to pay for it, Confucius was genuinely radical in his willingness to teach anyone who wanted to learn from him no matter what social background he came from.
In 7.7, he declares: “I have never refused to teach anyone who has asked me to, even if they were too poor to offer no more than a token offering of a bundle of dried meat for their tuition.” In 7.28, he reprimands his followers who were reluctant to let a boy from Hu Village, the people of which were notorious for their orneriness, to approach him. “Why be so hard on him? If people make the effort to improve themselves, we should approve of their progress and ignore their previous missteps.”
Even though Confucius didn’t discriminate against students because of their social background, he was only interested in teaching ones who were genuinely committed to learning. He had no time for those who lacked dedication or were incapable of thinking for themselves. “I instruct only the passionate. I enlighten only the fervent,” he says in 7.8. “If a student cannot return with the other three corners of the square after I have shown them the first one, I will not repeat the lesson.”
For Confucius, therefore, character was the most important attribute he looked for in a student. His ideal was someone who, as he points out in 7.6, is determined to: “set your heart on the way; act in accordance with virtue; hold fast to goodness; enjoy the arts.”
If an individual lacked that inner drive, he was destined to fail no matter how talented he may have been. Why would Confucius waste valuable time on teaching students like that when there were plenty of others who were willing to put in the effort required to benefit from his guidance?
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.