An article in today’s New York Times discusses Bard College’s decsion to allow students to apply to Bard via submission of four 2,500 word essays, in lieu of the standard list of test scores and high school grades. My eye was drawn to the first of the questions listed in the article:
In “The Analects,” Confucius identifies the cardinal virtue of ren (variously translated as goodness, humanity, benevolence) with many different attitudes and behaviors. Yet Confucius also says, “There is one thread that runs through my doctrines.” Commentators differ about what that one thread is. What, in your opinion, could that one thread be? How does that one thread tie together the wide range of moral values that Confucius celebrates in “The Analects”? Support your answer by interpreting specific passages from the text.
This is perhaps less surprising, in light of the fact that Bard for several years used the Analects as a key reading in its First-Year Seminar program, and continues to include readings from classical Chinese thought.
I have used a similarly worded question on exams for my Intro to Chinese Philosophy course. However, Bard’s use for incoming students raises some interesting questions. By declaring it wishes entrance exams to “return to basics, to common sense,” is the Analects passage an appropriate one? Does Bard realistically expect high school students to even know who Confucius is? Given the question requires specific examples be included in the answer, maybe I’ve just answered my own question! But if that’s the case, how does this in turn reflect on the recent Chronicle article, especially the points raised by Alexus?
Hi David — One thing that the article says (at least the print version does, which is quite a bit longer than the on-line version) is that the admissions website provides all the courses needed t answer the questions. This is partly in the interest of fairness to students who won’t have access to good libraries. I haven’t looked to see what exactly they provide, in terms of Anaects translations….
Good for Bard! If high-school students have never heard of Confucius, it’s about time they heard of him.
The Bard admissions website also says students are not limited to use of the materials available on the examination platform. I can’t get onto their application page because I have a computer and OS from the stone ages that will no longer allow browser updates, but I hope they have some kind of guide to outside sources on the topic, as wading unaided into the vast sea of literature (not all of which is helpful) on Confucius and the Analects can be a dangerous thing! 🙂
And a related issue/possible worry: will the people who evaluate these essays take into account the strength of the sources the student used? Since they allow students to use sources outside those provided, will it be the case that if a student uses a terrible source on Confucius and the Analects but writes a good essay given what they had to work with, will this be essay be ranked lower than that of a student who writes a mediocre essay based on better translation and secondary material? And will we always be able to tell the difference?
I guess these issues arise for any essay to some extent (even for students taking a class on Confucianism), but in that case at least students will presumably have some guidance from the teacher (so for example they can be expected to have at least some sense of which sources may lead them astray). That said, I haven’t seen the specific guidelines and I’m sure there’s some way they have of dealing with this.
There is another potential issue, one related to Paul’s comment on the Chronicle thread, and that is what if the student decides to read the text using theological glasses? I think we are assuming the essays will be philosophical in nature but I can very easily picture someone equating the “one thread” with “god” or something equivalent. How will the person marking a paper such as this decide if reading a philosophical text religiously is valid or not? Indeed, I’ve had a number of students blur the disciplinary lines, so to speak, in their term papers. So long as theories of statecraft, ethics, etc. remain within the sphere of metaphysics, I think such blurring is perfectly okay; it’s when we divest them of their ability to interact with other, complimentary areas, that they become black and white.
It wouldn’t any worse than an analogously bad interpretation of Plato.
True. It’s not a problem unique to Confucius and the Analects. And there are some *really* bad interpretations of Plato out there. Maybe even worse than the worst ones I’ve seen of the Analects.