What Would a Confucian University in the US Look Like?

The rather surprising question in my title is inspired by three things. Most immediately, I have just returned from the AAS Conference in San Diego, where I participated in a panel on Elite and Popular Confucianism, presenting a paper called “American Confucianism: Between Tradition and Universal Values.” Second, I have heard some talk about the establishment within one or more Chinese universities of explicitly Confucian-themed academic units. Finally, I recently became aware of Soka University, a liberal arts college in Southern California that was founded by the Soka Gakkai Buddhist organization from Japan.

These three sources of inspiration could lead conversations in lots of directions, and I’d be happy to be guided by whatever reactions and questions readers of the blog happen to have. But my first interest is not so much the practical question of who might found a Confucian academy or college in the US (and with what money, and what ulterior motives), as the more abstract question of what a good and valuable such institution might look like — if indeed there is a model that might be good and valuable in the contemporary US. One of the key arguments of my American Confucianism paper is that the rupture of modernity poses a greater challenge to Confucianism’s relevance and value than does “travelling” outside of a primarily “Chinese cultural” context to, for example, the US. So in thinking about what a Confucian university should look like in the US, I claim, we are simultaneously thinking at least partly about what such an institution should look like in China.

More concretely, here’s an example of what I have in mind. Probably part of the curriculum would be designed on a “great books” model. But would the books be primarily or exclusively “Confucian classics”? Or would texts be drawn from a variety of traditions? Because of the importance to Confucianism of learning to harmonize multiple perspectives, I believe, it makes sense to have a balance of multiple traditions represented in such a curriculum. Another interesting question is whether there should be even more explicit “moral education” in the curriculum, and if so, whether it should be modelled directly on past Confucian models or whether it should also draw on broad findings about successful moral education from contemporary scholarship. Again, my view is that Confucian institutions in the modern world should be open to and informed by modern scholarship, and thus any new efforts toward moral education will be distinctly shaped by these findings.

In my AAS presentation, I discuss the example of Chinese Buddhism, in which over the course of several centuries China adapted to Buddhism and Buddhism adapted to China. I point out that at the beginning of that process, the very notion of Buddhism in China may have seemed quixotic, given the significant cultural differences between India and China, yet by the time the process was mature, China was perhaps the world center of Buddhism and Buddhism’s influence in India was greatly lessened. For Confucianism, who knows what the future may hold?

5 thoughts on “What Would a Confucian University in the US Look Like?

  1. Very interesting! We might start by asking first about a college (worthy of accreditation).

    Maybe the main way to address the question is to look for old Confucian ideas and practices that might be applied in one or another way to a college (for example, as you suggest, reverent attention to key old books of some sort, and an interest in moral education) — to see if enough could be valuable that a university that used them could be seen as distinctively Confucian.

    I’d like to know what are the other general aspects of Confucianism that you find most interesting to think about in connection with your question, Steve.

    For the most part, Christian-affiliated universities and colleges in the US don’t seem to bring Christianity very much into the way they do things. A school could easily be “Confucian” after that pattern; but I suppose it wouldn’t be worth the bother.

    St. John’s in Annapolis teaches the sciences through a “great books” approach. Offhand I don’t see why that shouldn’t work, at least for undergraduate degrees.

    Is it Confucian to teach to the test?

    (Parents’ Weekend could be when parents are invited to go off-campus. … “Question Authority” could be the honorific title of the oldest student in each class, the one with the authority to ask questions.)

    There was a time at Cornell when 1st-year students were informally but effectively required to wear beanies. People in a college might mark other kinds of status or condition by what they wear. In what cases might this be a good idea, or at least not too bad? There might be a problem about having a distinctive cap for each year, if the university allows flexibility in the number of years one spends there.

    In an inland rural college in a temperate clime, if the students do not live in the same buildings where they study, the cycle of the seasons is vivid. The school can heighten the effect by various rites and rules. But there are different reasons why Confucians might want to be in tune with nature. One perhaps is the somewhat obsolete premise that household management is closely tied to agriculture, so that the seasons are the key to human affairs, and being in tune with them is essential to broad human sympathies, especially for an elite that is always in danger of losing touch with the masses. Another perhaps is the broader idea that the cycle of seasons, as a very public melody, is a convenient basis for everyone to be in tune with each other. A third perhaps is the abstract idea that moral authority comes from Heaven. I wonder if a wiccan slant might be the most effective way to get the students out of Facebook for a few minutes each day. How about this rule: no drinking indoors except in winter?

    How about a strict limit (if we can think of one) on the size and power of the Administration and its machines? (This would work better in a teaching institution rather than a research institution.) I’m thinking that if the teachers and students have more responsibility for the organization and its workings, they will be more generally competent, sensitive, and admirable people, and they’ll rely on each other’s integrity more.

    • Hi Bill — I love these thoughts and questions! There is a rich trove of thoughts on the role of testing vis-a-vis genuine education in Neo-Confucianism; in general, it’s OK to have tests but success on those tests is secondary, and only valuable insofar as they are able to track real learning. Teaching to the test would be anathema.

      Rituals would of course be important, and a lot of creativity would be required to figure out how to balance genuinely old rituals, mostly American I’d think (we’ve got plenty if one looks hard enough), with inventing new ones. Lots of music and singing, I expect.

      One current trend to adopt and build upon would be “service learning” classes, which connects to the worry you mention about connecting “elite” to “masses.”

      Faculty in US colleges and universities are rewarded for teaching and research, but generally only for “service” to the university community. (I’m sure there are different models, but I frankly don’t know a lot about them.) I’d think that broader service/engagement, and perhaps with it a kind of public intellectual role, would need to be encouraged and rewarded.

      Like many colleges, Wesleyan has a long tradition of student activism. There have been times when faculty or even administrators have sought to engage/educate/(OK, I admit it)control/surveille students via discourse about “responsible activism.” I think that there is something to this: bring to campus exemplars (giving them honorary degrees, etc.) of effective activism.

      There’s a trend on campuses to try to connect with whole families rather than just with students. This is mainly because it leads to higher fund-raising, I am sure, but there are obviously good Confucian reasons for facilitating student-family relations and growth.

      Finally (for now), I completely agree with your ideas about nature and the seasons. Architecture and campus design will be crucial. I am reminded of one consistent theme among the experiential projects done by students in my Philosophy as a Way of Life class from a couple years ago: disconnect from Facebook….

  2. Interesting question! I, for one, agree with your initial impulses. It makes no sense to equate “Confucian” with ancient and anachronistic practices. Modernity is inescapable; so, a “Confucian” university will have to be a modern university. (For those who want to argue that sitting around in “Han” costumes memorizing lines from the Lunyu is somehow more authentic, I guess they will exclude women, since that is what “actually existing Confucianism” condoned historically…). In any event, I am often struck by the resonance between the liberal arts ideal and what I take to be “Confucian” education: a combination of intellectual study (great books, and not just Confucian classics) and character education. Here is the opening of the Mission Statement of my college:

    “Williams seeks to provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students the academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character. Academic virtues include the capacities to explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively. Civic virtues include commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life, and the skills to do so effectively. These virtues, in turn, have associated traits of character. For example, free inquiry requires open-mindedness, and commitment to community draws on concern for others.”

    Virtues! Character! Concern for others! The Master would smile. Perhaps we do not live up to these ideals as much as we might like, but it seems that the aspirations of a liberal arts education and Confucian learning may not be as far apart as we might think.

    • Hi Sam — Thanks! Absolutely agree. Two further thoughts in response. First, it may be that we’ll want to push beyond “academic and civic virtues” to ethical or moral or personal virtues; it would be fascinating to trace whether there is more evidence of these sorts of concerns in earlier mission statements, or in such statements from other colleges.

      Second, as we think about what is different between the pedagogical theory and practice of current liberal arts education, and the speculative Confucian approach under discussion, one possibility is “critical thinking.” I do not mean to suggest that no sort of critical thinking belongs within Confucianism. But too much, or the wrong kind, may be problematic. I am reminded of Wesleyan president Michael Roth’s “Beyond Critical Thinking” essay, that got quite a bit of play. It is fascinating to think about the resonance between the his advocacy of learning to see “details and patterns and relations which we would not have seen or heard for ourselves,” and Neo-Confucian talk of coherent patterns, harmonies, and so on.

  3. There are some strands in modern western philosophy that connect well with Confucianism. For instance, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s focus on what in German is called “Bildung” is relevant. Bildung is education that considers not merely the cognitive develop of a young person, but the character and bodily development of the person as a whole being.

    Steve, it would be interesting to see your views with regard to a comparison of a Confucian education with Gadamer’s Bildung process as described in his Truth and Method.

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