Crises of Elite Competition in the East and West

Malcom Kyeyune and Marty MacMarty:

Although this educational paradigm is often seen in the West as an outgrowth of the “Confucian model” of education, this is in some ways the opposite of the truth. There are, broadly speaking, two types of education, defined in terms of their method and purpose. In the first model, which can be called the “Confucian,” “classical,” or “humanist” model, the point of education is to create a more refined or virtuous human being, not to teach particular technical skills. The reasoning behind this approach is that a scholar who is steeped in the works of the classical world and the wisdom of the ancients will be equipped with the sound judgment and faculties of reasoning required to learn essentially any job, on the job. In ancient China, would-be public administrators studied the philosophy of Confucius in order to become wise, not to become engineers. It was believed that a wise person would have the necessary capacity to learn to be a great engineer, but a trained engineer would not necessarily have a path to attaining wisdom. If both wisdom and technical knowledge are considered important, then the Confucian or humanist view of education argues that the attainment of the former takes precedence over the latter, and so instilling wisdom is therefore the logical place to start.

Against the Confucian model stands a very different view of educa­tional attainment, a view that might be called the “Prussian” approach to education. Put simply, the Prussian approach focuses on instructing students in specific, measurable skills: technical knowledge, mathematical proficiency, mastery of official state propaganda, and so on. Learning to be a great engineer is the entire point, and proficiency in engineering can also be objectively measured, unlike nebulous concepts such as “wisdom” or “virtue.” The Prussian view has little use for scholarly ideals, and encourages rote memorization or similar practices to make knowledge of the subject matter stick.