[S]peaking about his own spiritual development, Confucius said: “At fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty I could stand. At forty I had no doubts. At fifty I knew the Decree of Heaven. At sixty I was already obedient [to this Decree]. At seventy I could follow the desires of my mind without overstepping the boundaries [of what is right].” (Analects, II,4.)
The “learning” which Confucius here refers to is not what we now would call learning. In the Analects, Confucius said: “Set your heart on the Tao.” (VII, 6.) And again: “To hear the Tao in the morning and then die at night, that would be all right.” (N9,.) Here Tao means the Way or Truth. It was this Tao which Confucius at fifteen set his heart upon learning. What we now call learning means the increase of our knowledge, but the Tao is that whereby we can elevate our mind.
—Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, p. 46. Free Press. New York. 1948. (emphasis added)
The online life has obviously fallen by the wayside for me this year, because I have myself fallen into a couple or three or four loves: love of the history of Chinese civilization (a love growing deeper by the day), love of a sharper view of the nightmarish history of the West (thank goodness for the occasional lotuses — the Mahlers, Voltaires, Nietzsches, Wildes, Keatses, Shakespeares — blooming from those millennia of muck), love of a handful of students in my Chinese history classes,1 and love of almost all 60 students in my Western Civilization classes.
I climbed out of the book quoted above to share that quote because it brought to mind a few of those students — the ones who did middling-to-worse on the multiple choice sections of their final exams, hadn’t memorized enough to find the right answers,2 and whose essays didn’t suggest a shining future in academia.
But I don’t wish an academic future on these youths anyway, and more importantly, to riff off our Confucian above, the “learning” these tests measure is not what I consider the most important learning.
Judging from so many signs — the sparks in their eyes and questions on their tongues during class discussions, the staying through break after class to discuss more towards the end of the year, the goodbyes we exchanged two days ago in the last 20 minutes of our year together — it seems clear to me that so many of these “average” students left with the “elevated minds” Confucius would smile to see.
I hope I’m right, and that the leaden forces within and beyond school don’t drag those minds back down in years to come.
I have never felt so strongly as now that a year with students is what is needed for the learning to really start. They’ve had their whirlwind tour of our species’ history, skated across the surface of its 5,000 year flow, gained familiarity with the major signposts along the way, and finished the tour in their own decade. And now the skating, having only scratched the surface once, is done, and we’re saying goodbye.
What I wouldn’t give for a second year with these kids, so we could switch from surface skating to deep-sea diving. But I guess that’s what college is for.
In any case, my first year at this new school was predictably rocky, but thanks to those four loves, all the bruises were more than worth it. I’m totally exhausted, in the very best of ways.
Confucius and Students (Ming Dynasty) from Wikimedia Commons