- The Chinese Continuum of Self-Cultivation: A Confucian-Deweyan Learning Model by Christine A. Hale
C. Wright Mills wrote that the sociological imagination is stimulated by a comparative study of a scholar’s topic of choice in which the analysis advances across cultures and historical epochs. The philosophy of education, one of Mills’s early intellectual interests, was fair game for such comparative study. Concerning this topic he might have asked: Would a Confucian perspective on student learning have any applicability outside of China? Would it resonate at all with recently trained Western educators and philosophers? Contrariwise, would the ideas of the American pragmatist John Dewey have gained any acceptance with Chinese educators during the Song dynasty? As Christine Hale suggests in her book The Chinese Continuum of Self-Cultivation: A Confucian-Deweyan Learning Model, the answers to these questions are all in the affirmative.
The sociological imagination shines brightly in Hale’s book, where she assembles a philosophy of education that brilliantly merges updated versions of [End Page 145] Confucian and Deweyan thought into an educational template aimed at producing engaged twenty-first-century students that are connected to their local communities and to global society. She bases her perspective on the Neo-Confucian concepts of the universal nature of self (ren xing), situated in the self-in-the-world and humanity in the co-creative process of self-cultivation (xiushen). The self is “the experiencer, the processor, the learner, the agent, the motivator of being and becoming human” (p. 2). It evolves or “becomes” in the world as knowledge is acquired, schematized, oriented to experience, and applied to current problems. The self fully embraces the “other,” and is in fact tantamount in importance to the other, whether it is human or part of the physical environment in a constantly changing, dangerous world. The world may shift, but the learner inculcated with communitarian, humanitarian values maintains balance and moves forward with life strategies that demonstrate a sense of what is sustainable for the future.
Hale opens by recalling the visit of John Dewey to China in 1919. He arrived May 1 and stayed for twenty-two months. His visit coincided with the May Fourth Movement, a protest against the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which handed over formerly occupied German territories in China to Japan. Outraged by the perceived allied betrayal at Versailles, the intelligentsia was impatient to modernize China by adopting Western ideas. Dewey’s visit also occurred after the Qing dynasty collapsed, which had fueled calls for upgrading all aspects of Chinese life. Thus, as Dewey arrived in China, his ideas were hot commodities and were enthusiastically spread by his former students from Columbia University, Hu Shih, Liang Shuming, and Jiang Menglin—all of whom had positioned themselves as leaders of educational reform. Dewey’s educational theory became policy at the National Educational Conference in 1922, but implementation after that was uneven. His supporters became distracted by other issues; in particular, the stability of the fledgling Nationalist government was in question.
It was not until the post-Mao era that Deweyan pragmatism made its way into Confucian thinking. Dewey believed that the self forms through lived experience where the individual bonds strongly with others through social interaction. To Dewey, heart-and-mind (xin) was the process of realizing the world and a “becoming,” a creative process that was to be fulfilling, enjoyable. By situating the self in the community, Dewey aligned firmly with Confucian values. This Deweyan conception of lived experience is a critical concept in Hale’s primary construct, which is self-cultivation—the goal of education. As Hale explains: “Self-cultivation (xiushen) overarches the key human activities of social participation; lived experience of the greater world informs and forms the self in the process of becoming and, in turn, the self informs and forms the outer world” (p. 11). This reflexivity between self and world is an ongoing feature in Hale’s model, one that...