Thank you very much for inviting me to be here. It really is a tremendous privilege to be able to witness the start of a movement in education that is both radically new and yet anchored in tradition. That Confucian tradition, which 文礼书院 is now reviving, is a tradition which will teach the world how to put education in a proper, integrated perspective. Let me explain:
When I first encountered the 论语 one of the first things that struck me was the prominence given to the concept of 学. I was not alone in being struck by that. Many westerners encountering 儒家 for the first time over the years have found it initially disorienting to have 学 discussed in such elevated terms along with ethical and spiritual concepts like 仁、爱、善 and 德. This confusion that westerners feel about the status of 学 reflects, I believe, the fact that we westerners are conditioned to think of learning and education either in very practical and pragmatic terms, or, at the most, a kind of adornment – rather than something vital to our moral and spiritual growth. We tend to divide things up into different realms, and we are so conditioned to think of learning as being something separate from morality. This is not, of course, to overlook the fact that there have been very prominent educational theorists in the west who have seen the value of education as a route to morality, but generally we study and learning as an activity which can be pursued independently and in isolation. We are also conditioned to think of 学 – learning and study – as merely a path towards some predefined goal: the acquisition of knowledge or the acquisition of skills. These days, the goal of study is likely to be expressed in even more utilitarian terms: passing exams, getting a degree or diploma. Even if the goal of study, though, is defined in more elevated terms (such as, acquiring a liberal education, becoming someone who can contribute to society), something vital is missed if we think of 学 is talked about in terms of its final goal or purpose rather than in and of itself.
What the 论语 brings home to us with such clarity is that 学 is seen as a virtue not because of some pre-determined goal or destination, but is valued in and of itself as a process. What’s more, its value, 论语 is constantly reminding us that 学 is in danger as soon as we stop seeing it as a continually dynamic process. We see this not only in the famous first line: 学而时习之，不亦悦乎, but 孔子 also repeatedly warns of the problem of ever seeing Xue as something static or unchanging: he warns for example against “学而不思” and also against “学而不进” – both of these phrases can be seen as meaning that there has to be some kind of dynamic interchange and reflection in the process of 学. The moment we fall into seeing 学as something fixed, predictable or directed precisely towards some goal we are guilty of removing that dynamism from 学：removing the 进 or the 思.
This 儒家 concept of 学 as being something dynamic and that its essential value is in that dynamism is something that the world can learn from in terms of how to approach education. It also has a huge amount to teach us in terms of how moral character is formed. As I said just a moment ago, 论语 is clearly telling us that 学 should not be seen in terms of clear, pre-defined goals or “merely a process” heading towards some goal. That means that even if we see 学 as a moral endeavour, it is wrong to see it as a process of “learning a set of moral precepts, or learning a set of rules of behaviour”. What 儒家 identifies is that 学 as a process cultivates morality.
This, I believe, means that “learning” as a process, no matter what the subject (science, literature, music, mathematics) should be seen as a moral endeavour and conducive to the cultivation of moral character. It is not moral only if we are studying ethics 伦理 or theology 神学. Again, 论语 is quite clear that the objectives of study are broad and comprehensive: “兴于诗 . . . . 成于乐”. The study of literature “诗” and music “乐” are also essentially moral endeavours.
The idea that study and learning, no matter what the object of study, is, when properly conceived, a moral endeavour in and of itself, is something which few western thinkers have ever expressed. Even those who talk of learning as having a moral component, tend to talk about it in terms of the subjects studied, rather than show that awareness of study itself as being cultivating of character. One of the few thinkers I know of who has talked about study in these terms is the early 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil (西蒙娜 韦伊). For her “study” is moral because it develops the faculty of what she calls “attention”: an essentially moral quality. In her essay, “The Right Use of School Studies”, she writes, “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree. School children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.” “Prayer”, for Weil, essentially means focussing on “the infinite”, “the unknown” and “that which is beyond me”.
I would put it in slightly simpler terms. Studying is the process of opening our minds up to new fields, new perspectives, new understanding. When undertaken properly it should expand our minds, but also increase our humility as we understand how little we will ever know. To put it even more simply: study brings us into contact with “the other” that which is outside of ourselves and different from ourselves. Study invites us to try to incorporate “the other” into our own perspective and thereby grow in understanding, empathy and sympathy. Learning the classics: those voices that reach us across the centuries through languages that seem, at first, alien; from mindsets and world views that can seem, also, alienating and confronting, is the ultimate way of learning to face “the other”. Incorporating those views and perspectives into our own world view is deeply enriching, but it can only be achieved with respect and humility.
文礼书院understands the value of making classics part of the life of children, and puts them at its core. It understands that ancient idea that “learning the classics” is not a simple process of acquiring nuggets of knowledge that sit inert in the brain like collection of pretty shells or jewels; rather it should be a process of planting these classics deep in the soul where they will continue to be nurtured and cultivated like plants, which live within the personality. 文礼书院 understands in a way that few, if any educational institutions today do, that it is the process of acquiring and studying the classics the “学”, which is so valuable. This process cannot be cut short or speeded up, because it is the process itself that is so valuable.
I came to 儒家 late in life. Before my encounter with it, I had an impoverished and limited understanding of learning and study. The young minds at 文礼书院 are truly privileged to be able to learn in an institution which puts a proper understanding of 学 at the centre of all that it does.
Thank you very much.