Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius. Source: “Genius of the Ancient World” on Open Learn at https://tinyurl.com/y88lmsy3.
View the BBC program “Genius of the Ancient World, Episode 3: Confucius” to eleven minutes, thirty seconds. In this segment, the narrator explains her goals in traveling through Asia to investigate the ideas of Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius. These eleven and a half minutes describe the family situation and early life of Kong Fuzi, or (English translation) Confucius, as well as background about the time period of Chinese history into which he was born.
Close by distributing the handout Confucian Teachings, The Law, and Education. With partners, students will read short excerpts to identify and discuss the influence of cultural values based on Confucian teachings. Have them start by completing the warmup and listing their own family rules or norms for the behavior of children, and the relationship between parent and child.
Author’s notes on student reactions
Many students asked for more space to write about the rules in their family in regards to interactions between children and adults. There was a wide variety of responses to that question, including “We learned not to talk back to adults or be rude to them” and “Say yes, ma’am and no, ma’am. I was taught directly about these things because I am the oldest child.” Other students wrote about unspoken rules: “I should be polite. I am allowed to disagree and give my opinion too.” The majority of them had never thought about the way their parents interact with their grandparents and, upon reflection, observed, “My parents don’t seem to follow any rules when interacting with elderly family members” and “They are nice but always speak their mind” and “Hmm. Sometimes my mom yells at my grandfather, but I am not allowed to yell at her.” Family expectations related to education included “Do your best,” “School comes first,” “Be proud if you tried your hardest,” “Have a good attitude about it,” and “Get good grades and do your homework.”
Class No. 2: Continue Confucian teachings and law and education
Having completed the warmup in the previous class period, students begin the second class by reading short excerpts to look for and discuss the influence of cultural values based on Confucian teachings.
As they read, they will complete a 4As protocol using the chart in the handout. This protocol engages students with the text as they identify assumptions the author of the text holds, aspects of the text with which they agree, parts they want to argue with, and parts that are aspirational. There is also an opportunity for an extension activity or a homework assignment for students to interview their parents or examine the rules or handbook of their school.
Author’s note on student reactions
When students worked with the Three Character Classic, they made connections to the novel Ties That Bind Ties That Break, a young adult novel about a girl in pre-World War II China who rebels against foot-binding, which they had just finished reading in language arts class. Although the practice of foot-binding did not become popular until almost 1,500 years after the death of Confucius and scholars debate whether neo-Confucians supported the practice, our girls’ school environment likely shaped their reactions to the advice in the Three Character Classic as well. They agreed with the statements about the importance of learning but had strong objections to the fact that “Everything is he” and that women were not included. Some identified “Men at their birth are naturally good” as an assumption or something they would argue with. They found little to aspire to, again because of the use of “he” and “men.”
In retrospect, when I teach the module again, it is likely that I’ll get similar reactions, teaching in a girls’ school, but will view them as an opportunity to introduce students to a critical component of historical literacy, avoiding one of the biggest impediments to historical literacy: presentism.
Extension activity No. 1: Minimizing presentism
British novelist L. P. Hartley in the opening line of his novel The Go-Between asserted, “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.” This memorable line is true to an extensive but not complete extent when history instructors try to teach critical historical thinking to students. Cultural values and events in any given era profoundly affect the people who live in them. However, human nature that leads to both morally good and evil actions has evidentially remained unchanged since the beginning of recorded history. Keeping these two contradictory but true ideas constantly in mind is difficult but a necessity for anyone who wants to better understand the past. The task is hard enough for historians but particularly difficult for young people.
Consider this quotation by Hunter College education professor and historian Terrie Epstein:
Researchers consistently have found that young people possess a limited understanding of historical actors' and groups' motivations and actions. When asked to explain why historical actors or groups believed or behaved as they did, students describe people in the past as less intelligent than people today, or even "stupid." Young people also rely on presentism, that is, they project themselves into a historical period, recognizing that circumstances were different than they are now, but responding to a specific situation from a contemporary standpoint. Students also tend to be very judgmental of historical actors, critically asking, for example, why enslaved people "didn't just run away" or how people "voted for a crook like Nixon."
Revisit the question of Confucius and dominant attitudes toward women in ancient and medieval China. It is imperative for history teachers to help young people not simply apply their present values to the past. This does not mean that past values we consider “racist” or “sexist” today should be condoned, but careful consideration of the totality of contributions of Confucius, Aristotle, or Thomas Jefferson to human progress must be evaluated through a more comprehensive manner than simply what is considered acceptable and unacceptable in the present. Engaging in this kind of exercise when studying Confucius, or any number of historical actors, with students will often lead to profound classroom discussions.
View the BBC program “Genius of the Ancient World, Episode 3: Confucius." Start at twenty-eight minutes, forty-three seconds and view until thirty-seven minutes, twelve seconds. This segment describes Confucius’s observations of families, their organization, and the ways authority, obedience, and morality in a family could be applied to a different context.
Tracking our thinking
Estimated time: Ongoing, five minutes or less each time
Students will start a connect–extend–challenge thinking routine to keep track of their thinking. Depending on your classroom space and student access to materials, this could be completed in a student notebook, on chart paper using sticky notes, or via an editable Google form.
How are the ideas and information presented CONNECTED to what you already knew? What new ideas did you get that EXTENDED or pushed your thinking in new directions? What is still CHALLENGING or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings, or puzzles do you now have?
Begin viewing the BBC program “Genius of the Ancient World, Episode 3: Confucius.” Start at forty-one minutes, forty-seconds and stop at fifty-four minutes, forty-four seconds. In this segment, students will learn about the goals and efforts of Confucius and his students, the challenges they faced, and the end of his life. The segment continues to discuss the first Han emperor, incorporating Confucian ideas, challenges in the twentieth century, and a resurgence of Confucian teachings.
Students should add to their connect–extend–challenge notes before moving to the next activity.
Illustrating social structure and relationships
Estimated time: ninety minutes [more if students share their work])
Individually or in partners, students will first decide whether they would prefer to focus on the five relationships Confucius described or the social structure of Chinese society under the Han dynasty. Students will use the information from the BBC program and their text or another teacher-provided resource to read about, summarize, and illustrate their findings in an infographic or using sketch notes.
Revisit the see, think, wonder; the chalk talk; and the connect–extend–challenge.
Ask students, knowing what they now know, why Confucius might have been carved into the façade of the Supreme Court and what message it was intended to convey.
Revisit the standards in a discussion or assessment of your choice.
Identify the political and cultural problems prevalent in the time of Confucius and how the philosophy of Confucianism and The Analects emphasized the concepts of kinship, order, and hierarchy to address these problems.
Explain how the implementation of the philosophy of Confucianism led to the political success and longevity of the Han dynasty.
Extension activity No. 2: “Fighting the Stereotype: China Is a Confucian County”
Historically, Confucianism exerted a significant (perhaps the most significant) influence on Chinese culture, but other belief systems, notably Legalism, had enormous influence in Chinese society.
Legalism in ancient China was a philosophical belief that human beings are more inclined to do wrong than right because they are motivated entirely by self-interest. It was developed by the philosopher Han Feizi (c. 280–233 BCE)
From Ancient History Encyclopedia (2016):
The first Qin Emperor applied Legalist concepts to reward subjects for complying with government mandates and often harshly punish dissenters. Legalism to one extent or the other has influenced Chinese governments throughout history. Mainland Chinese central governments have never been democratic, although at the local and provincial (similar to U.S. states) levels today there is some allowance for political freedom, and since contemporary China has a significant amount of privately owned businesses and companies, economic freedom has greatly expanded. The Chinese national government though is ruled by one political party over which ordinary voters have little power.