Socrates vs Confucius


I was recently attending a course of management training (don’t fall asleep just yet) and in a module on staff coaching there was a discussion about varying methods that can be used to train people. It was noted that as people are all individuals (stunning insight there) different approaches can be more or less effective depending on the character and capabilities of those being taught. These approaches essentially boiled down to either imparting knowledge directly (i.e. telling people what to do and how to do it) or encouraging them, by questioning their existing knowledge, to develop ideas and reach new conclusions themselves.

I felt a powerful urge to blurt out that such a distinction was a perfect example of the difference between Confucian learning by rote and the classical Socratic dialogue. Unfortunately a management training forum wasn’t exactly conducive to the discussion of philosophical principles so I held my peace. But as this blog is mine to write as I see fit, I’m going to take the opportunity to follow up my train of thought and see where it goes.

It has always seemed pretty self-evident to me that the difference between Western and Oriental mind-sets is easily exemplified in the contrasting approaches taken by Socrates and Confucius. I’m not saying they or their philosophical devotees have actually created this difference, but their teachings serve to illustrate the major cultural distinctions that can sometimes make business and social interactions so challenging.

By way of a brief summary, Confucius was born around 551 BC and rose to become a talented and valued administrator to his local feudal lord in the Shandong province of China. As well as espousing an early version of the Golden Rule, Confucius based his doctrine heavily around the importance of loyalty and especially filial piety. Although he himself included caveats on the limits to which one should obey ones elders and betters, Confucianism later solidified into a restrictive set of rules and dictums for followers to obey. These would become the bedrock of Chinese philosophy, and go pretty much unchallenged until the rise of communism in the 1940s.

Socrates, however, was far from being a pillar of the establishment. Although initially a dutiful citizen who carried out his military service, as his philosophical practice developed he came to be viewed as an irritant and eventually as an outright threat to Athenian society; his execution in 399 BC by being ordered to drink poison prepared from hemlock was the result. Although formally charged with atheism and corrupting the morals of the young, his real crime was in being one of the best puncturers of egos in history. The combined talents of Spitting Image, Private Eye and The Daily Mash would not even come close. His approach was to enter into a discussion with someone on a point of principle or belief (such as whether the sanctimonious Euthyphro, busily prosecuting his own father, could define holiness) and, by asking simple, child-like questions pull apart the underlying contradictions, prejudices and inconsistences of that belief. The rationale was that Socrates himself claimed to know nothing, and therefore required explanations right back to first principles, an approach that foreshadowed the Scientific Method. Obviously, when someone (particularly a politician) is up on his high horse, first principles are often distinctly lacking.

The results of these discussions (or at least, supposed actual discussions that serve to illustrate particular philosophical points) were recorded after his death by Socrates’ followers and set the pattern of the Socratic dialogue, that is a series of questions and answers that establish the validity or otherwise of a stated position. In summary, Confucius told his followers what to think, while Socrates encouraged them to question everything and to think for themselves.

The reason why any of this is of actual importance is in the way these philosophical approaches still colour the world around us today. Learning by rote in Far Eastern schools, even in higher education, is still rife. For example, a recent example came to light of the problems encountered by experienced Western airline pilots acting as instructors on flight simulator training for various Oriental airlines. The trainees were qualified pilots, often with many thousands of flying hours logged, being checked against airline operating procedures and statutory tests in order to retain their commercial pilots licences. Almost every candidate knew the written manuals inside out, chapter and verse, verbatim. However, when questioned obliquely about some of the topics covered they would draw a blank, unable to make the link between an unfamiliar situation and a particular section of the hefty manual they had memorised.

In the simulators it was just as bad. When the students were able to identify a particular situation as one mandated for recertification of their licences, they would usually perform impeccably. If the instructor varied the way the simulation was presented, even if the underlying situation was the same, the trainees would often go to pieces. At one point the chief pilot of a particular airline was reduced to aborting three landings on the trot due to unfamiliarity with the basic principles of some navigational systems. Apparently the instructors could usually distinguish between local pilots educated in the States and those educated in-country, to what was supposedly a high level but was still largely based on rote learning.

The obvious safety implications explain an otherwise extremely unusual decision recently taken by US civil aviation authorities. In the wake of the crash of a Korean Boeing 777 at San Francisco airport in July 2013 that killed two people, a ban was placed on foreign aircraft attempting to land at that airport without using navigational aids. The discriminatory effect of the ruling caused some uproar in aviation circles, but was presumably cast as widely as possible (covering ‘all foreign carriers’) to avoid causing too pointed an offence. The ultimate conclusions of the accident investigators will no doubt be interesting and may well be reminiscent of reviews of the abysmal safety record of Korean airlines in the 1990s.

Coming back to the much less upsetting topic of the underlying philosophy, I suppose the benchmark example from history is the notorious Imperial Chinese civil service exams that reached their nadir around the same time that Europe was entering the Renaissance. Candidates were measured against an extremely rigid curriculum that required memorisation of lengthy classics from philosophy and literature, regurgitated under extreme pressure while locked in solitary confinement for three solid days. The result was that the bureaucrats running the Empire were selected from those best at rote learning and not due to any practical ability or reasoning skills. Many historians view this as a key driver in the way Chinese development started to fall behind that of Europe around this time.

The lesson is that restrictions in the efficiency of education, and the barriers a rote learning culture creates towards development, are a major hurdle to advancement from a cheap-labour manufacturing economy to one based on innovation. I think this is one of the principle reasons so many developing countries fall into the middle-income trap and sadly fail to realise their full potential.

I am not saying that there is something fundamentally or unfixably wrong with everyone educated east of Suez, or that there is no learning by rote in the West, or that such an approach never has a place in education. But rote learning is simply not accepted as the best way to teach anything much anymore, beyond perhaps the times tables to children. The movement in recent decades away from exam based, fact-heavy qualifications towards coursework and modular learning, where properly controlled and assessed, can only improve educational standards.

This sort of thing is important, you know?

Post Script

It is possible that some readers will not agree with my supposition that there really are differences in the way Westerners and Orientals think. Well, I write this blog based on my personal experiences, and I have been doing business in the Far East on and off for over twenty years. For me, based on what I have seen and learned in that time, the conclusion I have reached is inescapable. In the main (but by no means always) people raised and educated in the Far East do think in subtly different ways to those raised and educated in the West. Breaking conformity with established hierarchies really is much more of a taboo.

I also realise that to discuss cultural differences as I do can be seen by some as akin to racism. Personally, I subscribe to Lemmy’s dictum ‘There’s two types of people. Good people and bastards.’ and leave it at that.


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