Confucius and China’s 600 Polytechnics




The recent decision of the Chinese government to convert some 600 universities to polytechnics took one’s mind back to the largely utilitarian teachings of Confucius of ancient China. It was a this-worldly philosophy that played to the people’s most basic inclinations towards spiritual indolence and intellectual aspirations that fanned the ego in a subterranean sort of way. It focused largely on coping with the moment, but in a way that made it look like it was much more than that.  A strange “sense of freedom in nobility,” of infinite human-based possibilities, and of letting oneself go, came with Confucius and his philosophy. His many easily-applied everyday notions offered ready, even if ultimately banal, alternatives to profound teachings. The other-worldly teachings of Lao Tse, his contemporary, was less popular and Confucianism is one of the most promoted schools of philosophical thought today; with branches in universities all over the world, including many universities here in Nigeria.

For the records, Confucius began his work in China by quietly assuring the people that he had come to remind them of the teachings of their forebears which, they must admit, had worked for them for thousands of years. His submission was that they really had no need for the new ideas of Lao Tse who, instead of being a “a transmitter” of the teachings of old like him, was “an originator” who had come to replace their heritage. “Why bother with the spiritual world, when you have not yet mastered how to deal with the living,” he would teach. Thus good neighbourliness, politeness, kindness, courtesy, obedience to the prince, respect for elders and much more were canvassed and promoted by him. Virtue became a social need and not necessarily an attribute of the soul. So: do not think or talk too much about the beyond, because your business is here with the living whom you meet every day and whom you must do everything not to offend.

In concrete terms, Confucius taught the principle of “rectification of Names”, saying: all would be well if father played the role of father, as assigned to him by name, leaders played the role of leaders, etc. But, pray, who defines “father” for instance? Once this concept is wrongly defined, all is lost. That was the catch and Confucius knew it. He also gave the concepts of Yin and Yang, the active and passive principles in nature, a new twist. As the father is Yang to the son, the latter must always obey the former, as well as all elders and rulers. So you must listen to your ignorant father, uninformed elders and misguided leaders instead of Lao Tse, who was propagating new teachings and is also neither father nor ruler. This is in addition to the fact that your parents, friends, siblings, etc. will all have a case to answer if you are found behaving badly. How could they let that happen to you? Is the query! Spiritual suffocation never got a better template!

Plato’s “philosopher king,” a leader with correct knowledge of man’s duality and a broad knowledge of life, and who could also address issues with an overarching vision that many do not possess, is ultimately attuned to Deity. But the ‘noble man’ of Confucius (Junz), and even the sage, is someone who has made some progress in self cultivation and who, above all, must be flawless in his respect for parents (even long after they are gone), elders and the ruling princes. The sleight of hand here dawns on you when you explore statements like: “If the noble man lacks gravitas, then he will not inspire awe in others. If he is not learned, then he will not be on firm ground. He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary important…” Ask yourself where the noble man gets his concept of “right” and “wrong” from and the blinkers will drop from your eyes. A man bred in the available knowledge, and who is not a prophet, is only an intellectual substitute for a fully vibrating human being. Spiritual fraud is the word.

As a former teacher of Ancient Chinese and ancient Indian philosophies in the university I was first struck by the absence of a central concept of reality or meaningful concept of God from, especially, the teachings of Kun Fu che (Confucius). The Platonic conception of human development as ‘the nurturing of character and the human person through the education of life’ comes out in Confucius as a purely this-worldly affair. To undermine the notion of Deity and make many departed souls earthbound, Confucius gave this logic to ancestor worship: since you were totally dependent on your parents during the first three years of your life, you must show gratitude to them by mourning them for three years after their death, to make up for your years of total dependence on them. But enough of all that.

To connect the foregoing, even if tenuously, with the events going on in the world today, we should perhaps begin to ask what values China’s prodigious progress around the world is exporting to other countries. The Chinese are mercilessly overruning one nation after another. Of course they are evincing all the necessary and due courtesies and signing all relevant agreements before engaging. But it is all without a human soul.

So, before we run off to scrap our universities in reaction to the recent decision of the Chinese government to convert 600 universities into polytechnics, let us note that the Chinese were responding to the evidence-based realization that less than 40% of their tertiary education population inclined towards the sciences. The decision was, therefore, based on the same type of realization that made our Federal Government to decide on a 60/40% ratio of admissions in favour of the sciences; as far back as the late 70s and early eighties. Our polytechnics, and even the later universities of technology, were established to supply ready, hands-on technical capacities that could be easily and readily deployed.  

The institutions ended up recruiting staff and teaching over 70% of the humanities and social sciences they were not set up to teach. This was due to the failure of the regulatory agencies. A federal university of technology in the Middle Belt was found out to be offering degree programmes in law and several courses taught in the non-technical universities. The planned consolidation of tertiary institutions, which began in 2006, is a response this challenge and also a desire to convert polytechnics into the engineering or technology schools/colleges, of existing universities; the same way that colleges or schools of medicine and business exist some universities. So those who are now on the verge of hopping themselves lame with excitement, that the Chinese have just shown us how to save our country should bring a little sense of history to bear.  

Let those eagerly looking at the Chinese initiative and saying “enough of theory and theoretical university education, which does not prepare people for jobs” remember that plain economics and entrepreneurship have never led to sustainable personal, or national, development anywhere the world. China, Japan, the US, UK, Canada, Korea, Finland, Singapore, etc. did not get to where they are today because of bland entrepreneurship, technological innovations and “scientific pursuits” – as ends in themselves. These things always rested, ultimately, on some basic (if you like philosophical) cultural, or other, foundations. The founding fathers of most nations, and the great inventors and investors of repute among them, were not just entrepreneurship and technical people, no. They were always people of deeper than average knowledge, insight and vision who could fashion and nurture broad-based development and a national leadership outlook (amidst vicissitudes). These were the foundational templates on which they built (followed through) and consolidated over time; in addition to mentoring others.

The root of all leading civilisations, organizations and individuals that have driven lasting leadership and entrepreneurship for the last 400 years, always rested on some philosophy of leadership, human capital management, or service delivery orientation for which entrepreneurship was only a tool. Development, especially sustainable human, national, economic and political development, is a multi-dimensional concept with spiritual, aesthetic, cultural and socio-economic connotations. National character and national development do not derive from a desperate alliance of mechanics, bicycle repairers, cobblers, one-eyed bricklayers, amoral young people pressing computer keyboards and allied tradesmen. If it were so, Japan would not be in its present quagmire of worry over the growing number of computer whiz kids committing suicide every other week. They are not hungry or poor. But they cannot find “meaning” in their existence anymore. So they end it all, since there is no notion of the beyond or the transcendental.

Wall Street, global conglomerates, Dangote and Elumelu are driven by some abiding philosophical outlook, practices and rules. It is not “entrepreneurship”, but the consistent adherence to a basic outlook on life, plus the consistent application of the practices that reinforce this that makes the difference. That success in business is only an adjunct to something else is borne out by the story of the erstwhile leaders of the Fortune 100 companies; who were largely products of a sound philosophical education.

Our present state of under development is not because of “theoretical” education, no. We are where we are today because of loss of values: the spiritual, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of our being that make us responsible managers of our lives and resources, as human beings.  We are now anchored in no real core foundations, or core values, no national culture of hard work, thoroughness and responsible leadership. The basic beliefs and qualities of character drilled into the average Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Singaporean, Finn, and most Asians missing here. Substantial exposure to the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, La Tse, Confucius and many others are at out there work.

Confucius is on the ascendant today in ways many cannot fathom. Those who know are looking on with grim trepidation, knowing the ultimate end.