The Best Way to Honor Confucius and Teachers' Day

September 28, 2016

Today, September 28, is supposedly Confucius’s birthday (his 2,567th, according to historical accounts). September 28 is also celebrated as teachers’ day in Taiwan, the native place of many of our CAIS employees and families. The connection between the two occasions makes sense, as Confucius was first and foremost a teacher. Over the years, I have written a lot about Confucius and Confucianism to the CAIS community (some would say ad nauseum). For those of you who are interested, many of these writings are archived here (you’ll need to scroll through the titles).

This year, in celebration of the birthday of China’s first sage, I want to reflect on a passage from the Analects of Confucius that is among my favorites:

三人行必有吾师焉

择其善者而从之

其不善者而改之

Sān rén xíng bì yŏu wŭ shī yān;

zé qí shàn zhĕ ér cóng zhī;

qí bù shàn zhĕ ér găi zhī.

When walking with others I am bound to learn from them as my teachers;

I will select their good qualities and follow them;

Their bad qualities and correct them in myself.

I like this passage, as it reminds me that whomever I am with, I can always learn something new and valuable from them—just so long as I keep an open mind. This is particularly true (perhaps exclusively true) when I am with others whose points of view are new to me or differ from my own. On the flip side, if I am walking with others whose experiences and thinking are similar to mine, then I probably won’t be pushed to learn much. In other words, I can become cognitively lazy.

I’m guessing Confucius would have disapproved of Facebook, WeChat, and other forms of social media where your world of “friends” is relatively homogeneous. I have a Facebook page, and I have several hundred “friends” (way more than in real life). By my reckoning, only two Facebook “friends” who actively post have political views that are very different from mine—most “friends” think the way I do. I have, on a few occasions, considered “de-friending” these two outliers after I find one of their posts particularly irritating (read: contrary to my own comfortable world view). But then I stop myself, thinking “what would Confucius say?” Well, Confucius would likely say that I am bound to learn from people whose perspectives and experiences are different from mine—they are my teachers. They make me smarter because they are different from me. They keep me from being lulled into cognitive sloth and complacency. They force me to exercise my gray matter, to become my best self. My homogeneous group of Facebook friends won’t necessarily do this for me.

So, two-and-a-half millennia (or so) after Confucius’s birth, we are reminded that one of his many timeless messages is that hanging around with people who are different from you stimulates learning; diversity makes us smarter. But don’t take my word for it. Or Confucius’s, for that matter. Since our school community exhibits a bias toward research, metrics, and data, I’d point you to an article in Scientific American by Professor Katherine W. Phillips of Columbia University entitled “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.” Citing a variety of research studies from universities around the country and around the world, Professor Phillips concludes that “being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” Creativity? Diligence? Hard-working? Theses sound like the core values of many CAIS families I’ve met and gotten to know over the years. Read the article. Unless, of course, you are not interested in your child being smarter, more creative, more diligent, more hard-working . . .

So as we celebrate Confucius’s birthday and teachers’ day, let’s truly honor China’s greatest teacher by celebrating diversity.