Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism have influenced the theory and practice of higher education in profound ways from an early age. The traditional model of secular education, in which religious dogma is held separate, is traceable to the ancient religious traditions of the Far East and Southeast Asia. Student-centered education and the belief that learning is an endeavor that proffers its own rewards are principles that stem from Eastern philosophical doctrine. These fundamental ideas remain pertinent to higher education today and offer solutions to problems presented by an excessively commercial approach to higher education in many parts of the world.
Evolution of Higher Education
The core principles that inform the ideologies and spiritual practice of Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism are endemic to the philosophy of higher education. Each faith tradition stresses discipline, student-centered learning and morality, foundational beliefs embodied by each and by which each belief system passes on its doctrine to new generations of the faithful. Despite fundamental differences among the three, and that much of what they have passed on to modern educational theory and practice has pre-modern origins, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism have established an ethical rationale that still offers remedies for an increasingly facile system and commercially oriented outcomes of higher education in the West and other parts of the world.
Corporate financial scandals and the unscrupulous and avaricious behavior of individuals who occupy high-ranking positions in business and government are symptomatic of something that has gone amiss in the very concept of higher education. In Engaged Buddhism in the West, Christopher McQueen argues that long-lost notions of service and a concern for the general welfare of mankind need to be recovered. “Our education in this time needs to be fundamentally about redemption. It must teach us how to selflessly offer ourselves for the well-being of others” (342, 2000). McQueen calls for a revision of education, particularly in the West, in order to create a moral foundation necessary to “bear witness to joy and suffering” in people’s daily lives. If the function of higher education is to equip students with a broader world view and a more
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with thousands of deities in which reincarnation plays a prominent role. Salvation only comes after the soul is at last freed from the cycle of birth and death. For adherents of Confucianism, the journey toward perfection happens in life and can be judged based on the extent to which an individual attains strong moral and social development during life. Whereas Hinduism holds the promise of eternal reward for the worthy soul, Confucianism teaches that living a life in which one serves others holds its own rewards. “The superior man can achieve complete self-realization only in his public vocation. It might indeed be stated that a commitment to public service – even when such service is unattainable – forms one of the basic criteria distinguishing the Confucian ideal of self-cultivation…” (Wright, 5).
The Buddhist argues that there is no eternal, that a belief in one’s spiritual worthiness or unworthiness reinforces the limitations of the physical world, inhibiting the individual’s true spiritual growth. As such, one can, by diligently following the teachings of the Buddha, achieve perfection and create a Heaven on earth. It is important to note that the Buddha is, in fact, revered as a teacher who sought to pass on knowledge by emphasizing that truth is something the student must understand from his own intellectual viewpoint, not the teacher’s. This student-centered philosophy stresses a form of mental discipline that is largely unknown in modern scholarship. “The emphasis is upon developing basic discipline in one’s field of study, whether it be in learning Sanskrit, studying Freud, or learning dance technique” (Nithiyanandam, 2004).
Instead a state of mind (Ibid)
This state of mind is crucial if true learning is to take place. Recent studies have shown that Buddhist practice, which seeks to help disciples understand the world through personal experience and according to his own cognitive predilections, dovetails with what may be the optimal scenario for learning (Chan, 1985). “In reality, no one can teach mathematics. Effective teachers are those who can stimulate students to learn mathematics. Educational research offers compelling evidence that students learn mathematics well only when they construct their own mathematical understanding” (Tusgate, 1996). Buddhist belief asserts that there is no real “teaching,” that instruction is simply a facilitative process aimed at guiding the student toward a wholly subjective understanding. This approaches one of the most fundamental philosophical differences in educational theory between East and West.
Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism break distinctly with what has become a predominantly pragmatic Western purpose and practice in higher education, a trend that educators and theorists have increasingly called into question. “A culture which views learning as being the ends to a mean is in stark contrast with the traditional and Buddhist view of education which believes in learning for learning-sake” (Bright, 2011). Routinized learning is central to the modern Western educational franchise, which sends a steady stream of capable lawyers, accountants and doctors into the marketplace. Yet it has proven to be a Devil’s bargain in that the professionals who emerge from Western universities and colleges tend to be one.
Eastern religious philosophy has much to offer, and ideas about comprehensive, “liberal” education have gained coinage in recent years, partly in response to a renewed notion of social responsibility (Wildemeersch, et al, 2000). The aims of education are “the crystallized notions or aspirations of a society which formulates them to provide direction to the growth and development of its people” (Sharma, 190).
The “renaissance” of socially responsible education among Western institutions is, in some sense, a manifestation of ancient ethical beliefs and practices that can be traced to the time of Confucius. For Confucius, it was important to construct “an educational philosophy based on an ethical hierarchy of responsibilities that began with the emperor and flowed downward, touching everyone in society” (Ornstein, Levine, 2010). The Confucian notion of hierarchy was important to the development of education and its role in society. Confucius taught that hierarchy ensures harmony in society. Everyone understands their role and responsibilities; a status quo reinforced by education (Ibid).
In the West, the educational status quo involved the church for many hundreds of years, with religion and education in lock-step until fairly recently. The idea that education could, or should, be parochial in nature is traceable to Eastern tradition and the non-spiritual essence of Eastern beliefs concerning education. “For this non-religious attitude, the…student of modern education can not but feel grateful to the Confucians” (Kuo, 1920). As well, a certain Democratic spirit infused Confucian and Buddhist views on education. Confucius taught that aristocratic government should be rejected and that social leveling required that distinctions of.
In India, the seers of the Upanishadic period transmitted a similar credo concerning education. Although proceeding from a transcendental, spiritual ideology, the seers were as concerned with temporal matters as with religious questions (Sharma, 50). They regarded the acquisition of knowledge and truth as a daily pursuit. “Therefore, the seers prayed to the Almighty ‘to deliver them from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light and from death to immortality’” (Ibid). In India, the search for truth was the goal of educators at Banaras, a recognized seat of learning for Hindus and Buddhists alike. It was often visited by Europeans, who came to call it the “Athens of India” (Reagan, 2005).
Other renowned centers of higher education in India were Taxila and Nalanda, both of which date from the 5th century C.E. Nalanda provided a blueprint of sorts for curriculum in higher education, offering coursework in grammar, logic and literature as well as the Upanishads, the Vedas and Jainism (Ibid).
Indeed, when the British established themselves in India, they found a rigorous educational tradition, which had been in place for centuries. These tols offered a wide range of subjects. “The school opens early every morning by the teacher and pupils assembling in the open reading-room…Study is continued till towards mid-day, after which three hours are devoted to bathing, worship eating and sleep; and at three they resume their studies which are continued till twilight” (Bose, 1896). In Bengal, three colleges were in evidence, teaching everything from grammar to law and logic. Hindu education had a long history of practicing a high degree of specialization, preparing individuals for careers as priests, judges and doctors, among others (Kochhar, 2005). The British were struck by the well-rounded curricula and academic specialization they found in India’s Hindu schools.
The Hindu, Confucian and Buddhist belief systems were among the very first to teach that one’s conduct in life is inextricably linked with the journey toward fulfillment in this world. Personal integrity and social responsibility are the pathways to fulfillment, and a well-rounded education is important to its attainment. The great religious traditions of the East have for millennia exhibited a remarkable degree of secularization, which held the pursuit of knowledge and truth largely separate from religious practice. In so doing, they successfully proved that the search for truth in secular education need not conflict with, or marginalize, spiritual practice. This was an important lesson and a significant development in the evolution of higher education in the West as well as the East. As new challenges force higher education to continue to evolve, these remarkably resilient ancient religions still have much to say to us about the reasons for, and responsibilities of, higher education. They retain the ability to adapt to modern life and the need for ever more comprehensive approaches to higher education (Yao, 2000). It appears likely that Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy has still more to offer higher education theory and practice.
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