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Spotlight on Confucius: Chinese Classics and Cultural Values

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Spotlight on Confucius: Chinese Classics and Cultural Values has as its goal to “examine the flow of Chinese thought and examine its implications for the Chinese both in China and abroad.” It was produced and published by The American Forum for Global Education and follows the favorably received Spotlight on “Ramayana”: An Enduring Tradition. Professor Chad Hansen of the University of Hong Kong directed the project and expanded upon the goal by noting the rising importance of including studies of China in social studies for “all students” and not just for those of Chinese descent who are interested in learning more about their heritage in their adopted country. In his introduction to this compilation of lesson plans, background information, source materials, and teaching tips, he argues eloquently for presenting “viable alternatives [to] our outlook on life,” and goes on to state that China’s is the “richest and most diverse alternative history has delivered to us.”

The main strength of this curriculum unit (it is referred to in the preface as “enrichment material” but due to its high level of detail and comprehensiveness deserves to be part of a curriculum) is that it was compiled by twenty-five teachers working with eight college and university professors. Having this many minds facilitating this much articulation between secondary and tertiary education is breathtaking and worthy in itself of emulation. Coordinating so many contributors must have been an enormous task, yet somehow the lessons progress in an orderly, meaningful fashion, with few lapses. It is obvious that different participants worked on different lessons to be included in the compilation (which complicated the transitions and thematic links between them all the more), but this strategy appears to have had a serendipitous consequence: several of the lessons have “background material” or “student handouts” that repeat and reword the fundamentals about Confucius and Confucianism. I don’t know whether or not this was intentional, but the effect is to reinforce the key concepts so that all users of this curriculum should feel comfortable with it.

The next question, therefore, is for whom is this material intended? If indeed it is for enrichment purposes, then we have one explanation for the repetitive nature of the background material, namely, that the individual lessons are meant to stand alone. I still maintain, however, that this material is worthy of a unit unto itself. The title is somewhat misleading; to better capture the flavor of the lessons, a better title might have been “Spotlight on Chinese Philosophy: the Heritage of Confucianism and Daoism.” All or parts of several of these thirty lessons deal with Daoism (both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu), Legalism, Confucianism as interpreted by Mencius, and Buddhism. As such, this is a neat overview of Chinese thought, prepared specifically for secondary learners. It is challenging both in the range of thinking that the various suggested exercises and activities require, and also for the fact that it deals with frequently unfamiliar topics with historical fig­ures who have odd alphabetic aggregations for names. How does one pronounce “tzu,” anyway? (I found one reference on page 88, but how many scholars would recognize “shoon-tsa” for the Confucian Superior Person, “chun-tzu”?)

That leads me to another point: the strength of this material is not only that it is written specifically for secondary students and is easily accessible to them; it is also readily accessible to secondary teachers, more and more of whom are searching for materials about China, Japan, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. There is not a whole lot available with the rigor and completeness of this unit. I can safely recommend Spotlight on Confucius to any secondary teacher who wants to include Chinese philosophy and culture in the classroom, although the authors would be well advised to include a pronunciation guide in future revisions of the work so that novices to the quirks of Chinese romanization can feel confident that they are not teaching grossly deformed pronunciations. For example, using the “oo” from “book” and the “i” from “dirt” as models, students would learn “chun tzu” as “joon dzi” (emphasis on bold word). If it were me, however, I think I would include a page on proper pronunciation of pinyin, be consis­tent with the use of pinyin throughout the unit, and attach the tradi­tional names parenthetically to the pinyin versions, e.g., Lao Zi (Lao Tzu). Confucius, of course would remain the same!

There is much to like in this unit, some of which is mentioned above. Additionally, there is the judicious use of cartoons (evidently original ones, since I could find no attribution; I was searching for it, too—they are that good) to elucidate important concepts. It’s amaz­ing how attractive cartoons are to teenagers. Even the most obscure or mundane Confucian topics (benevolence, filial piety) seem lively and compelling to teenagers when filtered through the cartoonist’s viewpoint and pen. It’s hard to underestimate how this strategy draws in the students and opens them up to other concepts, the great majority of which appear in regular text. The homily about a spoon­ful of sugar and medicine is applied most effectively here—after a few cartoons even Legalism and the Rectification of Terms go down easily. The clear, consistent formatting of lesson plans is a strong point, too, along with the nice annotation of key Confucian terms which appears at the beginning. The interviews with contemporary Chinese citizens about Mao and Confucius are gems, and the culmi­nating “Game of Sagehood” simulation will also attract students’ interest and attention.

There are a few weaknesses, too. First, the bibliography is woefully incomplete, containing only a small fraction of the resources men­tioned in the lessons (even the Analects is not listed). Second, since this unit could be used by those not completely familiar with Chinese philosophy, answers should be provided to all questions posed, as they are with the worksheet on page 123. This will reinforce the teacher’s grasp of the material and supply confidence for teachers leading the many class discussions suggested in the lessons. Even for the experienced teacher, it is nice to compare answers with the experts to test one’s facility with some of the most up-to-date think­ing on the topic. Third, at least two handouts referenced in the lesson for distribution to the students seem nowhere to be found. Fourth, I think the addition of a lesson on the I Ching would be appropriate to link Confucianism and Daoism together, and also provide the oppor­tunity for a fun activity for the students (casting hexagrams). Finally, I would suggest that the authors recommend certain sets of lessons for teachers to use for one-week, two-week, and four-week units, and prioritize resources in the bibliography for new teachers of this topic who have limited funding with which to get started.

I strongly recommend Spotlight on Confucius for use in the secondary classroom. Best for juniors and seniors, it provides a wealth of material written by experts intentionally for the high school and accessible to virtually all teachers regardless of their background in Chinese philosophy. It is well-composed, edited, and laid-out, with pleasant graphics and clear lessons that build on each other. While the energetic teacher may feel compelled to create additional hands-on activities to bolster the reading and group work involved, the curriculum can easily stand on its own and is a welcome addition to the growing supply of materials designed to teach American (and other) students about China and the Pacific Rim.