False Dichotomy? ‘Western’ and ‘Confucian’ concepts of scholarship and learning

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Abstract

Discourses of ‘internationalisation’ of the curriculum of Western universities often describe the philosophies and paradigms of ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scholarship in binary terms, such as ‘deep/surface’, ‘adversarial/harmonious’, and ‘independent/dependent’. In practice, such dichotomies can be misleading. They do not take account of the complexities and diversity of philosophies of education within and between their educational systems. The respective perceived virtues of each system are often extolled uncritically or appropriated for contemporary economic, political or social agendas. Critical thinking, deep learning, lifelong and lifewide learning are heralded as the outcomes of Western education but these concepts are often under-theorised or lack agreed meanings. Equally fuzzy concepts such as ‘Asian values’ or ‘Confucian education’ are eulogised as keys to successful teaching and learning when Asia prospers economically. They are also used to explain perceived undesirable behaviour such as plagiarism and uncritical thinking when Asian economies do not do so well. We argue that in general, educationists should be aware of the differences and complexities within cultures before they examine and compare between cultures. This paper uses the Confucian-Western dichotomy as a case study to show how attributing particular unanalysed concepts to whole systems of cultural practice leads to misunderstandings and bad teaching practice.

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