I went to the Sackler Gallery and saw two rather lovely exhibits ; the first was a collection of folios from a sucession of from the Yellow mountain school in early 18th century China. The latter of these made me think about education and specifically about one of my favourite teachings from that part of the world a brief paragraph by Mencius that speaks volumes and runs thus...
"There is the Ox Mountain," said Mencius, "which was once overgrown with beautiful trees. The mountain, however, was situated on the frontier between two States; and in process of time all the trees were hacked about until there was very little left of them. Even when the trees did attempt to sprout again, cattle and goats came and browsed upon the young shoots, and the mountain was stripped bare, so that nowadays people do not understand that it was once finely wooded. But is bareness the nature of that mountain? And can we then say that the human mind is devoid of a sense of charity and duty? No; a man's moral sense suffers loss just as trees suffer under the axe. Day by day hacked about, how can they retain their beauty? Then comes the restoring influence of night, when the moral sense reasserts itself; still, the fetters and gyves of the day more than counteract this influence, and men sink to the level of brutes, in which condition it would seem that charity of heart and duty towards one's neighbour had never had any place in their minds. Can this condition be regarded as fitting for the human race? If it receive its proper nourishment, there is nothing that will not grow; if this nourishment is wanting, there is nothing which will not decay. Confucius said, 'Hold fast to your moral sense, and it will remain with you; let it go, and you will lose it.'"
I first heard this snippet from Proffesor Jones at CUA and have always thought it incredibly descriptive of human nature. Dealing with students from a challenged series of backgrounds I am always amazed how they handle their fetters and surely their moral sense suffers from the blows of reality like a tree before an ax. In many ways I see my role in students lives as a builder of refuges and gardens. Education can be a wall strong and thick, a fortress to keep away the axes and hungry goats, and an unassailable redoubt from which to sally forth. I as a teacher provide the stones but my students make their own mortar and lift those rocks into place.
If a human recieves nourishment there is nothing that will not grow and as Mencius says, "if nourishment is wanting their is nothing that will not decay." Anyone who doesn't believe this should never even consider teaching at any level. Education is the respite in the night that Mencius mentions; the axes go away and there is a measure of safety. If that role is not realized by educators then even the small relief that a school might offer, clad though it might be in iron grating and defended by metal detectors, then the decay quickens and the walls tumble. If against all odds a student manages to scale Ox Mountains and see other hills and peaks where the woods are lush then miracles can happen; they realize there is hope.
Mencius places the responsibility for self improvement and morality squarely on the individual. Every person holds fast to their moral sense or surrenders it to become kindling to fuel the pursuit of illusion. It is certainly not a cuddly image but is no less true for it's bluntness.