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The poor understanding of two thought cultures

By Reg Little - posted Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Mainstream academics and intellectuals have failed to identify and explain the two major mental energies involved in global power shifts over the past half century. First, there is a dynamic East and South East Asian community, led by administrative and commercial elites shaped by a Confucian tradition of education and thought. This is consolidating its leadership in global education, finance, production and technology. Then, there is a Western community, defined and confined by a Platonic tradition of abstract and rational thought. This is confronting, and precipitating, the end of two centuries of Anglo-American global order.

The Western assertion of a set of "universal values", with Platonic transcendental authority reinforced by the practice of "intellectual apartheid", was fundamental in building an Anglo-American global order. These practices have, however, become counter-productive. Better educated and more strategic Confucian elites now exploit weaknesses in simplistic Anglo-American intellectual beliefs.

As power shifts rapidly to the over 2 billion people in this Confucian world, where the pace of change is increasingly set by China, other members of the global community confront an unprecedented challenge. If they continue within the framework of the Anglo-American beliefs of the past two centuries they will find themselves in various forms of continuing decline. The alternative is to accept that new educational and thought standards derived from the Confucian tradition are shaping the future and that, however difficult, these have to shape their own national education goals as quickly as possible.


This will involve surrendering the Western preoccupation with abstraction, rationality and theory in education and the substantial adoption of Chinese style rote learning of classical and historical texts from an early age. This will pose many language, educational, creative and political challenges and will confront serious shortages of qualified educationalists inside and outside China. Serious commitment to such educational standards will, nevertheless, reward early movers generously.

The Crisis in Western, or Platonic, Thought

As someone from a Western cultural and political tradition and from a nation situated geographically almost as part of Asia it seems to me that the economic success of Confucian communities represents a cultural challenge that should command the attention of my fellow Australians. But, it does not. Indeed many Australians would regard the above words as a form of heresy.

How can this be so? It is a reflection of the strength and weakness of Platonic thought. As the Medieval Roman Church demonstrated, the rational abstractions of Neo-platonic thought could be utilised to define forms of doctrine and dogma and capture the minds and spirit of people. These created a form of religious and cultural unity across Europe. The European Enlightenment utilised similar strategies to develop doctrines and dogmas around "universal values", such as freedom, equality, democracy, rule of law and human rights, again to capture the minds and spirit of people. This time these were used to create a form of political and cultural unity throughout the West, and later in efforts to extend that unity to people in the most distant parts of the world.

The Western tradition of Platonic thought has produced an emphasis and focus in education on abstract ideas, rational structures, scientific theory and mechanistic understanding. These might all be caricatured as contributing to a form of railway line thinking, which ensures that people's thought must always travel along pre-determined railway lines and can never stray in unapproved directions. Underlying assumptions, right or wrong, form steel tracks in the mind. The mainstream Platonic tradition of thought is particularly hostile to ambiguous nuance, holistic thought, intuitive insight and organic dynamics. Indeed, the values, doctrines and dogmas of contemporary Platonic thought have many qualities in common with the brainwashing caricatured by George Orwell in his novel 1984 about a tyrannical, totalitarian future, where all thought is dictated by an all powerful "Big Brother".

The West has a fragmented history, with various nation states taking dominant roles and developing distinctive thought characteristics at different times. This has disguised and confused the fact that the broad influence of classical Greek thought, with inputs from Rome and Jerusalem, has maintained a mythology of some form of unifying transcendent authority, either spiritual or secular.


Western Platonic thought has been unable to break out of its abstract and rational certainties, all blessed in one sense with the same transcendent authority as the Medieval Christian God. It has failed to identify and address the qualities that have informed Confucian economic success. A particular obstacle has been a practice of "intellectual apartheid", identified by John Hobson in his "The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation". By marginalising and mocking other than Western "universal values" as inferior and undesirable, this has made it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone with a Western education to evaluate seriously the qualities of alternative traditions. While some Asian intellectuals have been trapped and emasculated by this attitude, Asian leaders and administrators have largely deferred to it formally while using its blind-spots to great strategic advantage practically.

Benefits of Rote Learning the Chinese Classics.

Western habits of Platonic thought contrast with the thought customs derived from the unbroken political character of Chinese civilisation and thought. A continuous recorded history over several millennia has embraced much debate and political experiment, but always with a focus on practical coherence and administration in human communities, largely untroubled by transcendent authority.

In particular, the focus on rote learning of the Chinese classics from a very early age has unique benefits that can be rivaled nowhere else in the world. No other country can access such rich classical writings and wisdom recorded more than two thousand years ago in a language that can still be understood and used today by people using the contemporary version of the ancient language. Based on recent experience over three months at Sihai Academy, where classical rote learning begins at three, the benefits can include:

1) Knowledge.The primary benefit of the rote learning of classical texts is a rich and widely shared knowledge base at the beginning of life. Reaching back thousands of years this knowledge ensures a deep grounding in historical awareness and the vicissitudes of human life. Encompassing diverse habits of thought, such as reflected in the Lunyu, Yijing and Daodejing, it offers a lifetime protection against the simplistic and limited thinking habits that have captured Western peoples.

2) Judgment.A related, benefit is that this profound and character building knowledge base is stored and accessible in the conscious and sub-conscious at a very young age. This is long before a child is likely to have to make serious judgments and decisions. Life can be approached with an early mature confidence and sense of relevant experience.

3) Spirit.Another major benefit, which is easy to overlook, is the joyful and spiritual energy this learning seems to give young children. The mastery of these standard bearers of Chinese civilization at such a young age seems to give them an easy sense of a place in the world.

4) Learning. The early mastery of habits of memorizing and studying classics orientates children naturally towards lifetime learning practices that give them an edge amidst the complexities of the modern world, creating an appetite for further learning that turns what are chores for others into a form of sought after nourishment.

5) Flexibility.Contrary to Western stereotypes, the early introduction to texts as different as the Lunyu, Yijing and Daodejing ensures that real life problems are examined in different and contrasting ways. The limitations of inadequate abstractions and rationales in Western economic and other theories can be easily identified, mastered and used to advantage. These diverse influences can nurture a remarkable fluidity of thought, even as this is hidden by rituals of behavior that ensure harmonious social relations and discreet personal reflection.

6) Wisdom.A lifetime store of diverse classical wisdom, which can be called upon when the appropriate occasion arises, provides a reserve of possible responses to new challenges without any further and belated research to handle the unexpected. The classical texts are so diverse and rich that their full meaning and use may only reveal itself many decades later.

7) Community.An easy and reassuring sense of a child's place in family and society and an early grounding in the responsibilities of later life is another central feature of the tradition. This leads to the ease with which Chinese integrate into almost any community or society, adopting unfamiliar values while losing little of their own identity.

8) History.Rote education in classic texts develops an instinct for addressing contemporary issues in the context of the most diverse and rich record of human behavior imaginable and in a manner that always returns to the fundamentals of human nature. This takes on a particular importance at a time when the cults of progress, science, human rights and other "universal values" have distracted many from an understanding of their basic human qualities. A deep and timeless knowledge base is the best protection possible from the danger in the contemporary world of becoming a puppet of rapacious forces that are rarely identified, let alone understand.

9) Discipline.An early acceptance of rote learning disciplines nurtures social forms of behavior that both facilitate productive relations with others and also provide ritual forms behind which one can protect individuality of character and thought. This proves to be much more effective in practical terms that the misleading hype about individual rights and freedoms that characterizes much Western political comment and debate. It also develops an unrivalled, if discreet work ethic, capable of committing to a goal and working with purpose to achieve it in a practical manner.

10) Language.Early rote learning facilitates a very succinct and powerful form of language use that characterizes Chinese classics and chengyu. This develops a foundation for communication skills that are authoritative and profoundly expressive. It also seems to foster a capacity to accept the discipline of learning other languages where habits of rote learning can be invaluable.

Amongst other beneficial qualities that can be derived from rote learning, one might identify habits of joy, intuition, confidence, trust, focus and ritual, all working to nurtue human talents largely neglected by contemporary Western education with its emphasis on narrow professional functionality.

Mental Aptitudes from Rote Learning.

There appears also to be a number of benefits that derive simply from the well conducted practice of rote learning, even should the material not be Chinese classics. Amongt these benefits appear to be the following.

1) Joy.Rote learning can encourage a feeling of joy in learning through the use of chanting and speaking aloud in unison with other members of a class. This ensures a positive mental attitude to the demands and disciplines of learning, even if they later have to be managed in a less supportive and social environment.

2) Intuition.The early sense of achievement and empowerment builds an intuitive understanding of the rewards derived from learning and mastery of what is at first unfamiliar material. This leads to an intuitive appetite for further disciplined learning, which nurtures the further growth of a person in society confident in an ability to trust a mature intuition in making spontaneous and correct life judgments.

3) Confidence.A natural confidence towards learning becomes fundamental because this has become a part of one's nature in a positive, nurturing family type environment. What may seem a daunting challenge for others becomes little more than another stroll amongst the increasingly familiar knowledge gardens of stored wisdom.

4) Trust.There is the early establishment of trust and confidence in teachers and mentors that encourages the search for more such figures even as one matures and takes on more adult responsibilities.

5) Focus.The habits of routine and relaxed discipline cultivated by this type of education will tend to inspire interest and commitment from other teachers later in a person's life as the foundations of disciplined, focused behaviour are easily recognized.

6) Ritual.This form of disciplined learning facilitates other forms of social and personal discipline that equip young people at a very early age with trusted rituals and habits of discretion that lead to easy, pleasant and valuable social skills.


For almost half a century, I have been fascinated by two major contrasting energies informing change in the global community. The questions, perceptions and conclusions that have led me over that time have rarely been guided by academic studies. From time to time, academic work may have informed aspects of my thinking. Generally, however, mainstream academic work seems to take place within strictly predetermined frameworks, dictated by several centuries of Anglo-American global order. These seem to be designed to deliberately avoid many of the most important issues that have arisen over that half century. The limits of academic work have now begun to fundamentally undermine the capacity of Western leaders to manage their future in the 21st Century.

The major energy that has captured my interest derives from a pervasive Chinese civilizationshaped by a superior tradition of education. In various ways, this is shared throughout East and South East Asia. This is an area of over two billion people. In the second decade of the 21st Century, this area has the world's greatest production capacity, hi-tech work skills and financial reserves.

The second energy derives from a Western civilisation in crisis, where poorly developed habits of thought have given rise to forms of aggressive economic and political action that have proven increasingly counterproductive. Western education norms and theoretical habits have lackedthe mental discipline, cultural richness and strategic subtlety common wherever one finds the influence of Chinese civilisation. Intriguingly, these latter qualities have been most evident in national administrations in Asia but largely absent in both academia and national administrations in the West.

Increasingly, it is apparent that Western thought lacks the qualities needed to address the fundamental challenges of the 21st Century. These challenges include competition in a global marketplace and economic productivity that does not destroy human environments and health. Chinese thought has proven itself on the first challenge and offers greater hope on the second.

The West today is characterised by a tradition of Platonic thought in crisis. Over time, this thought has travelled from the philosophers of Ancient Greece through the doctrines and dogmas of the Medieval Roman Church and the "universal values" of the European Enlightenment. Today, it is characterised by a disposition to abstract rationality, or railway line thinking, which insists on continued observance of the rules of a declining Anglo-American global order.

In contrast, the East is characterised by a pervasive and flexible tradition of Confucian thought, although, of course, this does not reach to the Indian sub-continent. This thought has origins that predate the birth of Confucius by several millennia and is characterised by a rich diversity of influential texts that might not all be narrowly identified as Confucian. This thought is also characterised by a rich, continuous recorded history that displays the strengths and weaknesses of the Confucian tradition in action. All of this is preserved by a rigorous educational ethos without rival globally. Since the middle of the 20th Century this thought has been closely associated with the world's most dynamic economies and often its most stable polities.

Put simply, we live in a time of great global transformation from West to East, or from dominant Platonic to pervasive Confucian thought. Today, people everywhere are becoming aware of the many ways in which their lives are transformed by the growing dynamism and reach of the Chinese economy. Yet, very few have any awareness of the influence of Confucian tradition and thought in bringing about this remarkable change.

While power and influence fluctuated between Church and State in the West, social and political cohesion and discipline was developed in China from even before the time of Plato, through correct ritual and behaviour. This was enforced by a type of legalist authority with a growing and public emphasis on administration by those deeply educated in Confucian tradition. This has produced today what Eamonn Fingleton has criticised in his book, "In the Jaws of the Dragon: America's Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Dominance" as the "selective enforcement of the law". This practice is seen to lack the forms of due process and justice promoted as the virtues of the West's "rule of law". This assessment has two failings. First, it deliberately overlooks the reality that Western law has been increasingly subordinated to financial and corporate power in a way that corrupts and damages social justice and economic competitiveness and productivity. Second, it fails to acknowledge that Eastern "selective enforcement of the law" has equipped Confucian administrators with the authority to ensure that corporate energies serve the broader community.

Some commentary suggests these "universal values" may have been developed discreetly as a form of distraction from the concentration of the West's real political and economic power in hidden financial and corporate entities, often directed by powerful intergenerational families. This type of evaluation sees these "universal values" and forms of associated economic doctrine and dogma as defining habits of politically correct thought and behaviour.

This has led to the crisis in Western, or Platonic, thought that is the source of many failings in the contemporary West. The pervasiveness of "intellectual apartheid" has ensured that this remains largely beyond comprehension outside Asia. It has also led to widespread misapprehension about the value of Western education. For someone with a educational foundation based on Chinese traditional thought, a Western education can be useful in developing a deeper strategic understanding of the global economic battlefield. For anyone without this educational foundation, a Western education is only likely to lead one into the rigidities and follies of Platonic thought and railway line thinking and an easy victim on the global economic battlefield.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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