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Practicality in Curriculum Building: A Historical Perspective on the Mission of Chinese Education

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This paper examines how the definition and interpretation of the concept gewu zhizhi 格物致知 (investigating things and extending knowledge), evolved along with Chinese intellectual efforts to construct the framework for Chinese learning which, in turn, had a profound impact on the development of educational curricula in different historical periods. In Confucian philosophy, “practicality” appears ambivalent, as it can refer to moral cultivation in daily life or knowledge in the material world. Such ambivalence, embodied in the evolution of the concept of gewu zhizhi, can be interpreted as a Chinese search for a well-rounded curriculum in education. Within this framework, this paper traces the origin of the concept in The Great Learning, and investigates how it was developed to refer specifically to natural studies and then to scientific knowledge introduced into China in the late Qing period. This historical reflection on Chinese education points to the shared humanistic values in the Confucian approach to education and in the Renaissance ideal of a liberal education. It calls for a search for a common humanity in rethinking the content and aim of a modern Chinese education.


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