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Understanding Confucianism and Meritocracy

Freshmen in Brian Wabler’s history class are gaining a more nuanced understanding of the origin and purpose of the Han Dynasty in ancient China. Wabler explained that emperor Wu Di, who was in power during 141-87 B.C.E., required the people of China to study and be tested on the five classics of Confucianism, a philosophy that became the root of attempts to build a meritocracy. He also explained the basics of that meritocracy—that the leaders of a government were selected based on how well they were able to take tests on Confucianism. During class, the students discussed how the tests on Confucianism could be skewed, based on the social levels of the people. In other words, the rich would have more time to study the levels, whereas the poor would have little time to study because they would spend most of their time working and trying to survive. Wabler also asked students to consider any similarities between the meritocracy of that period and the present-day. “Can you imagine a world where there are high-stakes tests and people who have money to send their children to the best schools and have access to a stronger education, and where those who do not have the resources will not have as many opportunities?” The freshmen quickly made the connection. Wabler then engaged students in a conversation about more aspects of ancient Chinese government, which led to rich discussion about whether a true meritocracy is possible.