Like Improving Texas Woodlands by First Attacking the Roots

Confucius, fresco from a Western Han tomb of Dongping County, Shandong province, China. Public Domain.

Stepping away from the careless noise of the headlined campus, we feel our hearts loosen at the fingertip touch of the cedar bush that brushes against one shoulder. And already, we make note of the first two questions that will be on the final:

How does Confucius develop his mission statement for higher ed with the thesis that “Things have their root and branches”? What Kung Fu lesson does that cedar branch have to teach?

A few more steps down the trail, cedar bushes give way to cedar trees, as the branches rise above our heads, the way branches did when Confucius pointed up to them on the first day of class, the better to explain what the Great Learning (or higher ed) is all about.

“We’re here to illustrate illustrious virtue, renovate the people, and rest in the highest excellence,” begins Confucius. “When we know what we are aiming at, we can rest our minds on that purpose alone. We can deliberate carefully about it. And we can attain the purpose we seek. Now, may I ask everyone, would you please put away your iPhones.”

After the students stop looking down and scrolling their TikToks, Confucius lifts his hand slowly from his thigh, then up above his head.

“Things have their root and their branches,” says the teacher also known as Kung Fu the Great. “Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.”

Students follow the cue of the teacher’s hand and lift their gazes to the tree tops. A couple of old cedars clack together, sounding like a woodpecker in the breeze.

“The woodlands before you are like a well-ordered state,” explains the master. “And a well-ordered state is composed of so many families, in organic relation to each other. But to sustain the world of many healthy families, y’all will need to cultivate yourselves into human beings.”

Confucius pauses. Before they came to class at the Apricot Pavilion, students had generally relied upon their families to cultivate them. Now their teacher wants them to take a moment with the thought that they need to make themselves ready for the time when they will cultivate families of their own.

“To cultivate your families, you have to cultivate your humanity; to cultivate your humanity, you have to rectify your hearts; but to rectify your hearts, you need to cultivate sincere thoughts.” Here the students noticed that Confucius had lowered his arm so that he was pointing between them at shoulder height, asking them to consider how a well-formed tree trunk is the basis of any towering tree top. Hearts and minds are what bear the real weight.

Then Confucius warms up to his favorite part, as his hand lowers a bit, and he points to the spot where a nearby tree trunk disappears into the ground.

“In order to cultivate sincere thoughts, you need to investigate, inquire, study.” In their imaginations the class journeys below ground to trace the awesome network of roots that reach out from tree trunks, through the ground, crossing deeply below their feet.

What lay ahead of these students, explained Confucius, was a Great Learning, a higher education, a culture of inquiry, a community of knowledge-seekers. To look across their prosperous state of Texas, the students had not really considered that such a root system of careful inquiry lay beneath it all. But Confucius has a way of using Texas woodlands to show that you simply cannot imagine a Texas gigafactory without deep roots of study in math, science, design, and the development of cultural purposes worth driving to in the first place. The live music capital of the world did not spring by accident from the streets of a college town.

Confucius could get a little preachy, but he always tried to be concise and respectful of students’ time. He left it to them to think about how a root system grows year after year upon the leading clues of the root system from last year. He let them work it out how there are professions on campus who have studied the roots of years past the better to know where to direct next year’s growth. He knew there could be no rushing the sense that a student gains over time about where their favorite root paths lay and how to cultivate the lifelong awe of contemplating how many intertwined paths there are among the Texas woodlands. Confucius was fond of saying, “I give them one corner of a square, but I expect them to complete that square in their thinking.”

Our final exam in May will ask you to reflect on how growing roots on a college campus requires patient and steady work, done by human beings who cultivate sincere thoughts, rectify strong hearts, and learn the life of learning, the better to help others learn that life. Student support services, which have grown organically over the decades, help to cultivate hearts, minds, human beings, and their families—even if the real world seems to pop up, full grown and rootless.

Sometimes a student doesn’t stay for the whole lesson, doesn’t have time to work it all out, just goes to work wondering, why is that old man so worked up about the woodlands?

“It cannot be,” concludes Confucius, “that when the root is neglected, what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.”

It cannot be that if you inquire carefully into the Texas woodlands, you will set out to improve the woodlands by first attacking the roots.

Credit: “The Great Learning By Confucius,” MIT Internet Classics Archive. (Translation adjusted by author).

Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at