Advantage of taking notes

by Takamitsu Sawa

In the 2010 university entrance exams in Japan, the number of applicants for economics and business administration programs nationwide fell sharply amid a conspicuous rise in the number of applicants for medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, jurisprudence and teacher training — where students could most likely obtain professional licenses after graduation.

I can think of several reasons why economics and business administration have become less popular majors. The first is that students graduating in these areas are not likely to obtain a professional license unless they aspire to be a certified public accountant. In Japan, economists are not given full “professional” status, and the degree of master of business administration is not widely recognized.

The second reason is that once employed by government agencies or private corporations for nonengineering jobs, those who have majored in law have relative advantages over those who studied economics or business administration.

In the United States, economists are recognized as professionals, and a doctorate degree (or at least a master’s degree) is a prerequisite for whoever wishes to claim qualifications as an economist. The private and the public sectors offer plenty of opportunities where knowledge in economics gained at a university can be fully put to use.

In Japan, on the other hand, among those who appear on television programs, or contribute articles to magazines or newspapers as “economists,” only a handful possess a master’s degree. Moreover, no small number of self-styled economists majored in natural sciences or engineering at university. Those who majored in engineering account for quite a large proportion of teachers at departments of economics, business administration or policy sciences.

It is incumbent upon whoever teaches in the department of economics to know history, intellectual history and elementary philosophy as well as to have read classic works. In reality, however, nearly half of such teachers have no knowledge in these fields.

This absurd situation stems from the fact that because quite a number of the subjects that economics majors have to study require knowledge in mathematics or statistics, those with doctorate degrees in engineering who have worked at private-sector think tanks apply to become teachers at university economics departments.

A similar situation is found with regard to the MBA in Japan. In the U.S., possessing an MBA is regarded as a big advantage, if not a prerequisite, in climbing the ladder of corporate management, except perhaps for entrepreneurs like Bill Gates.

Even though business schools have recently been established in Japan as one form of professional graduate school, most have failed to attract enough students to fill the prescribed enrollment number because Japan lacks a generally accepted idea that the MBA is a respectable qualification.

In Japan, one wishing to become a CPA must pass a very difficult examination. Ironically, though, quite a few people who have passed the exam cannot find jobs with accounting firms.

In stark contrast with the bubble economy of the 1980s, when firms scrambled to hire CPAs, the oversupply of CPAs now appears to be the norm.

Why is it that those who majored in economics or business administration are disadvantaged in the corporate or bureaucratic ladder compared with those who majored in law?

Teaching methods perhaps. Today, Microsoft’s PowerPoint system is used in most university classrooms for economics and business. For teachers, this is a convenient system as it eliminates the need to write on the blackboard or speak skillfully to attract students’ attention. For students, it eliminates the need to take notes because copies of the PowerPoint presentation are distributed to them.

PowerPoint deprives teachers of the motivation to improve their teaching skills, and students of the opportunity to learn how to take notes. Students in the past learned well what was taught because they had to take notes. Today’s students are not helped by the large number of papers shown via PowerPoint in rapid succession.

PowerPoint is used in most economics and business administration classes, but it cannot be used in law classes. Law teachers seldom use even the blackboard. They tend to give lectures that require students to take copious notes.

Whether students have been trained to take notes can determine how valuable they are after joining a government agency or private corporation in a nonengineering job. In the early part of their careers, they may be given assignments such as writing minutes of an internal meeting or preparing a report on an outside conference. Because they relied on the PowerPoint system without having to take notes, economics and business graduates have fallen behind law majors.

Classroom lectures by professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard University have been widely televised in Japan. He never uses PowerPoint in his political philosophy lectures. He conducts a dialogue with about 1,000 students. Japanese professors of humanities or social sciences would do well to acquire such skills.

Consider how two new employees — one an economics major and the other a law major — might answer their supervisor if asked to justify conclusion A over conclusion B. The economics major might say that he or she cannot do that because it involves a value judgment, while a law graduate might try to come up with the logic to justify the proposition. A joke making the rounds some time ago was that if you could not say that a crow is white, you could never succeed at what is now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

However, the logic that a bureaucrat with a jurisprudence background might come up with, while accepted in Japan, would likely be rejected at any international conference. At meetings attended by delegates from various countries, what prevails is a logic based on economic rationale. Japan needs to foster a social climate of respecting economic rationale in formulating policies.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.