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Lack of liberal arts education is sapping Japan’s creativity

by Takamitsu Sawa

In recent years, much has been talked about how universities should be. In Japan, the university was long considered a sacred “hall of knowledge” that cannot be evaluated with economic yardsticks such as efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Nobody would dare deny that education and research are the principal roles of universities. But in fact, there are divergent views as to the content of education and research done at those institutions.

Decades ago, university education for non-science majors placed emphasis on philosophy, history and the history of ideas. In the department of economics, which I am familiar with, the emphasis in specialized education for economics majors was placed on acquisition of knowledge related to such unworldly and highbrow subjects as the basic principles of economics (i.e., the Marxian economics based on dialectical materialism), economic history and history of economic thoughts. Students were also required to learn German or French in addition to English.

Those who had been trained in these seemingly useless subjects were hired for white-collar jobs at private corporations and government agencies, and subsequently played key roles in managerial and administrative work. In short, universities were regarded as an arena for teaching not practical knowledge but subjects that would have little or no value in real society after graduation.

It should be noted, however, that those subjects that might appear to have little direct value could become quite useful in an indirect manner. Take, for example, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), a lawyer-turned-politician who became the 16th president of the United States. During his boyhood, he is said to have devoted much of his reading to the Bible, Aesop’s Fables and Euclid’s Elements.

This means that Lincoln acquired the skills of logical thinking, which were indispensable for his legal profession, by studying what seemed to be totally unrelated subjects such as plane geometry. Logical thinking is one of the qualifications that are essential not only for legal profession but also for other professions. A person lacking such skills can hardly be expected to become a successful economist or civil servant, or to be able to present coherent ideas at company meetings.

Back in 1960, Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda came up with a grand plan to double people’s income in 10 years’ time, and he issued clear instructions to universities to “raise and educate human resources capable of contributing to economic growth.” Ever since then, this country has been gripped by a flawed tendency to evaluate education and research in terms of “usefulness.” This prejudiced way of thinking continues to carry much weight today — more than half a century later.

Another way of describing the situation is that Japan has not yet been able to break free of the “catch and surpass” syndrome, which dates back to the 1960s when the nation’s goal was to join and overtake the ranks of the world’s advanced economies.

In his speech launching the iPad 2 tablet computer in March 2011, Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., famously said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” On Oct. 6 that same year, a reporter for The Economist said of this comment: “It was an unusual statement for the head of a technology firm, but it was vintage Steve Jobs.”

Until recently, Japan was undisputed global leader in manufacturing. Today, many of the leading Japanese manufacturing firms are in dire straits as they are sandwiched between newly rising powers like South Korea, Taiwan and China on the one hand and the cutting-edge technologies from North American and European rivals on the other. Japanese electronics companies in particular are stuck between a “tiger in front,” represented by companies like Apple and a “wolf behind,” represented by companies like Samsung.

What has caused these changes? My answer is that high schools and universities in Japan have failed to provide their students with opportunities to acquire broad knowledge through the study of liberal arts and humanities before teaching them technologies in their specific fields.

Engineers who received higher education during the prewar years to around 1975 used to read a large volume of books on literature and philosophy during their high school and college days. In other words, they received the type of liberal arts education that, in the words of Steve Jobs, produced “the results that make our hearts sing.”

In stark contrast, today’s engineering students do not seriously study Japanese literature and Japanese language skills, let alone world history. At the age of 18, they specialize in narrow fields like electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering.

The plight of the Japanese manufacturing industry today may be traced to the excessively compartmentalized manner in which engineering students have been educated for the past nearly four decades.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.

  • Starviking

    Or perhaps the problem lies with others in society who have a liberal arts education but no idea of science, engineering and little math. Politicians and economists come to mind.

    It is also interesting that Professor Sawa talks of logic in reference to Lincoln, but provides no logical support for his own assertions save “it was better in the past, education has changed, and Steve Jobs agrees with me.”

    The reason for the Japanese decline in manufacturing is the increasing cost of living in Japan combined with the rise of nations where manufacturing can be done cheaper.

    • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ andrew Sheldon

      Yes, he missed the importance of values. The collectivist crisis in Japan is destined as much as anything to sabotage personal pride and efficacy….lest you get ‘knocked down’ for your independence.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ andrew Sheldon

    When I was in Japan I tried to inspire some Japanese teachers whom I encountered at a bar. Unfortunately, whilst the engagement was a lot of fun, the rudiments I was trying to teach them related to your thesis was too larger gab to close. I was a science graduate who studied economics, finance & accounting. I picked up philosophy in the 1st year outside of university, which lead to an appreciation of psychology, history & law. There is a World Generalist Association on LinkedIn. I think it has scarcely any members. Specialisation is certainly the ‘market game plan’, but that does not preclude generalist knowledge, and appreciation of the value it offers.But specialisation is not the sole concern; there is a crisis of values as well as institutional provisioning, which entrenches it as so.