Are Japanese minds closing?

Japan’s science and technology universities, including all engineering departments, should heed what the president of Shiga University, Takamitsu Sawa, had to say about the critical link between innovations in manufacturing and the humanities. Creativity takes inspiration from the heart as well as the mind. And it’s the humanities that inform the human heart.

The American Medical Association noticed long ago that those doctors who majored in such subjects as literature during their undergraduate years tended to be far more compassionate and understanding toward their patients than doctors who majored in science or math. And yes, Sawa is right, Abraham Lincoln was a gifted public speaker partly because he knew, almost by heart, many of the most significant passages from the Bible and from William Shakespeare’s plays. Such readings gave greater eloquence to his speech along with a profound insight into human psychology and spirituality. Lincoln was also blessed with a great intelligence, pure genius in fact.

I wonder if Akio Morita was impressed by great leaders like Lincoln? Morita devoted his life to making Sony Corp. one of the giants of modern electronics and entertainment. He also loved classical music. It was this love of music that inspired him to engineer the very popular Sony Walkman during the 1980s. He wanted to take his music everywhere.

I think Sawa would find it interesting that about 10 years ago the president of the California Institute of Technology, one of the finest engineering schools in America, demanded that literature be reinstated in the school’s general education curriculum and that all students be required to take a minimum of four classes in literature. From around the mid-1970s the university had dropped any such academic requirements in the humanities. Cal Tech’s president feared that engineering students were graduating without much understanding of the world beyond mathematics and scientific facts.

Steve Jobs certainly knew what he was talking about when he said that technology alone is not enough. If you want the heart to sing, you gotta marry technology to the humanities. Jobs was both a gifted engineer and a very charismatic public speaker. He was a celebrity on the world stage and a cultural icon. He was also very curious about Eastern mysticism and Buddhist philosophy.

Ironically, in the age of Apple computers, iPads, iPods, apps, PlayStations, mobile phones, Internet, electronic games, and so much else, will younger students take the time to read literature, philosophy, history, and appreciate music or art? How many students in America or Japan have read even one of Aesop’s Fables? How many have knowledge of who Aesop was?

When I was a graduate student in the English department at Indiana State University back in 1977, I still recall the elderly Shakespeare professor lamenting the fact that so many students had such a poor knowledge of the Bible, which has influenced so much of Western culture since the earliest writings in the Old Testament. Professor Smith didn’t realize it at the time, but he was witnessing the closing of the American mind. Is Japan experiencing a very similar closing of the Japanese mind? Possibly so.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.