Limited time to learn essentials

Regarding Robert McKinney’s Oct. 6 letter, “The kanji cultures pack a punch“: The original debate was not about whether an “innovator” should be interested in literature or music in his spare time but about whether liberal arts courses in university programs for science, engineering and medicine can stimulate innovation.

That Thomas Edison and Bill Gates were dropouts from grade school and college, respectively, does not mean that we should drop out of school and read Shakespeare in order to become innovators in science and technology.

What Gates and Steve Jobs said is significant. In a speech in March 2011, before the U.S. National Governors Association, Gates stressed that “we need to spend our limited education budget on disciplines that produce the most jobs.”

Was he not implying that we should reduce our investment in liberal arts education because liberal arts degrees don’t correlate well with job creation?

Three days later, at the unveiling of the iPad 2, Jobs said: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Jobs did not mean to insinuate that engineering students need to take courses on Mozart during their university degree program in order to be able to innovate. Music and engineering are separate disciplines that students need to study for many years before they can innovate technology as a joint venture.

One can learn what one likes in the “University of Life,” but for a formal university degree, students want to study those courses for which they are enrolled, as they have a limited number of years to complete their studies. They should not be diverted to study what they do not want to study.

The gap between what we teach as undergraduate courses and what we write in academic journals is so vast now in almost every technical subject, economics and psychology included, that undergraduate students need to study mathematical, statistical and computational methods for at least two years before they can proceed with their chosen subjects.

For example, biology students must learn differential equations to understand the principles of theoretical chemistry. They can take liberal arts their first year, as they do; but additional intrusion of the liberal arts to the extent suggested by professor Takamitsu Sawa (“Lack of liberal arts education is sapping Japan’s creativity,” Sept. 17) would put a real burden on them.

Most innovators in fact are not grade school or college dropouts; they tend to have the highest qualifications from formal universities. Thus the link between liberal arts and innovation has not been established.

Furthermore, economic growth does not always come from innovation. Look at China, which has captured markets from Japan and Western nations because of its low-grade manufacturing exports, a slavelike-labor force and artificially low exchange rates.

As for education, the horrible illogical pictures called kanji did not earn respect in either Vietnam or Korea; both ended up expelling kanji. Japan should do that, too, to reduce the burden on its schoolchildren, since the hiragana system can do the job.

dipak basu
nagasaki

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.

  • Joachim

    The highly opinionated Dipak Basu appears all too frequently here. Regarding the use of Chinese characters in Vietnam and Korea, he is simply wrong. The Vietnamese (largely) abandoned the traditional writing systems only through coercion from their French rulers. In South Korea, hanja are still taught and used, and even in North Korea there is still instruction in Sino-Korean, including character use. As a fellow academic, I would urge Dipak Basu to get off his high horse on this and other subjects in which he is clearly no expert.

  • Koji

    I go to South Korea every month; I have never seen any Kanji.
    Whoever got rid of Kanji from Vietnam did it a lot of favour.
    Americans should have abolished Kanji in 1945 from japan too.