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Caution on reforming university course offerings

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Special To The Japan Times

At first glance, the education ministry’s recommendation to phase out humanities and social science programs makes sense. After all, the insatiable demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates is undeniable. But doing so would be a grave mistake for Japan in the long run.

The rationale behind the movement is that society’s needs will be better served if universities overhauled their departments. Whether that explanation alone or the fear of losing state funding for non-compliance is responsible for some 26 of the 60 national universities in Japan with humanities and social sciences programs agreeing to take “active steps” is unclear.

Certainly, the failure of any of Japan’s universities to make it into the top tier of global league standings is one reason. In a country that places heavy emphasis on pride, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of getting at least 10 of the nation’s universities in the world’s top 100 within 10 years serves as an incentive. The best that Japan could do in the latest rankings from The Times High Education was to place the University of Tokyo in 39th place and Kyoto University in 91st.

Yet there is another side of the story. Even in a skills-obsessed society, graduates in the humanities and social sciences often are the best performing software developers and technology employees. That’s because a well-rounded liberal arts degree is the basis for critical thinking. Its holders are not hampered by memorizing commands or syntax. Instead, they’re able to see the larger picture, rather than get bogged down by details.

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 11, hundreds of tech companies in the United States are eager to hire liberal arts majors. “They think broadly and communicate effectively. They aren’t stuck in a rut. They can challenge ideas.” These are indispensable abilities that are the hallmark of nontechnical majors. Yet in both Japan and the U.S. they are often given short shrift.

Although it’s always risky trying to predict the future, closing the gap between supply and demand for STEM graduates may not be as insurmountable as it appears. Over the next decade, American colleges and universities are expected to produce 40,000 graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. The U.S. economy is slated to create 120,000 computing jobs requiring such degrees in the same period. That means there will be three times as many jobs as there are qualified people to fill them.

But the gap can be closed by on-the-job training for humanities and social sciences graduates. They may indeed lack knowledge of basic computer language, but they are quick studies. In fact, long before the digital age, new college graduates in any field were brought up to speed by that approach.

Universities in both Japan and the U.S. today are under enormous pressure to produce evidence about their relevance in their fast-changing societies. But the value of higher education was never intended to be measured in pecuniary terms alone. Doing so confuses education and training. The former is about ideas; the latter is about techniques. While the two overlap, they are not synonymous.

Unless the distinction is fully understood, there is little hope for any university program in either country that does not directly contribute immediately to the bottom line. That would be a loss. The only ray of hope in Japan to date is that the education ministry has softened its initial controversial position.

Former Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, who is known for the student financial aid program bearing his name, said it best in 1965: ” A high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present and a better view of the future.”

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S. He taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 28 years.