The eradication of illiteracy throughout the world is an ongoing endeavor and a noble one. However, in countries where the vast majority of the population can now read and write, those populations did not, as the German poet-essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said, learn to do so “because they felt like it, but because they were forced to.”

This point may sound academic, but in light of the current “crisis” in education it’s one that warrants consideration. In every industrialized country, the state says that everyone must go to school, and it educates its citizenry in a way that benefits the state. In other words, an ideal — universal education — that emerged during the Enlightenment as a means of liberating people from suffering ended up becoming a means to build a workforce.

Nowadays, the economies of the industrialized world are focused not on production but on markets, which means an educated workforce is becoming increasingly redundant. The purpose of education is no longer clear. Political leaders make grand statements about not wasting a single young mind while in the background school budgets are cut to the bone and parents turn desperate about their children’s “competitiveness.”

These ideas were discussed in two ambitious NHK programs that were broadcast on the BS1 channel last weekend. Responding to the Japanese government’s stated resolve to tackle the current education crisis with bold initiatives, NHK looked at the state of education in Japan and the rest of the industrialized world.

The two-hour Saturday night program was centered on the results of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) achievement test survey of 15-year-olds carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of the test is to gauge how well children in developed countries are being prepared for “full cooperation in society.”

Three public school educators discussed the ramifications of the test results, and focused their attention on Finland, which came out on top, Germany, which came out near the bottom, and South Korea, which did slightly better than Japan and which has an educational structure similar to Japan’s.

The conclusion they reached was that the competitive form of education that industrialized countries adopted to cultivate their best and brightest no longer works the way it should. In Germany, a child is ranked in terms of scholastic ability at the age of 10 and then set on one of three different academic tracks. In Japan and Korea, students spend elementary and junior high school preparing for tests that will determine which high school or college they will attend. Finland, on the other hand, tries to downplay competition in its public schools.

The relevance of such a conclusion is undermined by the fact that the three educators, as well as many of the industrialized countries themselves, responded to the PISA results as would parents whose own child didn’t do as well as expected on an exam: What should we do to make sure our kid scores better next time?

Sunday night’s two-hour debate hit closer to home. The topic was the educational component of the Koizumi administration’s new economic zones. The idea is to devolve some educational functions, such as hiring teachers and curriculum development, to the local level. In addition to two showbiz personalities — one a singer with six children, the other a young female idol who said she was the victim of bullying in her youth — the panelists included two university professors and a gently patronizing representative of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. Reportedly, the ministry is not too crazy about Koizumi’s “experimental” system since it will weaken its heretofore unassailable power in dictating educational policy.

Fundamentally, however, the system adheres to the philosophy of the ministry, which the representative characterized as creating “resources for society.” According to the economic zone plan, regional governments are allowed to make changes in public schools to “stimulate their local economies.”

The program looked at a handful of local proposals that have been approved so far by the government, including a school in Ota that will provide classes completely taught in English. Originally, the mayor said that Ota, which is a major industrial center, will require a more internationalized workforce, but so far such schools have been magnets for well-to-do parents from all over Japan who think their kids will have an edge if they attend an English-language public school. This development was unexpected, but not unwelcome. The mayor says the school will also help meet “parents’ needs.”

Indeed, the main impression one got from the debate is that the educational reforms the Koizumi administration is considering are market-driven. Japan already has a huge education industry that extends beyond private schools to juku (cram schools), technical schools, and publishing. Part of the reforms involves giving accreditation to schools run by private companies, a move that the administration claims will give parents “more choices.”

“But will the students be happier?” was the singer’s contribution to the debate. The most dramatic aspect of the education crisis in Japan is not falling international test scores, but rather classroom chaos and truancy, which has been rising as skilled jobs move overseas and the educated workforce becomes more redundant. This relationship seems obvious, even if the solution isn’t. So far, the government deems it necessary to complicate the system further, or, even worse, make it more “morally” stringent — i.e., the controversial Liberal Democratic Party plans to foster patriotism by mandate. Universal education has, in a sense, come full circle, only now it’s the students who need to be liberated from suffering.