In June 2015, the education ministry sent shock waves through Japan’s academic humanities community when it issued a notice urging national universities to restructure their humanities departments and shift their focus to fields that have greater social demand.
Since then, the value of humanities studies at state-funded institutions has been a hotly debated topic, with some questioning the need for such classes in the modern age.
But Karen O’Brien, head of the humanities division at the prestigious University of Oxford, said that such studies are indispensable and play crucial roles in today’s society.
“Humanities is fundamental to understanding in a really deep way who we are, how we have come to be who we are, and to think really deeply about how we address the practical, ethical and historical problems in the modern age,” O’Brien said during a recent interview in Tokyo, where she was on a visit to promote Oxford to Japanese students as well as to meet its alumni.
“Without a scholarly humanities perspective on all of those issues, we run the risk of going into accelerating future and technologies … without that deeper understanding and awareness,” she said.
Skepticism about the meaning of humanities studies in the modern age, however, is not all bad, as it challenges the humanities community to articulate more fully who they are and how their studies work, O’Brien said.
In Japan, national universities have curbed the overall capacity of their humanities and social science departments in recent years, even though such academic pursuits have been increasingly popular with students. Instead the institutions are beefing up departments collectively known as rikei, including science, engineering and agriculture, according to a data by the education ministry.
The number of seats in humanities and social science courses at national universities declined 1,064 in fiscal 2017 compared with the previous year, while capacity rose by 267 for rikei courses during the same period, the education ministry data showed.
Slots for new programs such as courses that integrate elements of science and humanities also increased by 300 in fiscal 2017, it said.
While acknowledging the importance of medical and scientific research, O’Brien said without humanities’ perspectives the findings of such research can be less effective.
As an example, she cited the case of doctors treating the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa that benefited enormously from the deep cultural knowledge of historians and specialists of the regions.
“They were able to make their medical intervention more effective because there were understandings of the local culture and conditions,” O’Brien said
In Britain, there are hedge fund managers in investment banks who specifically recruit humanities graduates, as the firms value the diverse skills the candidates possess, O’Brien noted.
According to a report the British university published in 2013, examining the career history of 11,000 Oxford graduates of English, history, philosophy, classics and modern languages, 16-20 percent of alumni were employed in the key economic growth sectors of finance, media, legal services and management.
“I think the evidence is that doing humanities at Oxford is not a barrier to career success,” O’Brien said. “They have the confidence behind them … because they have done something in depth that is really rigorous.”
Such confidence in part is developed through Oxford’s tutorial system, she said.
At the university, where currently around 100 Japanese students are enrolled, all students participate in discussion seminars in very small groups of two or three students led by a tutor.
Through the process of talking in-depth about their ideas and opinions, they find their own voice and gain confidence to speak and debate, she said.
“We are very committed to that. And we are very committed to supporting students to find their voice,” O’Brien said.
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