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Established in 1953 in Mitaka, Tokyo, International Christian University (ICU) is one of the few universities in Japan to have a College of Liberal Arts, and it has focused on liberal arts education since its founding. Classroom buildings and facilities are located on a wooded campus of about 620,000 square meters. Despite its campus size, what makes ICU unique is its relatively small number of students — each year is comprised of just over 600 students — making it possible to have small group learning.

The Japan Times interviewed ICU President Shoichiro Iwakiri and Chair of the ICU Board of Trustees Hirotaka Takeuchi on Aug. 5 to discuss ICU’s role in education in the time of globalization, along with other topics.

The following is an edited excerpt of the interview.

College of Liberal Arts

Question: Why does ICU have only a College of Liberal Arts in the first place?

Iwakiri: In the wake of the disastrous state caused by World War II, there was a need to create an educational system for the coming new era in Japan. Universities had dedicated too much to specialized fields, failing to view the big picture and lacking critical thinking or dialogues.

Reflecting on this situation, ICU was established in 1953 featuring liberal arts education from a broader perspective, in which students can learn professional areas as well.

In the years since, other universities have also created similar-minded departments, but how ICU differs from others is that we only have the College of Liberal Arts. Ours was modeled after American liberal arts colleges.

We have 31 majors in the Division of Arts and Sciences, and students advance their studies to their specialized field from their junior year. Unlike most universities, where students are committed to a major from their first year, our system enables students to choose their major later.

Takeuchi: A key phrase is “remorse over the past.” In Japan, diverse opinions were totally removed heading to the war. When the Japan ICU Foundation (independent educational foundation) was launched in the U.S., the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh memories for American Christians. So, ICU was established with a concept of being the “University of Tomorrow.”

Additionally, liberal arts education creates an individual’s foundation. In the U.S., there are many small liberal arts colleges and the reason students go to such schools is to acquire the foundation necessary for their lives. The same goes for students attending ICU.

Question: Another unique feature of this university is small group education; what are some of the advantages of it?

Iwakiri: Dialogue and critical thinking are central to ICU’s educational foundation. Large group education is not conducive to them.

Question: ICU is the only Japanese university that is a member of The Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), comprised of 30 colleges from 18 countries. Could you tell us about it?

Iwakiri: ICU joined GLAA in 2014. The alliance focuses on education itself, namely how to enhance education, through the sharing of educational systems and contents. An advantage of being a member is to complement connections with universities in Asia and Africa, where we are not that active compared to other regions.

What we are working on through this initiative is to create joint courses with universities abroad via online connections. Next year, a joint class is scheduled to start with a university in Pakistan.

Question: Globalization progresses in various aspects, which includes the globalization of issues. How can ICU’s liberal arts education make a contribution in this age and the future, as well as in nurturing people?

Iwakiri: After the coronavirus pandemic, some people argue how society will change, but a much larger issue is to find out where the whole world and globe is heading and overcome crises globally.

Of course, our university needs to address the ongoing coronavirus situation. But at the same time, from a larger viewpoint, global-scale issues can be broken down as local issues at the level of the individual. We would like to nurture individuals who can think about those global and local issues simultaneously and correctly determine the direction the world should head in.

Question: Is liberal arts education essential to such a goal?

Iwakiri: Indeed, it is. For example, look at environmental issues. Knowledge of natural sciences is, of course, necessary, but that of law and social sciences is also required to solve it. At the same time, philosophical questions such as people’s place in nature need to be considered, so various knowledge and experiences are essential. That’s where thinking and actions based on the ideas out of liberal arts education come in.

Takeuchi: I think the presence of ICU in Japan matters very much. The country has adopted and developed the Shinto notion of living with nature, with an emphasis on “inclusivity.” ICU, founded in Japan in the spirit of Christianity, has incorporated this idea and diversity has taken root over our nearly 70 years of history.

Classes under coronavirus

Question: Apparently ICU was one of the first universities in Japan to decide in mid-March on transitioning online across the board for classes starting in April. Could you share the reason and some of the relevant measures?

Iwakiri: Initially we had a wide range of options, including delaying the start of the spring semester. But we thought preparing for the worst-case scenario would work best, so we decided to conduct all classes online without any delay in the university calendar.

After the semester, we found many positive aspects. For instance, there was a class on environmental studies and it dealt with an archaeological excavation site of the Jomon Period (10,000 to 200 B.C.) on the campus grounds. If it were a conventional class, it would had been difficult for all students to go and see the location at the same time, but this time students were able to see a live report by a professor from the site online. This would not have come up if we didn’t have the coronavirus situation.

Additionally, we managed to have professionals and famous figures abroad conduct lectures online with relative ease. If we have a proper network, such lectures are feasible.

So, we have found greater possibilities from our trials.

Question: What are your ideas on combining both online and face-to-face instruction?

Iwakiri: Basically, we already decided to conduct classes with 60 or more students online. Small and midsized classes can be taught either online or face to face in a classroom. We call this mode of instruction hybrid.

Question: We are not sure yet how the situation will turn out in the future. Could you let us know some of the measures that ICU is planning, be it short, medium or longer term?

Iwakiri: This coronavirus pandemic has created a situation where there is less contact, but what lies in the essence of ICU’s education is to have people-to-people contact. We also have the philosophy of coexisting with nature on our large wooded campus.

Experiencing life at this campus is extremely important in the four years of college. Students actually absorb many things through their senses as they study and learn on campus. We would like to continue nurturing this environment so that students can experience something in common.

Having said that, we also seek to incorporate technology for the betterment of our educational system, since we found new potential in responding to the pandemic.

Takeuchi: People in the world have paid much attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Some think liberal arts and STEM are totally different, and the typical Japanese way of thinking is to divide humanities and sciences. But these are misunderstandings and I think STEM is definitely part of a liberal arts education.

At ICU, a new building dedicated to STEM education will be completed in 2022. This is something the university is undertaking in advance of the times. The facility will enable students to experience the latest technology and knowledge, where sciences and humanities meet each other. This kind of fusion would not be possible outside of a liberal arts college.

Iwakiri: It will be completed around August 2022. The plan is for the building to house laboratories of natural sciences and research offices of humanities and social sciences. There will be an exchange space on the first floor, and regular classes in a large classroom in this arts and sciences integrated facility.

We also plan to make laboratories relatively transparent by installing windows so that students from non-science areas of study can look at the experiments in person. We would like the whole space here to be somewhere students can feel close to science.

ICU’s roles in the world

Question: We’d like to hear what kind of roles ICU can play in Japan and the world in the future. Could you share some of your ideas and hopes?

Iwakiri: The phrase “new normal” is often used when describing the post-pandemic world. Before the pandemic, however, the world was still grappling with serious problems, including environmental pollution, intensifying global warming and climate change, and growing disparity. In a sense, the “old normal” was full of abnormalities, as Mr. Antonio Gutteres, the secretary general of the United Nations pointed out. Old or new, what is normal should be redefined.

We want to educate people who can see the direction that we should move in and make contributions to overcoming crises, or be a place where this kind of thinking can occur. This is why liberal arts education is so important—to develop people’s knowledge and critical thinking skills across a wide range of academic disciplines so that they can engage in problem-solving with a multifaceted understanding of the world.

Takeuchi: This will make it possible to deliver the innovative and creative solutions that will allow us to “build it back better,” in the words of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Iwakiri: What Takeuchi mentioned earlier, the “University of Tomorrow,” precisely describes the state of ICU. I personally believe tomorrow’s world will be better than that of today. Whatever happens in society, the university and academics will further advance to a higher stage. As long as the university functions, our mission is to understand human beings, society and nature deeper through education.

During their studies at ICU, I hope students take in the concept of diversity and become people who are open-minded to the world.

Takeuchi: As my field of study is management practices, let me first paraphrase what Peter Drucker said 50 years ago, “You cannot predict the future, but you can make the future.” As we now understand from the coronavirus pandemic, nobody is able to predict the future. But we can make it, and what kind of future are we going to create? It’s indeed a better future, as Iwakiri said. I believe ICU can contribute to creating a better future.

For more information on the university, visit https://www.icu.ac.jp/en/ .

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