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At first glance, the interim report from the National Commission on Educational Reform, an advisory panel of the prime minister, appears cautious about revising the 1947 Fundamental Law on Education. In marked contrast to an earlier subcommittee report that explicitly supported a revision, the panel’s latest report, released last week, calls for a “broad public debate.” But there is no doubt that it is aiming at an eventual revision.

While acknowledging that “there is as yet no consensus on what specific changes should be made,” the report says: “In light of the fact that the law was enacted under different circumstances, some of the requirements have changed both in concept and practice. The majority opinion is that it should be revised according to need.”

The odd thing is that the commission is pushing for a revision without saying clearly what it is all about. Essentially, the report reflects Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s intentions. In his policy speech to the Diet, he called for a “deepening of the national debate” on the revision issue and said specific questions will be discussed at the Central Council for Education, which reports to the education minister.

It has been six months since the commission began discussing this issue, but so far the discussions have produced few substantive results. Its 26 members are still split over whether a revision is really necessary. Many contend that the law should be updated because it says nothing about such things as the state, tradition and respect for the family. Others maintain that what is more urgently needed is concrete action, not legislative change, to deal with immediate problems.

Should the law be revised? To answer this question would require an in-depth study of how it has worked or not worked up till now. There is no evidence, however, that the commission has undertaken such an analysis. The fact is that some of the principles established by the law, such as respect for individuals and local autonomy, have been neglected. In this sense, opponents of a revision are right to urge corrective action.

The basic law has been discussed only once at a plenary session of the commission. Yet Education Minister Hirofumi Nakasone announced that an agreement to amend it had been reached. The statement was a veiled form of political spin control designed to bring conflicting views quickly into line. It is not the right way to deal with education issues, which require a patient, cool-headed approach.

Mr. Mori’s appeal for educational reform comes at a time when the rise in serious juvenile crime is spreading social unease. In his Diet speech, Mr. Mori said education will be the most important issue facing next year’s ordinary Diet session. Perhaps he sees educational reform as an opportunity to boost his administration’s popularity. The danger is that a politically motivated debate without a sound analysis of the facts can only produce a political recipe for reform.

Questions must also be raised about some of the panel’s specific proposals. One is the suggestion that all public-school students should engage in “voluntary (community) activities” for a specific period each year — two weeks for elementary and junior high-school students and a month for senior high-school students. The implication is that such extracurricular activities would be obligatory for all practical purposes, since all students would be required to do community work.

It is true that today’s schoolchildren lack the ability to communicate. But this ability cannot be cultivated by forcing them to mix with their neighbors in the name of community service. What they need is voluntary social experience. Children find out more about themselves when they do what they like, on their own. They learn the importance of respecting social mores through free association with people. What is needed is a menu of options, not a set of obligatory programs.

A proposal to create a new rating system for teachers — one that would evaluate their motivations and efforts — also leaves many questions unanswered. The report says teachers who have had “a highly significant effect” would be rewarded in terms of “allowances and personnel measures.” It is not clear, however, how such effects would be measured. Moreover, this kind of individual rating system could undermine cooperation among teachers, depending on how they are evaluated.

Politicians tend to seek quick fixes for education problems, but there are no easy, sure-fire solutions for the manifold troubles that plague today’s children. Educational reform is best kept at a reasonable distance from political calculations. What is really needed now is an analytical debate with the focus on the realities of the parent-child relationship.

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