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This is an open letter to education minister Masaharu Nakagawa:

For many of us in developed nations such as Japan, the current reality offers many choices for consumers: countless bento boxes at train stations, legions of handsets for cell- and smart-phone users at retail outlets, and the many options that students have in selecting a university.

Yet, in 2011, 18-year-old students in Japan are not able to change their majors once they start their lives at a university (except on the very rare occasion when there’s an opening in the department into which the student wishes to transfer).

The main reason I have heard in support of this archaic system is that each department or faculty (as opposed to the institution itself) must account for the number of students enrolled.

Yet, what do we get in the end? Companies and organizations that hire new graduates have expressed concerns about “mismatches” (the gap between student qualifications and the demands of today’s workplace).

Now, how can anyone expect a 16- or 17-year-old (the age at which students apply to universities) to know exactly what they wish to study after being raised in an educational system that, for the most part, has focused on university entrance examinations — memorization of information — instead of on learning about who they are as well as about the community and the world they live in?

In other developed nations, particularly in the West, college students have a couple of years to take a variety of classes, explore their interests and then determine their major, without causing a delay in their graduation schedule.

In the grander scheme of life and learning, is that not what a university is — a place to learn through trial and error and to develop a personal foundation before being thrust into the workforce where the stakes increase exponentially? Aristotle said that knowing oneself is the beginning of all wisdom.

If the current K-12 educational system is primarily focused on getting the student into the next thing, and institutions at the tertiary level are handcuffed with rigid administrative policies that don’t allow for human development to take place, just where are growth and discovery supposed to happen?

Might not this administrative rigidity contribute to the high rates of depression in the workplace, and ultimately to the high suicide rates in Japan?

In this regard, may I suggest using some Western universities as a model for transforming the current system, so that college students are able to freely explore their intellectual curiosities before focusing their interests after the second year and preparing to enter the workforce. This could redress the “mismatch” problem that companies are experiencing, and thus enable them to hire new graduates who are more passionate, engaged and productive.

Is this outcome not a priority for educational policymakers?

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

go yoshida

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