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Sawa Takamitsu, in his Jan. 24 article “More crucial than English,” makes a number of interesting points that have to do with research budgets and even the involvement of business people in deciding the course of studies at Japanese universities. While I agree with everything the author says regarding these points, particularly his opposition to turning universities into corporate training departments as has largely been accomplished in the United States, I fail to see how any of what he says leads to his conclusion.

I would also agree that sufficient background in the disciplines of the humanities is important for a number of reasons that the writer does not specify — not the least of which is the training they offer both in “critical thinking” and in thinking about what we in the West term the “gray areas.”

Students trained to think by means of mathematics tend to believe that every problem has a correct answer. Everything is either correct or mistaken. In the humanities, there are no certainties — no black, no white, just gray.

One learns to deal with uncertainty by researching problems, and developing a sufficient body of knowledge from which to form a reasonable conclusion. It is the kind of thinking that gives people confidence in dealing with uncertainty and taking the calculated risks that are so necessary in business, diplomacy, policymaking and scientific research.

It is my suspicion, although I have no way to prove it, that one reason Japan did so well economically after World War II was that it had large numbers of soldiers who had learned how to deal with uncertainty, and to improvise in the heat of battle. The successful entrepreneurial spirit fostered by war is a far cry from what we see today, in which young people trained to pass entrance exams are incapable of improvisation, risk-taking and applying what they know to solve problems that don’t have correct solutions.

My thinking is that the author’s concluding paragraph refers more to the old-fashioned notion that elites should have classical education, a shared knowledge that identifies them as members of that elite and enables them to operate comfortably in the elite context. However, I don’t see how one can conclude that such knowledge is more crucial than the ability to communicate it to other elites in the international arena.

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.

tim chambers

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