The government’s panel on improving Japan’s education system has decided to have the government make morals a regular subject in schools. The Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and chaired by Kaoru Kamata, president of Waseda University, intends to advise setting up regular formal classes in morals.

The panel is calling for making morals a regular subject by 2018. It wants to increase the hours devoted to morals by making them a regular subject.

Although the panel’s announcement stressed the need to halt bullying in schools, its proposal sounds instead like an attempt to instill a nationalistic spirit in students in addition to the goal of creating a better school environment.

There is no doubt that students would benefit from instruction in morality that emphasizes concern for others and ethical reasoning. It would help to reduce occurences of bullying, for example. But problems arise in determining what content, teaching methods, textbooks and assessment of results are appropriate.

Authorizing textbooks is already a contentious issue. The education ministry is not likely to suddenly become more flexible for the subject area of morals. Just the opposite, an even more dogmatic selection of textbooks for the subject is the most likely scenario. The textbooks would be one more way for the government to impose a rigid set of values on children before they are capable of moral reasoning on their own.

The issue of how students should respond to what is taught is also a difficult one. Traditional methods of assessment stressing single, right answers might be fine for basic mathematics, but in the grayer area of morality, answers can be right for many reasons. In morality, the same reasoning can result in diverse yet equally valid answers.

It is doubtful the classes would allow more than one answer, especially if it differs from the government-approved one.

Japanese students could certainly use a higher level of awareness of the complexities of morality. Students should be encouraged to develop social awareness, self-knowledge and ethical thought, but there are many ways of achieving those goals.

Teaching real morality could best be accomplished through elective classes taught to older students who are able to think for themselves and understand more complex ideas.

The imposition of morals through state-imposed educational requirements has a long history in many countries. Indeed, the main way of fostering loyalty to the Imperial system in prewar Japan was through morals instruction in primary education. Given the historical results due to its focus on unquestioning obedience to authority, that approach should be left in the past.

Perhaps a class on morality could be required for elected government officials instead? It is never too late to learn.