A liberal arts model in Japan

In reply to Victoria Miroshnik’s Oct. 24 letter, “Future of liberal arts education,” generally her observations are correct, although a further comment is required. As a tutor in liberal arts studies with 20-plus years as such, I should state that yes, sometimes, when pressed for time or wishing to get things straight, one turns to Wikipedia, which is a godsend as a resource. Obviously, as Miroshnik referred to it too, it is meeting its goals. It should be recognized that Wikipedia is a product of the liberal arts mindset, a very good example and deserving of the donations it receives.

To the assertion that “In Japan private universities … teaching liberal arts are in great danger of financial collapse,” I can offer a contradiction. Presently I tutor at such an institution in Japan, one that is based on the traditional liberal arts model. Far from struggling to survive, it seems to be going from strength to strength as a new campus, a faculty of law, was opened last April.

However, it is true that “liberal arts” courses today are a mishmash of competing disciplines and ideologies. It is no wonder that students are confused, disillusioned and have lost interest in the liberal arts — generally speaking.

The course that I tutor is “Neo-Liberal Arts” studies for students of English as a foreign language, but also includes a mandatory course for students of art history and design. This course is solidly based on the classical trivium and Aristotle, the ethics, prior analytics and rhetoric. However, it has been expanded to a “meta-trivium” with regards to topics, etc.

A recent survey I did of 120 first-year students asked a simple question: “Why do we study what we study?” About 40 percent of students mentioned concerns over jobs and their future. Around 58 percent said that they wanted to develop their character so as to be a good parent, or to make the most of their lives. Of this group, 15 percent stated that they enjoyed studying and wished to study forever. Those concerned about jobs also stated that they needed knowledge and experience so as to have something to offer a prospective employer.

In sum, my only difficulties are in trying to keep up with over-productive students, but if it just comes down to jobs, well yes, I am now defending my job.

geoffry hinton

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.

  • tomado

    Japanese students don’t have much time to be interested in anything. That’s the way it is by design. Japanese University education is not about developing an interest in anything and is not well suited to this discussion. The goal here is to get students to practice submission – to make sure that they adhere to a rigorously robotic lifestyle. The best thing to do is to fight for one’s job and salary, along with trying to help those students who are interested to find an avenue of escape into the international arena. Whether the system changes is up to the next generation of parents and business leaders. If influential Japanese people in the future feel it’s absolutely necessary for students to have a chance at being able to think freely and critically or to mix with international students and teachers, then things may change. It’s a big if and it’s a long way off. Until then this conversation is beside the point.

    • Christopher-trier

      For what it’s worth, there is at least a growing debate about this in Japan and as social problems are growing critical mass will eventually be met. The rigidity and high demands put on the Japanese people are only sustainable so long as something tangible is returned, and increasingly, it is not being returned. By temperament Japan would, however, be well advised to look at Scandinavia for a few ideas.

      • tomado

        I hope you are right. My optimism is waning. We’ll see what various significant societal pressures produce over the next twenty or thirty years. As Stimpy said, “maybe something good; maybe something bad.”