Leave those kids alone

An experts’ panel of the education ministry on Dec. 26 recommended that the ministry upgrade a current morals class, which is conducted without textbooks, to an officially designated subject and screen textbooks to be used for the subject. The ministry will introduce the subject of morals in fiscal 2015 at the earliest.

Teaching morals as a subject carries the danger of instilling a subjective set of values on children and preventing them from thinking autonomously in coping with particular situations. The move by the ministry is another blatant move by the Abe administration to increase political intervention in education.

At present, a morals class is held once a week at elementary and junior high schools for a total of 35 times a year. Although the course of study covers moral education, the current class of morals is not treated as a subject but as part of overall education activities. Therefore, students are not evaluated or given a grade.

Under the plan recommended by the panel, once the subject of morals is introduced, teachers will have to use textbooks approved by education ministry screening. They’ll evaluate students’ attitude and eagerness to learn — not by giving marks but in narrative form.

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura said that moral education is important to nurture in children normative consciousness, self-affirmation, sociality and compassion. But how can the ministry set a guideline for screening textbooks in a field related to the ethical question of how people should feel, think and act in particular situations they encounter?

There is a great danger that the guideline will emphasize a conservative, regressive set of values and impose them on children. Under such a situation, the spirit of conformism, fueled in part by peer pressure, could strengthen among children, leading them to think and behave in ways that the government thinks are desirable.

If a textbook is used for moral education, children will be deprived of a chance to think freely and critically in coping with the problems they face in their real life.

Since the revised fundamental law of education calls for nurturing a love for the nation and one’s native place, there is a possibility that the government will strive to instill a sense of nationalistic patriotism in children.

The need for teachers to evaluate students will also cause problems. Teachers may be forced to evaluate students’ attitudes in accordance with a rigid set of criteria. This could lead to suppression of children’s freedom of thought and conscience.

Moral behavior such as compassion and thoughtfulness toward others can be nurtured only through real experience, not through the study of a textbook. The most important thing is to increase the chances in which children can encounter various kinds of people and situations so that they can learn through real life experiences how to think and behave in a morally correct manner.

Even under the first Abe administration, which had the Diet revise the fundamental law of education in 2006, the Central Council for Education opposed turning moral education into a subject by pointing out that using textbooks and giving marks to children would cause difficulties. With this precedent in mind, the education ministry should place top priority on ensuring that the nation’s children are educated in the best way possible and oppose the Abe administration’s move to politicize the teaching of morals.

  • There is undoubtedly a threat posed by ‘morals education’ in Japan, but its hard to believe such a threat is not already overtly present given the collective ‘personal renunciation’ instilled in Japanese life. So Japan is languishing; but for indignant Abe, people need a nobler cause. Will he ever permit such standards to be challenged? After all, in few other countries in the world can you find workers running to catch a train at 6am in the morning when another will come in 3-5 minutes.

  • “Teaching morals as a subject carries the danger of instilling a
    subjective set of values on children and preventing them from thinking
    autonomously in coping with particular situations.”

    And how might the structure and content of a curriculum that focuses on “working hard” to “memorize facts” also prevent children from thinking autonomously?

    “…the education ministry should place top priority on ensuring that the
    nation’s children are educated in the best way possible and oppose the
    Abe administration’s move to politicize the teaching of morals.”

    It already is politicized. The nature of the system itself ensures it. This should not be surprising to anyone.

    Children who are in elementary school and junior high school should not be having these classes at all. Their conceptual capacity is not developed enough to deal with abstract discussions of ethics. As the editorial correctly suggests, experience is also necessary. Understanding these pre-requisites means that any kind of “morals” class at those ages constitutes indoctrination, regardless of the content.

    How students feel punished or judged by the world around them shapes how they feel about ethics, before they even know what the word means. The policies of the school and when social shaming and discipline is invoked by parents and teachers does far more than an explicit study of ideas would at that age.

    Moreover, morality is often implicit in the study of other subjects. The subject of History, before it was modernized (regressed) into “social studies” was full of the examinations of historical characters and their values, motives, their method of thought and way of making decisions. Studying as such, no only was the study of what really has occurred, but also the study of what truly gives a reason to study history in the first place: to allows us to make better decisions in the future.

    A proper study of history allows students to consider whether or not they agreed with the actions the person took, especially as we can see the consequences of the life that person lived. Studying fiction does the same thing. The study of values and life here on earth has to begin more subtly. Probably until the their final year of high school, students are not prepared to be taught explicit philosophy, including ethics. Educators need to think more clearly about how to integrate this into their lessons, not to rigidly shove dogma of whatever kind in the sensitive minds of the students.

    • Mike Tyson Ironman

      Yes. You mean … some American kids think autonomously and shoot other kids dead in school.

      Teaching morals and thinking autonomously are two different things … just common sense.

  • Mike Tyson Ironman

    Unfortunately, most parents are incapable of teaching ethics to their own children …

    It is time that schools teach the children important basics they will eventually be expected to know. It is unfortunate, but it must be done.

    Back in pre-war days, there was “Shushin” class which taught children some important basic values. Crime rate in Japan was exceptionally low …

  • Anton Sevilla

    While I do not necessarily disagree with your overall point, I think we need to be careful about the presuppositions behind your arguments. There are three things that concern me: 1) a cultural imposition masquerading as “objectivity,” 2) a swift assumption that moral education is brainwashing, and 3) a questionable understanding of the idea of “education” itself. I am not saying that you are necessarily guilty of these, but I think we need to be very careful with your argumentation.

    For example:

    “Teaching morals as a subject carries the danger of instilling a subjective set of values on children and preventing them from thinking autonomously in coping with particular situations.”

    But is “autonomous thinking” an “objective set of values?” Autonomous thinking is a European enlightenment product that is heavily interwoven with individualism. It is not the only way to be moral! Many western thinkers like Durkheim and Hegel criticized this sort of thinking. Students shooting each other? Durkheim would call that anomie — the exact problem he had with excessively individualistic forms of morality.

    Not that I agree with collectivism, but we must not presume that individual autonomy necessarily and objectively outranks social cohesion — it doesn’t. If we impose our standards on Japan, Japan will not necessarily be better off because of it.

    Second, I think this article is a bit too careless with the assumption that moral education will necessarily result in children becoming drones. Education is hardly that conclusive a factor. Nietzsche was a product of a rigid Christian moral education, as were many people in older generations. Did that prevent philosophical atheism, consumerism, sexual liberalism, or what not in any way?

    Also, I wonder why you made very little reference to the content of these morality classes. Sure they can have a particular core idea. But in order to teach this core idea of a good citizen, how varied a syllabus will they have to come up with year after year? How many seeds for happy accidents in intellectual life might this sow? Even if they taught only nationalistic thought (and I doubt that), if you look at nationalistic thought in Japan, you will find that there is a surprising amount of variety and disagreement even within ultra-nationalist thinkers. This sort of variety and moral ambiguity are what confound the success of a “brain-washing curriculum” and plants seeds for even critical moral thinking.

    But in the end, I think the key problem here is your idea of education. Education is not a one-way process in which we program children. Many teachers wish it was that easy but it isn’t. At best, education provides the opportunities to raise particular questions.

    When I teach Kant, my students do not become Kantians. Half of them become anti-Kantian even. Because more than anything, teaching Kant gives them an opportunity to wonder where they stand vis-a-vis Kant.

    I am not saying that coercion cannot damage free thinking. But it will take a more total institution — education, media, economics, politics, family life — in order to get people to think in one fixed way.

    More than the fear that the ethics curriculum will be dangerous, I worry it will be ineffective. And like most things, it will be reduced to mere information to be regurgitated come exam time and quickly forgotten.

    I think it will be more productive if we make suggestions instead on how to make an ethics program that works in the right way. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Viva75

      Objective, extremely intelligent and insightful…I hope the author reads your comments