The Central Council for Education, an advisory body for the education minister, has submitted a report calling for upgrading moral education to an official school subject. The education ministry will soon start preparations to introduce it on a par with traditional subjects like Japanese, mathematics, social studies and science at elementary schools and junior high schools, beginning in fiscal 2018 and 2019. But treating moral education as a formal subject in the curriculum will entail various problems, given that it deals with matters closely related to children’s ways of thinking and attitudes. The danger of the state seeking to instill in them controversial values cannot be ruled out.

Moral education has been taught to schoolchildren since 1958 as an informal subject. There are no official textbooks, and teachers do not grade students. Usually one class a week is dedicated to moral education. Upgrading moral education to a formal subject will require the use of textbooks and some form of grading such as written evaluations that enter students’ permanent record.

The education ministry will soon begin working out the standards for screening textbooks in moral education. The screening, in accordance with the ministry’s standards, raises the prospect of values preferred by the government finding their way into the textbooks.

In the report the council says that since moral education plays an important role not only in helping children realize a better life for themselves but also in ensuring sustainable development of the Japanese state and society, it should form the core of school education. Since moral education is currently given as an informal subject, there are huge gaps among schools and among teachers on how to teach it to children, says the council, which also emphasizes the importance of moral education in light of the persistent problem of bullying at schools.

In its report, the council calls for nurturing children’s ability to face diverse and sometimes conflicting values, to think autonomously and to engage in dialogue and to cooperate with others for the betterment of individuals’ lives and society. It also states that imposing certain values on students or teaching them to blindly follow what others have told them without thinking independently runs counter to the goal of moral education.

One wonders how these notions can be upheld in the moral education plan using textbooks that must follow instructions included in the ministry’s screening standards.

The ministry itself will likely face difficulties in working out the standards. If it writes detailed standards, it will become more likely that certain viewpoints held by those in power will be reflected in them. If it adopts loosely written standards in an attempt to avert imposing specific values on children, then a situation may crop up in which certain textbooks contain extreme views. These are problems inherent in the decision to treat moral education as a formal subject.

The council says that in the moral education plan teachers will not give formal grades to students but they will write notes to describe what each student has accomplished in classes and how much the student has developed from the viewpoint of moral education. Assessments of junior high students are already used as reference materials by many senior high schools in the entrance selection process.

The main point of moral education should be to cultivate in children an ability to consider what behavior they should display in a given situation, how they should think, what kind of life they should live, and what values they should embrace. How is it possible to fairly evaluate students in this type of class? Some students may try to be on their best behavior in front of teachers and merely voice opinions that please them or conform to what is written in textbooks to get better assessments, rather than conduct themselves more honestly.

The council’s report in part suggests a need to teach children information morality and bioethics — issues that they will encounter in contemporary society. But the latest move on moral education cannot be separated from a revision of the Fundamental Law of Education carried out in 2006 when Shinzo Abe was in his first stint as prime minister. Abe also attempted at that time to get the council to formalize moral education. The revised law calls for, among other things, nurturing in children respect for tradition and culture, and love of country and their native locale. The government can now reject textbooks that fail to conform to this provision of the law. Under the latest decision, moral education textbooks will be required to take up the topic of patriotism in one form or another.

In fact, supplementary teaching materials authored and issued by the education ministry that started to be used in moral education classes from April teach third graders and students in upper grades the importance of Japanese culture and traditions as well as love of country.

The moral education plan will most likely follow the same lines. There is a good chance that the type of patriotism favored by the government might be instilled into children. This should be avoided. Instead, children should be taught that there are different ways for people to love their country.

The moral education that was taught to schoolchildren until the end of World War II served as a vehicle to instill the ideology of militarism based on emperor warship. Japan should not repeat the mistake of leading the nation in the wrong direction by trying to infuse citizens with a uniform ideology.

Instead of trying to impose certain ideologies, Japan should pursue education that helps nurture personal autonomy and independence and encourages children to critically look at and consider events and actions — including those of the government — and to cooperate with others to improve the society’s wellbeing.

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