Abe’s ill-conceived university policy

Last month Education minister Hakubun Shimomura issued a notice to all 86 national universities instructing them to make a draft for reforms over a six-year period beginning in fiscal 2016. It specifically asked them to scrap departments and courses devoted to humanities and social sciences, or shift resources more to areas “for which society has strong needs.” This reflects an idea contained in the latest version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic growth strategy, which says that an important role of national universities is “to build a system to produce human resources that match the needs of society by accurately grasping changes in industrial structure and employment needs.”

The education minister’s move, which reflects his failure to understand the important role played by humanities and social sciences, will weaken the power of intellect not only of those universities but also the nation as a whole. The education minister should change his basic thinking.

In his keynote speech to the council meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in May 2014, Abe said, “Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.” The education minister’s notice follows this idea. He seems to have forgotten that one of the important missions of universities is to enrich students’ understanding of human culture and nurture their ability to think critically through the study of humanities and social sciences.

Pursuing studies of humanities and social sciences may not produce quick economic results. But shunning them risks producing people who are only interested in the narrow fields of their majors. Studies of literature, history, philosophy and social sciences are indispensable in creating people who can view developments in society and politics with a critical eye. In this sense, Shimomura’s move may be interpreted as an attempt by the government to produce people who accept what it does without criticism. Abe, Shimomura and education ministry officials should realize that a decline in the study of humanities and social sciences will likely hamper the growth of creative work even in the fields of technology. They should heed what Steve Jobs said when he launched the iPad2 tablet computer in 2011: “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

The education ministry plans to monitor the progress of the national universities in enacting their reforms and allocate government subsidies to them accordingly. In addition, government subsidies to the national universities, which account for about 45 percent of the combined revenue of those institutions, have been reduced by roughly 1 percent annually in recent years. The education ministry’s notice will lead some universities, especially those on a weak financial footing, to abolish or scale down humanities and social sciences departments and courses.

Shimomura’s notice is the government’s latest attempt to intervene in the affairs of national universities. Law revisions in 2014 made it possible for outside members of a national university’s management council to select its president and make important decisions, ignoring the will of university instructors. In mid-June, Shimomura asked national universities to display the Hinomaru national flag and sing the Kimigayo national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies.

The education ministry should refrain from any moves that suppress the academic freedom and autonomy of national universities. It should remember that the primary purpose of universities is to provide students with a well-rounded education that helps them become more insightful citizens.

  • Liars N. Fools

    The beautiful people who populate the beautiful country should not contemplate abstract concepts such as beauty and truth and dignity. That is what Shimomura and Abe are preaching. This is a life or death culture war, and I hope that the vast majority of Japanese stand up against the Abe-Shimomura attempt to strip away the broad ethos that make up Japanese culture to replace it with the obedient economic animals that the current LDP leaders want to impose.

  • isat2015

    LDP attempt to take control everywhere, from the media… to the university.

  • Starviking

    Studies of literature, history, philosophy and social sciences are indispensable in creating people who can view developments in society and politics with a critical eye.

    But the converse cannot be said to be true: we have many people who are educated in history and the social sciences who cannot view scientific, medical or technical developments in society. Sadly, they still have a critical eye – but it produces false images like “vaccines cause autism”, “let’s fight climate change by closing nuclear power plants”, and “If we have the will we can achieve anything”.

  • Sam Gilman

    Personally, I’m skeptical of the view that the humanities possess some special magic formula for critical thinking in general, or that humanities graduates are somehow more rounded, more able to process politics (unless they’re directly a politics or economics graduate) and that society will in some ill-defined way lose out some time in the future. I find this a very wishy-washy and defensive standpoint, and self-defeating. It buys into the myth that the skills these disciplines provide have no direct economic value.

    There are clearly modes of thinking and particular skills that humanities and social science graduates are typically rather more experienced in, knowledgeable about or generally better at and which plainly have an important role in business: communication (both inside and outside the organisation), design, foreign languages and cultures (for overseas business), handling ambiguous information, interpretation of social data, conceptual analysis, multi-level explanation, human resource management and so on. Many of these require not just a few days’ training course, but sustained interest in human expression, aesthetics, historical patterns, psychology, social organisation, the construction of narrative, and so on for innovation to occur in these areas.

    The bigger problem is that when the humanities and social sciences are under attack like this, a stronger and more robust defence of them as directly economically valuable is not made. Just as scientists need to communicate better with the public to explain their work, social scientists and humanities academics do need more precisely and more concretely to make their case for how their studies and the skills they develop – even in something as esoteric as, say, ancient Babylonian – can help people provide direct value to organisations, rather than appeals to general values of civilisation that actually, a lot of science graduates are just as fluent in.

  • tomado

    What a bore and what a drag. Another depressing indicator of humanity’s slide backward and Japan’s increasingly dour conception of life. So sad. And people will accept this as they get enough stimulation from video games. Who needs philosophy, law, literature and art, right?