Commentary / Japan

Reforming education for Society 5.0

by Takamitsu Sawa


Society 5.0 is the name the government has given to a new society to be brought about by progress in such technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, self-driving vehicles and the internet of things. If such a naming is to be accepted, it is logical to assume that there existed in human history societies 1.0 through 4.0. They were, in chronological order, the hunting society, farming society, industrial society and the information society. Today we live in the information society, but the transition to Society 5.0 is just around the corner.

In Society 5.0, remote medical services, automatic translation that removes language barriers, AI and robots supporting the elderly or people with disabilities, autonomous driving technology assisting elderly drivers, and real-time access to necessary information are expected to eliminate problems arising from social disparities, according to the Cabinet Office.

At least in the Cabinet Office’s view, Society 5.0 can be interpreted as a utopia that will simultaneously achieve both economic development and resolve various social problems. While I do not fully agree with this view, let’s assume that we accept it at face value.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology created a panel of representatives from industrial and academic circles to discuss measures to reform university education and entrance exams in preparation for the arrival of Society 5.0. In April, the panel released an interim report and proposal jointly by its members. To sum it up, the report emphasizes the need for nurturing human resources well-versed in AI and data sciences, and also calls for improving liberal arts education.

Until several years ago, reports coming from the education ministry seemed to consider liberal arts as being synonymous with philosophy and ethics. But the latest report deepens and expands the meaning of liberal arts by saying that today’s liberal arts education aims at improving students’ ability to think logically and form normative judgments — through the study of a broad range of subjects like humanities, social sciences and natural sciences — so that they acquire basic skills in identifying and resolving problems, and devising and designing social systems.

In 1949, four years after the end of World War II, the Allied occupation forces introduced to Japan a “6-3-3-4” education system consisting of six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of senior high school and four years of university.

The four years at university were divided into the first one to two years of studying under a general education curriculum and the last two to three years of concentrating on specialized subjects. The general education curriculum, which was compulsory, required students to study one foreign language other than English and three subjects each in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

In the United States, university students freely select subjects they want to study in their freshman and sophomore years. From the latter half of their sophomore year to the first half of their junior year, they decide on their major and minor subjects, and narrow down subjects for basic study in specialized fields in accordance with their future professional aspirations, aptitude and competence.

Only after completing their liberal arts education and study of basics in specialized fields in their undergraduate years do they advance to professional or academic graduate schools to receive training in such specialized fields as jurisprudence, medical science, business administration and engineering.

Japan’s postwar education reform was modeled after the U.S. system. But, strangely enough, the new system retained the practices at universities under the old education system, under which students select the department where they will study when they first enroll. This means that while belonging to a particular department, each student must study both the basics of specialized subjects and purely specialized subjects during their four years. It is next to impossible to have students receive a liberal arts education while they pursue subjects in specialized fields.

As a result, liberal arts education at Japanese universities became a dead letter. Both teachers and students lack enthusiasm for the 48 credits of study in subjects covered by general education, which includes foreign languages and physical education — more than one-third the total of 124 credits needed for graduation. Thus general education has effectively become a waste of time.

This led the education ministry in 1991 to adopt a new set of standards for establishing and administering universities, the crux of which was the liberalization of university education. Not only the requirement to earn a certain number of credits in general education but also the requirement to learn a second foreign language was eliminated. Many universities chose to halve the number of credits students have to earn in general education or to reduce it.

In liberal arts education of humanities and social sciences at U.S. universities, students are given assignments to read the major literary classics of Western civilization and teachers and students engage in two-way discussions in the classroom.

The books that the students are required to read in preparation for classroom discussions include “Apology of Socrates,” “The Republic” by Plato, “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle, “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli, “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, “Utilitarianism” and “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” by Thomas S. Kuhn, “Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville and “The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

On the other hand, liberal arts education as envisaged by the education ministry panel’s interim report appears to aim at making students study a variety of sciences using introductory textbooks widely and shallowly, and gain broad knowledge and the ability to think from diverse standpoints.

This way of educating students may serve to produce people with wide knowledge but can hardly be expected to enable students to enhance their ability to think logically, and to form normative judgments and acquire fundamental capabilities to identify and resolve problems or to conceive and design social systems.

It will be impossible to nurture human resources suitable for Society 5.0 unless drastic curriculum reforms are carried out to make universities an arena for a liberal arts education and the study of basics in specialized fields, and leave advanced studies of specialized subjects in the hands of graduate schools.

Takamitsu Sawa is vice director of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture.