Commentary / Japan

Strong liberal arts education is key to success in Society 5.0

High school students nowadays are divided into two courses in their second year: humanities and natural sciences. The former group specializes in English, Japanese and social studies and the latter in English, mathematics and sciences.

In 1991, the education ministry — known for launching one “reform” after another — set new standards for establishing universities that drastically liberalized the education curriculum and, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the need for students to receive a basic general education. While these steps may have elevated the standards of specialized knowledge that students gain, there appears to have been a conspicuous decline in college graduates’ ability to think, make judgments and express themselves.

In a report titled “Proposals related to hiring of new graduates and university education” released in December 2018, Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) stated that the human resources needed in “Society 5.0,” where diverse sets of values merge together, will be required to “possess a broad educational background in ethics, philosophy, literature and history — collectively called liberal arts — and to have the ability to read and comprehend text and other information accurately, and to express precisely and explain logically their thoughts and intentions.”

Society 5.0 is a future society envisioned to follow the hunting (1.0), agrarian (2.0), industrial (3.0) and information (4.0) societies.

While I have no objection to the latter part of the message, I question the report’s definition of liberal arts. Liberal arts does not mean broad education and culture. Reading introductory books on subjects like ethics, philosophy, literature and history and listening to journalists’ lectures on politics and economics may make students “knowledgeable,” but would not contribute at all to improving their skills to think logically or to express themselves properly, as called for in the Keidanren report.

At universities in the United States, students are trained in liberal arts and the basics of specialized subjects in their first to second years, before they select their major and minor subjects of study. The syllabus of liberal arts curriculums contains a long list of classical works of Western civilization.

For example, the syllabus of the “Theory of Justice” by professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University requires that students read about 20 pages from his 432-page book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” for each of the 24 classes as well as to skim through, as side readers, one book per class from famous classics written by such prominent figures as John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.

Some of the unique features of the liberal arts education at U.S. universities include giving students heavy reading assignments; placing emphasis on debates in the classroom or on the weblog; and having students take frequent short tests in addition to the final exams at the end of each semester.

Should Japanese university students be trained to express their opinions logically by reading many books like their American counterparts, and to become capable of participating in discussions on the right thing to do — an issue that has been debated by prominent philosophers throughout history from the ancient Greek age to the present — there should be no difficulty in nurturing the human resources called for in the Keidanren report.

At Japanese universities, liberal arts education is defined as teaching a wide range of subjects in general, and in particular giving students majoring in natural sciences entry-level lectures in social sciences. Students are given little time to think on their own at these classes, which use lots of Power Point presentations.

Since students are not trained in debate, they can’t promptly express their opinions in response to questions from teachers. Many students find it difficult to express themselves either orally or in writing.

Ranking high on the Open Syllabus Explore, which lists the books appearing in the syllabuses of all universities in the U.S. by order of frequency, are such works as “The Republic” by Plato, “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle, “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes, “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli, and “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare.

It is unlikely that these Western classics can be readily comprehended by Japanese university students, who have not read anything other than textbooks and reference books.

Japanese would be amazed by the high standards of the questions in philosophy in the French “Baccalaureat” exams, which are common to all French universities and students finishing secondary education and aspiring to advance to higher education must pass them.

In short, it is mandatory for French high school students, and first- and second-year students at U.S. universities to receive training in skills for thinking, passing judgments and expressing themselves through the reading of Western classical works.

In Japan, students receive undergraduate or postgraduate diplomas and get jobs without ever having a full-fledged liberal arts education. The education ministry has decided that starting in academic year 2020, the common tests for entry into universities will include three descriptive questions each for the Japanese language and mathematics.

By no stretch of the imagination can this step serve to elevate students’ abilities to think, judge and express themselves, which French and American students are required to gain during high school and their first two years of university, respectively, both by reading Western classics.

The deficiency in Japanese university students’ abilities of comprehension and expression has become serious. The problem can be attributed to a series of near-sighted reforms implemented by the education ministry in past decades. Ministry officials need to reflect on this matter seriously, but unfortunately, it may already be too late to address the problem.

Japanese who graduated from universities through the mid-1970s normally would have read not only the works of such literary greats as Natsume Soseki, Mori Ogai and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, but also Japanese translations of several Western classics.

To be admitted to major state universities, either to study humanities or natural sciences, students in those days had to take exams in seven courses in five subjects: Japanese, mathematics, English and two courses in both social studies and science.

The tendency to neglect the importance of liberal arts education at universities started growing in the late ’70s, when the student political movements began to subside, anti-intellectualism grew and aliteracy became widespread among youths.

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

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