Education reform cannot be substituted for reform in real world

Saturday, January 08 2005 @ 07:50 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Now that the issue with the compliance with the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 (see Nov. 25, 2004, TFP story "Compliance with someone else's moral standards is far from enough") has been "settled" in a breeze with the penal code revision enacted in December, another revision of the Fundamental Law of Education, along with a constitutional amendment, is high on the government's and lawmakers' agenda. The mainstream media have invariably expressed their consent to the idea of prioritizing it, which also indicates that the media are ready to start immunizing their audiences and readerships for whatever the new education policy for primary and secondary school children will be like.

On January 5, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Daily Yomiuri ran an editorial captioned "Education system change vital to nation's future." Just like other major printed media, the Yomiuri pointed out the problem resulting from the current education system in primary and secondary schools this way:

- The problem entailed in the current system is twofold.
- Japan's overall academic ability has constantly been declining as the results of the 2003 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) recently released by the OECD have revealed. Among other factors, "mathematical literacy" and "reading literacy" are where Japanese students were downgraded significantly; from No. 1 to No. 6 and from No. 8 to No. 14, respectively. A few days later, the results of the 2003 TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) conducted by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) endorsed the PISA's results. Now Japanese kids have been outperformed by their counterparts in South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
- The recent series of juvenile crimes and the rapid increase in NEET (not in education, employment or training) population indicate an ongoing moral erosion and lack of the "sense of purpose."

As for the decline in academic ability, many experts, including those from the media organizations, put the blame on the policy dubbed "yutori kyoiku", or pressure-free education, which the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology introduced over the period from 1998 through 2002 to make primary and secondary schools implement a 5-day school-week with the number of classes significantly reduced. This move marked a clear departure from the old system centered around rote learning and academic elitism. As the Yomiuri editorial points out, the MECSST has notoriously kept flip-flopping over the basic education policy almost every ten years under the pressures from both sides, the left-leaning nikkyo-so, or the Japan Teachers' Union and the conservative chukyo-shin, or Central Council for Education attached to the ministry. (So have the media, actually.) As a matter of fact, the pressure-free education policy of 1998 was especially short-lived. It didn't take the ministry any more than five years to opt to re-wind teachers and students who had once been unwound during that 5-year period. Now, as a result of the partial repeal of the 1998 guideline, announced in 2003, teachers are at a loss over how far to go back to the old rote teaching/learning method. And obviously the government, lawmakers, and the media alike, are trying to build up a national consensus that the MECSST should give a little more pressure on teachers and schoolkids to stem the consistent decline in academic achievement, although the Yomiuri editorial says, "We do not (necessarily) seek a return to the era of rote learning and academic elitism." In fact it seems that nobody can tell exactly what alternative to seek to that end. Therefore, it's fairly likely they will end up just stepping up pressure on kids, a notch or two, so they swallow some more things the MECSST will tell teachers to cram their students with.

However, the debate over how far to intensify the pressure is not only futile, but also way off the mark. What's really at issue here is, as we discussed in Sept. 1 TFP story titled "English Education in Japan", a constant deterioration of thinking ability, not swallowing ability, on the part of both students and teachers. When Japan was going through a double-digit economic growth year after year, we shared one and the same goal, i.e., sustained growth, among ourselves, or at least we thought we did. Hence every one of us was just supposed to learn hard, work hard and long, and bolt whatever was given from above. In those good old days, thinking ability didn't count at all. In the rest of the world, people were saying Japanese were intelligent species. It's true that we could demonstrate to the rest of the world that we had somehow been able to overcome our evolutionary proximity to the pithecanthropus. But it's just that we could prove to be a people, smart enough, not intelligent enough, to achieve a given goal. And the real problem facing us today lies with the disastrous fact that these passive learners and compliance artists are now in the position to teach their kids.

The other question is how to stem the moral erosion that has resulted in frequent occurrences of increasingly heinous juvenile crime, and how to restore the sense of purpose to curb the sharp increase in teenage suicide rate, pregnancy rate, dropout rate, drug abuse rate, etc. Even if you don't have a delinquent kid, it's still fairly likely that your son or daughter totally lacks the sense of belonging and the sense of commitment. More likely than not, he or she will become a " frii-ta" (the Japanese transliteration of a hybrid phrase between an English adjective and a German noun, free arbeiter) which can mean anything from a website designer to a prostitute. Under the circumstances, the best thing you can expect from your kid is constant job-hopping, which is beyond your comprehension because you haven't experienced any other system than the conventional one lined with seniority principle and life-time employment assumption. Against this backdrop the Yomiuri editors and other self-proclaimed education experts are advocating a search for an effective way to instill in children "a sense of responsibility to the community", "respect for life and nature", "disposition toward cherishing one's hometown and homeland", "love of traditional culture", etc. Although they are careful enough to sugarcoat their real intention, it's obvious that they are advocating turning the clock back, more or less, to the same old groupism that was prevalent in the prewar and wartime days in the form of chauvinistic patriotism, and even in the "go-go era" from the mid-1960s through most of the 1980s in the form of unquestioning loyalty to ones' employers.

But still I have great difficulty understanding where to find the guiding values in their proposition. If you take a look at the website of the U.S. Department of Education, you'll come across the word patriotism, here and there, for instance. Take a letter Rod Paige sent to school principals across the nation on October 9, 2001 for example.

"As a Nation, we have responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11 by offering our support to the victims and their families, to the rescue workers, and to the men and women of the United States military. We have also displayed remarkable patriotism that reflects our appreciation for and dedication to the principles that make America strong - freedom, liberty, and independence. Teachers in every community in America have been working with students to help them understand what happened on September 11 and to overcome their fears and concerns. They have also worked to teach them more about our proud and rich national history and the foundations of our free society."

The excerpts from this "key policy letter" articulate the real set of values on which the Education Secretary wanted principals and teachers to base their classes and perhaps out-of-class activities. I don't think there's anything wrong with the Japanese having their own set of values. And when it comes to religions, I have nothing, in particular, against Buddhism, Shintoism, or Shamanism as long as the guiding principles there embrace the universal trinity values, i.e., truth, virtue, and beauty. In Japan, however, the most prominent and ardent advocates for a change in education system argue that school children should not be taught how to discern between truth and fallacy. One of those advocates, ironically enough, is Professor Emeritus at Sophia University Shoichi Watanabe. If you have a look at one of those websites introducing his views on education, you will be surprised to know he argues teachers should not teach historical facts the way they actually happened, citing the esoteric epistemology of British philosopher Owen Barfield. The Watanabe's Barfield quote goes like this: History is filled with so many facts that a history teacher cannot cover them all in his classes. Therefore, teaching history can be likened to drawing the picture of a rainbow. The rainbow consists of innumerable waterdrops each of which is not particularly beautiful. But if you step back and have a look at the entire rainbow at the right distance and right angle, you will find its view breathtakingly touching. And the history teacher's job is to give his students the right view of the rainbow. To that end he should get around any ugly aspects involved in the historical facts no matter how they are true. Needless to say, the professor emeritus wants to imply, in particular, here that it's unadvisable for a history teacher to tell all the facts about Japan's wartime atrocities.

All in all, the education reform these people are aiming at boils down to the following notion as the Yomiuri editors put it:
"These things (i.e., the predetermined way of viewing the rainbow, or whatever is given for the students to view, and appreciation of these views) all seem to be qualities the Japanese should have naturally, but in fact, if we do not teach them, they will disappear (perhaps like the rainbow). (In that context) discussions on the basics of the education system will be necessary on the path back to regaining these lost qualities." (All parentheses are mine.) To that end the editorial unconvincingly concludes: "Revising the Fundamental Law of Education is a good place to start."

But as is true with the planned constitutional amendment or the now-enacted new penal code, any legislative measure, as such, won't bring about an educational reform unless we include the task of drawing the picture of a rainbow in the teachers' job description.

To my regret, we must also admit that we cannot reform our education system until the entire deceptive mechanism dubbed the "1955 System" (see Sept. 6 TFP piece titled "1955 System") is dismantled. Hopefully someday we will find a valid prescription for the educational reform "somewhere over the rainbow." But in the meantime, perhaps, all teachers at primary and secondary schools will have to play the role of the educational "sandman" if I may borrow the word from Ian Buruma's great book "Inventing Japan, 1853-1964" that extensively deals with the 1955 System in a thorough historical context.

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