Magazine article Liberal Education

In Defense of Japanese Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

In Defense of Japanese Liberal Education

Article excerpt

LIBERAL EDUCATION HAS BEEN A TARGET of political discourse in many countries, and Japan is no exception. In June 2015, Japan's minister of education, Hakubun Shimomura, called upon the country's national universities to take "active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society's needs."1

In Japanese higher education, there are three types of institutions: national public, local public, and private. Shimomura's statement targeted only national universities, which are affected by national policy most directly. The message was clear: the national government wants to focus national resources for higher education on fields that nourish students' skills that are immediately adaptable to the needs of the labor market, leaving humanities education to institutions of other types-especially private institutions, which rely more heavily on tuition. In other words, the national government no longer wants to spend taxpayers' money on such individual luxuries as higher education in the humanities.

The first group to react to this announcement was the Science Council of Japan, an organization that represents Japanese academics. A statement issued in July by the council's executive board noted that "the humanities and social sciences (hereafter HSS) ... make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole. The HSS are also entrusted with the role of solving-in cooperation with the natural sciences-contempo- rary problems domestically as well as internationally. In this light, the ministerial request to take 'active steps to abolish organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society's needs,' with its specific focus on the HSS, raises a number of alarming questions."2

Then, in September, the Japan Business Federation also responded: "Outsiders may suppose that the business community that expects immediately-adoptable-vocational skills from college graduates might have urged the government to issue such a statement. However, the reality is quite the opposite: For years, the Federation has advocated the importance of broader cultivation, problemfocusing-and-solving ability, and communication ability in foreign languages for both arts majors and natural science majors."3 Two days later, Minister Shimomura publicly clarified his statement, saying that the intent is to abolish only those teacher training programs that do not require students to be licensed teachers-not to abolish the humanities or the social sciences. Though the effect of this clarification is not entirely clear-Shimomura did not withdraw his original statement-the immediate danger seems to be over. But is it really?

Historical context

This series of events from 2015 was not the first time Japanese higher education has experienced a policy change affecting liberal education. In fact, liberal education has always been the target of major political discussions of higher education management. The modern Japanese system of higher education was founded in 1877, when the University of Tokyo was established as the Imperial University. At that time, the university was deemed to be an institution in which professional education was provided through majors including law, natural science, literature, medicine, pharmacy, and, a little later, engineering. Liberal education in those early days was provided in high schools that were designed to prepare students for the university. This basic division of responsibility between the university and the high school remained unchanged for several decades.

After the end of the Second World War, however, the landscape changed. In 1947, under the US occupation, the Standards for the Establishment of Universities, the fundamental regulations governing all forms of college education, were issued. The standards set requirements for general education that included the humanities, foreign languages, social sciences, natural science, and physical education. …

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