I just finished reading Brian McVeigh’s subtly-titled Japanese Higher Education As Myth — a work that spends 250 pages discussing why and how Japanese universities do not particularly function as a higher education system. While Japan’s secondary schooling has some obvious pluses compared to those of other post-industrial nations, I can’t imagine anyone ever defending the Japanese tertiary level institutions — even Ezra Vogel quickly admitted to “mediocre universities” in his Japan as Number One.
Kirsten Refsing breaks down the education process into four goals:
1) education – the teaching of skills
2) socialization – training responsible citizens
3) selection – distributing talent to the labor market
4) depository – getting the youth off the streets (McVeigh 11)
The Japanese system is amazingly efficient at 2, 3, and 4, but in order to mask schools’ function as an agent of social control, we generally emphasize the first reason — teaching and learning — to justify the other three. A certain level of basic skills — literacy, math, science — is crucial for constructing the workforce’s human capital, but there are real doubts whether the Japanese education system today provides students with any intellectual skills and knowledge above and beyond what is important for a smoothly-running, super-efficient society. Learning about history, critical theory, or social issues tends to pester the capitalist system, not contribute to its safety.
As someone currently enrolled in an “elite” Japanese university, I can vouch for the widely-stated comment that expectations on Japanese college students are very low. The facilities and faculty may be high-level, but there is pretty much a society-wide understanding that learning should not get in the way of shuushoku katsudou (就職活動, finding a job, starting from the end of the 3rd year and ending in spring of the 4th) and bukatsu (club activities). Things have supposedly gotten stricter with attendance lately, but I hear stories from hot-shot employees about showing up to campus “around four or five” times throughout their student life and still passing. Employers never look at grades anyway, so graduating with the lowest possible GPA is not so different than graduating at the top.
Graduating at the top, however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.
I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t.
Since there’s no universal standard of what “education” should be, I decline an invitation to snipe and criticize just because Japanese universities are not imparting knowledge in the same ways as the Western model, but I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. Not everyone necessarily needs to go to college (so says the Animal Collective in four-part harmony), but it’s certainly the easiest place to learn to be a critical, literate human being. There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio). And we all prosper under inventions created within university research facilities. Higher education causes positive externalities in society.
The Japanese, however, tend to view intellectual maturity as a slow life-long process. If you’ve ever talked to Japanese in their 30s, they are often as political and critical as anyone in the West. There are not, however, very many well-educated Japanese youths with broad social understanding, who can shoot the breeze in pseudo-intellectual discussions. I can’t claim that societies absolutely need academically-trained 20-somethings dropping mad Derrida bombs, but surely their absence has a real impact on Japanese youth culture.