Humanities under attack
by Takamitsu Sawa, The Japan Times, 23/08/15
HIKONE, SHIGA PREFECTURE – On June 8, all presidents of national universities received a notice from the education minister telling them to either abolish their undergraduate departments and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift their curricula to fields with greater utilitarian values.
The bad tradition of evaluating academic learning and sciences in terms of their utility, with private-sector enterprises meddling in higher education, is still alive in Japan.
Indeed, policies related to higher education are under the control of the Council on Industrial Competitiveness, which is made up of nine Cabinet ministers, seven corporate managers and two scholars. One of the scholars is from the field of engineering while the other comes from economics.
A member of the education ministry’s panel of learned persons even said that the humanities and social sciences departments should be allowed to remain as they are only at the seven former Imperial universities and Keio University, and that those at other universities should be transformed into vocational training schools.
This person even went so far as to assert that students majoring in the humanities and social sciences at schools other than those eight institutions should be taught the Building Lots and Building Transaction Business Law instead of the Constitution, software programming for bookkeeping and accounting in place of Paul Samuelson’s “Economics,” and the skills of orally translating between Japanese and English rather than reading Shakespeare’s works.
These are outrageous proposals and I cannot tolerate anti-intellectuals distorting the government’s policies related to higher education.
During World War II, students of the natural sciences and engineering at high schools and universities were exempt from conscription and only those who were studying the humanities and social sciences were drafted into military service.
In March 1960, the education minister in Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s Cabinet said that all departments of the humanities and social sciences at national universities should be abolished so that those schools would concentrate on the natural sciences and engineering. He also said that education in the humanities and social sciences should be placed in the hands of private universities.
A certain well-known entrepreneur predicted, meanwhile, that before long a majority of high posts in politics, the bureaucracy and business would be occupied by those with natural science and engineering backgrounds.
One of the principal features of the “income doubling plan,” which Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda announced in December 1960 as his major platform, was to promote education in the natural sciences and engineering at universities.
All of these events still remain clearly in my memory as they came while I was preparing for my university entrance examinations.
Fortunately, the prediction made by the famous entrepreneur proved to be off the mark. A majority of Japanese political, bureaucratic and business leaders today are still those who studied the humanities and social sciences. This is because those who studied these subjects have superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders. And the foundation for these faculties is a robust critical spirit.
The countries in which the famous entrepreneur’s prediction was on target were socialist. In the Soviet Union, many of those who climbed to the position of general-secretary of the Communist Party had engineering backgrounds. Mikhail Gorbachev did not. Successive Chinese presidents also had engineering backgrounds.
The foundation of democratic and liberal societies is a critical spirit, which is nurtured by knowledge of the humanities. Without exception, totalitarian states invariably reject knowledge in the humanities, and states that reject such knowledge always become totalitarian.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set an ambitious target of making 10 of the nation’s universities rank among the world’s top 100 within the next decade.
This target appears utterly impossible to achieve because at present only two universities in Japan are among the global top 100 — the University of Tokyo at 23rd and Kyoto University at 59th. Moreover, only three others — the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University — are among those ranking between 101st and 200th.
The Abe administration’s target is tantamount to demanding the impossible. Why is it then that Japanese universities rank so low? One big reason is the low levels of education and research in the humanities and social sciences. Schools like the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Stanford University and Harvard University, all of which are among the world’s top 10, are highly reputed in these fields.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which ranks sixth in the world, is often thought to be an institution devoted exclusively to engineering. But the fact is that it offers a wide variety of curricula in the humanities and social sciences, and the standards of its research in these fields are reputed to be among the highest in the world.
The University of Tokyo is the only Japanese university that is among at the global top 100 in the humanities and social sciences. Although it ranks 87th in social sciences, no Japanese universities, including the University of Tokyo, rank among the top 100 in the humanities.
Stanford University ranks first in both the humanities and social sciences, while MIT places second in social sciences. The London School of Economics and Political Science, which specializes in social sciences, ranks 34th overall, which is below the 23rd spot held by the University of Tokyo but far above Kyoto University’s rank of 59th.
I believe that I am not alone in thinking that if Japan is serious about getting 10 of its universities into the world’s top 100, it will be far more cost-effective and advantageous to promote, rather than abolish or curtail, education and research in the humanities and social sciences.
Takamitsu Sawa is the president of Shiga University.