School reform

Mainichi Shimbun, 8 January 2000

In a 1911 lecture, novelist Soseki Natsume predicted that Confucian standards of model behavior that had guided Japanese society during the Edo Period would gradually give way to a more lenient, empirical view of human nature with all its foibles and weaknesses.

History proved him wrong, sadly, as prewar Japan grew impatient with all but an exceedingly narrow range of acceptable norms. The primary channel for enforcing adherence to model behavior was school education and in 1941, the education authorities issued a document entitled Shinmin no Michi (Path of the Loyal Subject).

With its surrender, the nation saw its values overturned, as it now directed its energies to rebuilding the devastated economy. But the underlying focus on making a concerted national effort—this time to catch up to and overtake the West—remained intact, as did the effort by the education system to mold schoolchildren into the kind of human resources the nation needed.

Admittedly, this goal necessitated the efficient nurturing of masses of standardized workers, and for this a uniform education system under a strong, centralized control proved effective. The effort had the desired effect, and a work force with high academic standards catapulted the nation into an economic power.

But from around the beginning of the 1980s, when the groundwork for a modern school system was just about completed, cracks began to appear: bullying and absenteeism grew rampant. The system is blamed for turning out vacuous adults, who work hard to pass entrance exams but do amazingly little study once they enter college. Their test scores may be among the best in the country, but they do not know better than to join doomsday cults or commit gang rape.

Efforts to correct such shortcomings have not been lacking. One example of pioneering work was that of the Provisional Council on Education Reform, which issued its final report in 1986. It recommended that the school system and educational policies place greater emphasis on diversity over standardization, flexibility over rigidity, and freedom and autonomy over control. While the Ministry of Education fiercely resisted the deliberations, reform efforts since then have more or less proceeded along the path set down by the council.

Meeting the challenges of a globalized, information-based society of the 21st century will require humans who are capable of more than just memorizing and following manuals to the letter. We must become a nation with an appetite to learn, think and act on our own. Narrow-minded societies that disallow deviation are ultimately the most fragile. This is one of the biggest lessons learned from our experience in World War II. We seek the construction of a society that is pliant and generous, and for this we need an education system that promotes such values as diversity, flexibility, decentralization and freedom.

The danger of these values, however, is that they can encourage self-centered, morally corrupt behavior. It is important, therefore, to teach our youth that respect for individuality implies respect for others and that freedom is accompanied by responsibility. This is a task not just for our schools but for society as a whole.

Surveys show that the greater the exposure to nature and real-life experiences, the stronger a child's sense of ethical standards. In addition to the school and home-community environment, children should be encouraged to take part in other organized activities, such as participation in sports or voluntary activities.