Is Japan abolishing social sciences and humanities departments?

It’s now being widely reported in Western mass media that Japan is abolishing its social sciences and humanities departments. I am not actually annoyed by these reports, because in this instance the Japanese media have done no better. Here’s the Yomiuri Shinbun attempting to explain:

The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a survey among the presidents of all 86 national universities across the nation to ask about their faculty reform and abolition plans as of the end of July, and how they reacted to the education ministry’s notice. The Yomiuri received responses from 81 universities.

Of the 60 universities with humanities and social science faculties, 58 responded to the survey and 26 said they had plans to abolish such faculties or convert them to other fields.

Of the 26 universities, 17 plan to stop recruiting students for these departments, which contain at least 1,300 students.

Many universities plan to abolish “no-certificate” courses that do not require students to obtain a teaching certificate in their teacher training faculty and allocate their existing quota to newly established faculties.

There’s a lot of stuff making this report confusing, so here’s a full rundown.

The good

The good news is that this isn’t quite as dire as the initial reports seemed to claim. Here’s some necessary background information.

  • Japanese university departments are divided into courses. Students apply to the department itself, then choose whatever course they like and take classes within the department to get credit for the course.
  • The Yomiuri survey, in English translation, confusingly refers to canceled courses as “departments”. Please ignore this.
  • From the late 1980s until this year, humanities courses were also being offered in the education departments of several public universities. These are the “no-certificate” courses or “ゼロ免課程” in Japanese, meaning education courses that don’t require you to get a teacher’s permit to graduate. The logic of this at the time was that the education departments did not want to shrink even though fewer prospective teachers were coming in, so the national regulator of public universities, MEXT, had suggested this as a halfway measure.
  • While the promotion of the humanities to educators is admirable, the specific format of the “no-certificate” course, allowing people to graduate with an education degree and no teacher’s permit, is a bit questionable. Informally, it’s assumed that students who take such courses are not going to become teachers at all, but are going into the private sector.
  • MEXT has been reviewing “no-certificate” courses for over a decade now, always with an eye to closing them in light of a more sensible placement of humanities courses within the humanities department. This is a long-needed reform.
  • MEXT’s sole request to the universities was to justify their courses as currently constructed, and adjust them if better models could be found.

Here’s an example of a shrinking humanities/social science department, courtesy the Educational Information Center. Iwate University is a nationally funded school. It has four courses within the humanities/social science department: Human Sciences, International Cultures, Law/Economics (improbably unified into a single course), and Environmental Sciences. In 2016, they will become two: Human Cultures and Regional Policies. Most likely, this was an act of “rationalizing” and paperwork reduction by the college. Here’s the bottom line: the number of students that will be allowed to enter the department will only decrease from 215 to 200.

The real hit will be to the education department, where two “no-certificate” courses in Life Education and Artistic Culture will be eliminated entirely. This makes up part of the 1,300 fewer humanities/social science slots open to students; the Yomiuri is including these education department slots as humanities/social science slots. But while I have never been to Iwate University, and speak solely from unbridled arrogance, these two canceled “no-certificate” courses sound less to me like fierce advancement of tough intellectual ideas so much as four delightfully carefree years.

And other colleges have different ideas: for example, Kochi University is shrinking its science department slightly to make room for agriculture, and Saga University is closing ecology and arts and crafts courses in order to open a new design school with 110 student slots, reflecting a quiet boom in the visual arts in that rural region.

In short, the government’s plan first and foremost is to ask the colleges to use their limited resources wisely.

The bad

On the other side of this policy is a growing contempt for the liberal arts among the controllers of MEXT funds. This is so widely known that even I, as a research student uninvolved in questions of funding, have heard the state is turning a cold shoulder to these fields. During the long and winding course of MEXT’s reform, the bureau never warned the universities not to shrink their liberal arts departments. And as you can see from the Iwate University example above, the elimination of possibly less rigorous courses did not correspond to an increase of more rigorous courses; instead, students aiming towards private sector employment will be shifted into more “practical” courses such as agriculture, design, or science.

MEXT advisor Suzuki Hiroshi attempted to defend the government by saying that they continue to increase bureau funding to humanities and social sciences, but Hibi Yoshitaka, a sociology professor, crunched the numbers and found that in fact the percentage of funds being distributed to humanities and social science courses has been slowly shrinking since 2010.

Japan still remains a great patron of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. But there does seem to be a bit of a grudge that some of the courses in these fields are not delivering on what they promise. One final question needs to be asked: what exactly are they promising? What has MEXT been missing out on?

The ugly

The ugliest part of this exchange is not MEXT’s distaste for the liberal arts, but the inability of humanities and social science scholars to explain why their courses are needed. The English-language editorials about this subject seem to take these departments for granted as something with a natural right to exist. Meanwhile, many Twitter and blog comments on such articles are simply STEM majors having a laugh at the uselessness of non-STEM majors. Both of these frankly anti-intellectual attitudes speak to a gross failure of communication.

This is extremely disappointing. The lackluster nature of these defenses, and their inability to touch the minds of detractors, condemns the current state of the humanities and social sciences, while at the same time demonstrating the need for a true understanding of liberal arts education, both inside and outside of Japan.

For example, here’s Shiga University president Sawa Takamitsu saying that engineering majors need to be kept in line by humanities majors because they are totalitarian:

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.

Sawa throws out a lot of accusations and ad hominem attacks, but this is the actual centerpiece of his defense. The belief that engineers are innately authoritarian is a frequent subject of discussion in Japan in the context of practical democracy vs. revolutionary idealism, but the implications of relocating this idea to the context of government-funded educational institutions are terribly funny to think about. Could a government suppress the people’s revolution by closing one department of a publicly funded university and moving everyone to the other one? Are the great ideas that move humanity really so powerless these days that they can’t survive without state funding?

However, this is not as bad as the accusation made by the extremely well-respected religious scholar Shimazono Susumu, arguing that while scientists have called for science literacy, they themselves may lack social literacy:

This was also said during the string of incidents surrounding Aum Shinrikyo … but people well-versed in the reasoning and information processing of the specialized sciences may not realize that they they are weak in the intellectual fundamentals of grappling with various social problems.

Shimazono refers to the fact that most Aum members were science majors. But it is absolutely not the place of a religious scholar to make accusations of scientists like this, because religious scholars have some role of culpability in allowing Aum to carry out their murders, as Ian Reader has explained:

Another scholar who developed contacts with Aum was Shimada Hiromi, a professor at Nihon Women’s University in Tokyo. … Shimada’s public support was also used by Aum in publications aimed at raising the movement’s profile and prestige.

In January 1995, when hints were made in the Japanese press that Aum had been responsible for a sarin gas attack in the town of Matsumoto in June 1994 and that one of the buildings at its commune might house a laboratory for making chemical weapons, the movement invited Shimada to inspect the facility. He did so, proclaiming that it was in fact a temple whose sole purpose was for worship. Shown a newly constructed
statue and told that behind it was a temple open only to initiates, he had not demanded access but had posed by the statue for photographs. … Shimada was wrong—it was later revealed that the statue had been hastily constructed and placed there to conceal the entrance to the laboratory which was used to make Aum’s chemical weapons.

In effect, Shimanozo’s utilitarian argument leads us to conclude that the humanities and social sciences are dangerous, since (speaking in the voice of a naive hard scientist) they lack the ability that sciences have to permanently throw out incorrect ideas, and can conversely contribute to incidents such as this. They should be dismantled and replaced by journalists such as Kobayashi Yoshinori, who did an admirable job criticizing the cult during these dangerous years in the 1990s.

Neither of these silly lines of argument are nearly as insidious as the official pronouncements of authorities on the subject. The Science Council of Japan, during their attempt to critique the government’s decision, adopted the following language in attempting to critique themselves:

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that academics in the HSS [humanities and social sciences] have clarified in full neither the vision of human resources that the HSS departments/graduate schools nurture on behalf of society, nor the potential role that the HSS could play within the overarching world of academia. HSS scholars are now asked to make every effort to deliberate upon these issues through multiple dialogues, from critical self-reflection to discussions with those colleagues in the natural sciences and other societal actors, and in so doing to improve the quality of teaching and research by taking on broad needs derived from social changes.

To this, a blogger has provided an interesting response:

At first glance, important points are being made here, but simultaneously, aren’t the “dialogues” being referred to the very duty of the humanities and social sciences? Merely “throwing out your books and going to the streets” does not make such “dialogues” possible. Intently reading through books written in classical languages is itself a “dialogue” with the intellectuals of the past. The possibility that research ends in “dialogues” is high. Rather, does the true meaning of secluding oneself in an “ivory tower” not refer to researchers of the various STEM fields with their experiments and nuclear power, making companions out of “lifeforms” (as research subjects), “cells”, and “DNA”? At the very least, considering this self-critical statement which claims that readers of literature have not been forthcoming in explaining themselves compared to lab workers, there is room to object.

This is not only a good defense, it’s actually a rejection of the way the Science Council of Japan thinks — that being “useful to society” must be something structural rather than intimate. Obviously, the humanities and social sciences are already in “dialogue”, because very basis of their fields is to know the thoughts of human beings. It is the STEM fields which do not inherently possess this “dialogue” and must make conscious steps to begin it. In that rejection, this response also condemns some of these erstwhile defenders of the social sciences and humanities, for they have thoughtlessly agreed to the conceptual fuzziness of a “social” goal, and perceived a need to enter into competition with other departments and prove some moral superiority, when in fact that’s not what the liberal arts are for. Here is a Yomiuri Shinbun editorial of 17 June, making a similar point:

Some people even go so far as to say it would be more profitable for students to be trained to gain high scores in English proficiency tests, rather than being taught English literature.

However, it should be noted that students who explore classical works, philosophy and history will be able to acquire viewpoints that will allow them to look at things from different perspectives. Such students can also expect to develop a mental attitude marked by a respect for different values. We believe one important task for colleges and universities is to help students gain a broad range of general knowledge and deep insight.

Are we on the same page here? The goal of the liberal arts in both of these good responses is not to develop “critical thinking” or break down categories; it is to bring students into the world by giving them encounters with great thinkers, either in the form of books, or in the form of the professors themselves, or ideally both. The humanities are there to bring us into dialogue with others, to help us know them, to spark our imaginations, and to bring us closer to that goal which engineers, businesspeople, doctors, philosophers, and all others work for: love.

The humanities subvert the mediating functions of technologies and go straight to the heart, wherever it may be. They are more essential than STEM, not because the people involved are smarter or more moral, but because they are literally closer to the essence of things. They give us a chance to put aside all distractions and know the fullest possibilities of humanity in all our flaws and virtues; skills that, if properly taught, should benefit every aspect of one’s post-college life. I cannot possibly put it better than Elizabeth Corey:

[T]he problem of a “crisis of the humanities” cannot be easily or simply solved […] Because it so intimately concerns human beings, and the variability of our loves, such awakenings of love’s intellectual desires will evade the grasp of rationalist reformers, remaining elusive and idiosyncratic.

The hopeful

Humanities and social science specialists, both inside and outside Japan, should take this as a wake-up call to examine their own disciplines, which are badly affected by quietly ignored corruptions such as these “no-certificate” courses. Let us hope that these subjects continue to be taught if and when professors bring passion to what they are teaching. And let us hope that the liberal arts continue to be taught by good teachers, with or without institutional support.

Posted: September 23rd, 2015 | Academic mumbo jumbo