STUMP » Articles » What Should be Taught - Part 1: Japan Bans the Humanities? » 23 September 2015, 06:53

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

What Should be Taught - Part 1: Japan Bans the Humanities?  


23 September 2015, 06:53

Well, this story about Japanese universities being asked to slash their humanities & social sciences departments was a bit of a surprise:

Alarm Over Huge Cuts to Humanities and Social Sciences at Japanese Universities

The cuts, at the Education Ministry’s request, have caused profound concern among academics

More than two dozen Japanese universities have announced that they will reduce or altogether eliminate their academic programs in the humanities and social sciences, following a dictum from Tokyo to focus on disciplines that “better meet society’s needs.”

Times Higher Education reports that of the 60 Japanese universities that offer courses in these subjects, 26 will comply to some extent with the government’s proposal, which came in a June 8 letter from Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura. In it, he encouraged Japan’s institutes of higher education to take “active steps to abolish [these programs]” or convert them to scholastic opportunities in the natural sciences.

Two immediate reactions: it is possible that these departments had some bloat and needed to be trimmed.

The other was: what is the higher education model in Japan?

The second one is due to a variety of factors, the primary one being that I know the United States’ model of higher education is weird compared to the rest of the world.


Let us consider some of the stuff that makes the U.S. higher education system weird:

  • While selective colleges/universities exist here, pretty much anybody who has a high school diploma can find a college that will take them. Even if they’re going to need remedial (i.e. middle school level) classes
  • There is government funding for higher education for even extremely weak students
  • While lots of undergrad students are in the 18 – 25 year old range, it’s not unusual to have much older students, even ones who already have degrees in other subjects, to go back to university. Some retired people go into degree programs
  • To get a degree in a “4-year” program, you pick a major to get a degree in… and about half of your academic credits will be in subjects not in your major, and many of them will not be slightly in your major at all
  • The general requirements are so broad that most people don’t really need to pick a major til they’re junior level. Even then, they my switch their major
  • STEM students are generally required to take at least a few humanities/social science classes at a junior level, sometimes having majors in the subject in the same class. I happen to remember the ones I took: sociolinguistics, science fiction literature, and a math/music composition course. I also took Japanese to 3rd year (and audited a semester in 4th year), and did some freshman/sophomore level classes. Psych 101 was a lot of fun and tempted me to sign up for a Psychology of Personality course which I dropped after one lecture when I realize there was going to be precious little science in it (unlike the Psych 101, which had a lot about experimental support for theories… this class was just going to be nattering about theory.) That’s when I picked sociolinguistics instead, which was a good choice. I wrote my final paper on language policy in South Africa, which I found to be extremely interesting.


Obviously, I got a lot out of sociolinguistics…so much so that I’ve been listening to these lectures from John McWhorter this week. I highly recommend McWhorter’s language books and lectures, but the one I’m listening to now is nice bite-sized nuggets.

If you’d rather read a book, I recommend his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (it’s about English, if you couldn’t figure that out.) Lots of good stuff in it — and a better History of the English Language than most out there, because almost all of those are written by English profs and not a linguistics prof.

Where was I?


Anyway, my understanding has been that in many countries, you get filtered out for university while in primary school. However, it looks like a good number of Japanese students have college degrees, so maybe it’s not too restrictive… but then, I know many people who got a college degree after age 35 here in the U.S.

I will point out in that list that Germany is way below U.S. in 25-34 year olds having college degrees. And college is free there. I believe those two items are connected.

But let’s look at this other bit in the article:

Speaking of class: Academic life is quite a bit different over there. German students are typically accepted into particular majors—none of this “expanding your horizons” and declaring halfway through your junior year. You apply to college in Germany to study law, medicine, literature, engineering, etc.—and you take that program’s requirements, the end.

My experience in running into other math grad students is that their undergrad experience was almost entirely math classes. As opposed to my humanities & social sciences requirements… much less the 4 semesters of PE. (I took PE 101 (everybody had to take that), rockclimbing, weightlifting, and ballroom dancing.)

In most countries: you don’t get into college unless you meet certain academic requirements that are higher than U.S. high school diplomas, you study only your major subject, and none of this farting around with high-level classes in other majors.

Anyway, I don’t know what it’s like in Japan. It’s pretty clear that this slashing of humanities/social sciences is a bad idea, but to know just how bad it is, I need to know how humanities/social sciences has been used in their STEM programs that they want to focus on.


A detail that must also be considered:

However, it is likely to be connected with ongoing financial pressures on Japanese universities, linked to a low birth rate and falling numbers of students, which have led to many institutions running at less than 50 per cent of capacity.

Which brings me back to the U.S.: I rather imagine we’ll see many colleges/universities promoting their programs for retired Boomers for similar reasons.

Cross-posted to meep’s livejournal

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