STUMP » Articles » What Should be Taught - Part 2: Reactions to Japan Humanities Ban » 5 October 2015, 04:50

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

What Should be Taught - Part 2: Reactions to Japan Humanities Ban  


5 October 2015, 04:50

I have been collecting reactions to the Japanese Humanities Downsizing/Ban/Whatever.

I just saw this in a Cracked list:

So I guess that means it’s time to post what I’ve got.

First, I made my own post on LinkedIn:

Now, I’m a STEM person myself, with undergraduate degrees in math and physics, and a graduate degree in applied math. I have professional certifications in actuarial science and risk management.

But I think this move is misguided.

Last year, I wrote an article “In Praise of the Humanities: A Convert’s Tale” for The Stepping Stone, an actuarial newsletter focused on leadership and personal development issues:

I have found studying the humanities to be entertaining, sure. I like learning stuff, in general— but I am still studying math and other technical subjects. Why not spend all my time on those, as they are more directly applicable to my career? If I want to study the issue of people and behavior with respect to business, why not just read business and psychology books that directly relate to those matters?

My answer to the question is that I’ve gotten three major things from my personal study of the humanities:

  • Learning about other human societies
  • Learning about other individuals
  • Learning about myself

The humanities allow me a way to do this in addition to other ways of gaining information about these three extremely important areas. The humanities are about humans, which are the most difficult part of business problems, I’ve found.

Doing analytics to determine appropriate crediting rates on annuities? No problem.

Trying to figure out how policyholders will actually behave when markets go volatile?

Super-big problem.

Yes, I look to sciences to help with these as well, but the study of humanities broadens my view and helps me question my assumptions from the “logical” STEM areas.

Perhaps the Japanese government will rethink their policy, but even outside formal programs there are ways for people to study the humanities. I describe two major ways to get started for those outside (or inside) of formal schooling in my article. It’s never too late, and there is much to be gained even outside explicit business applications.

I got some good comments on that post, but I was surprised not to see more posts on LinkedIn about this move.

I did find a couple of posts on LinkedIn — from years back!


Here’s one from November 2014, which focused on something Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2012. It relates to France.

This post is from 2013 – and relates to the funding of the Humanities in the U.S.

This comes up from time to time, as some politician tosses off some snide remark, academics see themselves poo-pooed, and then they must fiercely protect their precious budgets.

Thing is, I’ve seen an academic budget obliteration before, and it’s interesting to see the difference.


Some people who were in physics in the 90s know what I’m referring to.

It’s this project, which was cut in the 90s, in one of those rare fits of federal budget-cutting.

If you wonder why a bunch of physicists went into finance in the 1990s, wonder no longer. I so happened to be studying physics (undergrad) from 1992 – 1996. I heard a lot about this at the time. (I obviously am not in physics now, but even had the SSC been built, I would still have gone into math. Other things may have differed in the finance world, though…)

Thing is, a lot of the humanities profs do not have as cheery private-sector alternatives. On the other hand, their research tends to be a lot cheaper to fund than 2-billion-dollar holes in the ground.


I mean comments from outside Japan. These are people who have not been hit by this sort of shutdown…. yet.

So now this long-recurring argument (since the Space Race, really) has been shoved in one direction, and academics don’t like it one bit:

More than 50 Japanese universities are to close or downsize their humanities and social science departments after education minister Hakuban Shimomura urged the country’s higher education institutions to offer a “more practical, vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society”.

The move has caught the attention of academics across the world, prompting many to speak out in opposition.

“It’s shocking,” says Sophie Coloumbeau, an English lecturer at Cardiff University. “The decision implies an extremely narrow, shortsighted and, I would say, mistaken view of what society’s needs are.”

Fiona Beveridge, head of the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, agrees: “I don’t think the future needs of society can be met only with Stem graduates. Cultural and creative industries will require students with humanities backgrounds.”

British humanities departments, already thought by many to be underfunded, are also facing problems of government perception. Education secretary Nicky Morgan raised tensions last year with her assertion that “the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the Stem subjects”.

The comment angered academics across the country, including Coloumbeau. “Morgan’s statement, and others like it, set up an unproductive opposition between the humanities and sciences,” she says. “It’s important to make sure such lazy generalisations don’t translate into government policy without being effectively challenged.”

I agree that they’re not necessarily in opposition, as per my LinkedIn post.

Hot take from the U.S.:

First of all, eliminating social science could signal a return to a failing and outdated industrial policy. Many observers interpret the change as an economic policy, intended to move the Japanese populace toward engineering and other technical skills and away from fuzzy disciplines. But if this is indeed the aim, it’s a terrible direction for Japan to be going.

Japan’s rapid catch-up growth in the 1960s and 1970s was based on manufacturing industries. This is common for developing countries. But when countries get rich, they typically shift toward service industries. Finance, consulting, insurance, marketing and other service industries don’t produce material goods, but they help organize the patterns of production more efficiently — something Japan desperately needs. Since it’s a country with a shrinking population, it can only grow by increasing productivity.

But Japanese productivity has grown very slowly since the early 1990s, and has fallen far behind that of the U.S. If Japan is going to turn this situation around, it will need more than a workforce of skilled engineers. It will need managers who can communicate with those engineers and with each other. It will need conceptual thinkers who can formulate business plans and strategic vision. It will need marketers who can establish and increase Japanese brand recognition. It will need financiers who can channel savings away from old, fading industries and toward productive new ones. It will need lawyers to sort out intellectual property cases and help businesses navigate international legal systems. It will need consultants to evaluate the operations of unprofitable, stagnant companies and help those companies become profitable again.

In other words, it will need a bunch of social science and humanities students.

But the main takeaway is that Japan’s policy-making process is arbitrary and dysfunctional. According to Takuya Nakaizumi, an economics professor at Kanto Gakuin University, the changes were probably written not by Minister Shimomura himself, but by more junior members of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. If that is true, it means that sweeping policy changes, which will affect the entire economic and social structure of the nation, are being made by junior officials via an unaccountable and opaque process.
That would be very bad news for Japan, since it indicates a confused and disorganized policy-making apparatus. The sudden, sweeping nature of the reform, and the fact that it came from the ministries rather than the legislature, also highlights the woeful lack of checks and balances in the Japanese system. It takes large, expensive popular movements to undo the bad policies made by unaccountable officials in back rooms. Such a movement is already coalescing to fight the education policy changes. But even if that effort succeeds, the policy changes will have created great risk, cost and disruption.

Japan needs to keep educating students in the social sciences and humanities. It needs to avoid a doomed attempt to return to a developing-country model of growth. It needs a more robust, less arbitrary, more transparent policy-making regime. Minister Shimomura’s diktat bodes ill for all of these things.

A few thoughts:

  • No, one doesn’t need humanities courses to be creative. This kind of bullshit is what has created a bunch of writing workshops for authors who nobody will read… not even themselves.
  • I can see the point about disorganized policy-making. Illinois’s budget battles come to mind, actually.
  • Maybe you’ll see the trouble with government-run higher education now. Even the “private” institutions aren’t safe, if they are too dependent on the government as a source of funds.

One thing that’s often missing is an understanding that most of the people who do well in STEM subjects can also do very well in humanities and social sciences. The stereotypical nerds who are good at STEM and suck at the school humanities forget that many of these people will come alive when presented with stories they want to read, and histories that they find of interest.

I was lucky to go to an engineering school where I could take Science Fiction as my required Literature class. And it did have classics in there — Frankenstein is a regular classic, even outside SciFi. We also read Verne and Wells, in addition to later authors.

As a tangent, I found Alfred Bester the most fascinating of the bunch. I also read Edgar Rice Burroughs for the first time. Great stuff.

For my history class, I took a history of science class.

Anyway, there’s still room for the humanities in the bright new STEM-centered world. Heh.


Let’s see what the Japanese themselves have to say.

From the Financial Times:

The order from the education minister appeared brutal and direct — and it triggered a storm of protest: all of Japan’s 86 national universities should abolish their faculties of liberal arts or switch them to something more socially useful.

“Outrageous proposals,” declared Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University. He found echoes of second world war militarism, when humanities students were conscripted into the army while science students were exempt.

The proposals turn out to be more nuanced — the ministry insists its order was misinterpreted, and university administrators largely back it up — but the row has highlighted global concern about the future of the humanities.

As ageing populations weigh on national budgets and student numbers alike, both acute problems in Japan, governments are spending their limited budgets on the more obvious economic return from the sciences.

“The concern would be that it leads to a hollowing out of Japanese democracy,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “The liberal crowd puts this in the context of Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s ideological agenda across the board.”
Officials at the education ministry say they have no desire or intention to scrap the humanities, and that the reference to “abolition” was meant to apply only to a class of obsolete teacher training programmes.

“The reporting has been totally misleading,” says Kan Suzuki, a former member of parliament for the opposition Democratic party, who stayed on as an adviser to the current education minister. “This is totally misunderstood.”

The ministry’s order was part of a much broader strategy, he says, aimed at improving standards by pressing national universities — the smaller but more prestigious part of Japan’s higher education system funded directly by the government — to define their mission and strengths.

Japan’s university sector is notoriously weak by international standards, with only two Japanese institutions in the global top 100, according to the Times Higher Education rankings. One of Mr Abe’s goals is to raise that to 10, partly by awarding government funding based on performance.
Fukuoka International University, a private institution focusing on languages and business in the southern city of Dazaifu, has struggled to recruit and will close down its four-year degree programme after current students graduate.

With only half of Japanese children going on to university, Mr Suzuki says there is room for the higher education sector to grow, offsetting the falling population of 18-year-olds.

But those children will have fewer opportunities to study humanities at a national university. “It might be this is a sensible reform wrapped around an ideological agenda,” says Mr Kingston.

Jeez, guys. You gotta learn how to draw in the senior population.

If humanities feed the soul (and they can), they can pull in the retired crowd (it’s growing! Hugely!) to make up revenue.

From a university president:

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.
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.
Takamitsu Sawa is the president of Shiga University.

I think they don’t understand why U.S. universities are ranked top.

I can think of lots of reasons, and few involve the humanities.

I leave this one as an exercise to the reader.

And one more:

Cue the debate

Reaction has been swift – and, in some quarters, fierce – to the news of the Minister’s June letter and the resulting decision to close many of the targeted undergraduate and graduate programmes. “The foundation of democratic and liberal societies is a critical spirit, which is nurtured by knowledge of the humanities,” said The Japan Times in what has so far stood as one of the harshest commentaries. “Without exception, totalitarian states invariably reject knowledge in the humanities, and states that reject such knowledge always become totalitarian.”

The powerful business lobby group Keidanren was also quick to respond to the government’s assertion that the business community only requires people with practical skills. “Some media reported that the business community is seeking work-ready human resources, not students in the humanities, but that is not the case,” said Keidanren Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara. He added that Japanese companies desire “exactly the opposite” – that is, students who can solve problems based on “ideas encompassing the different fields” of science and humanities.

For its part, the Science Council of Japan issued a formal statement to affirm its position that the humanities and social sciences “play a vital and unique role in critically comparing, contrasting and reflecting on the way in which human beings and society operate, make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole, [and are entrusted with the role of solving – in cooperation with the natural sciences – contemporary problems domestically as well as internationally.”

As these commentaries suggest, one ironic effect of the government’s intervention in June has been to spur a wider debate and appreciation in Japan about the importance of the humanities and social sciences.

It is too early to say what the wider impacts will be. Some faculties will certainly close or shift focus as early as next year, and this change will be driven in part by the certain knowledge that Japan has more higher education capacity than it needs.

I happen to agree….. but.


Mainly because many of their proponents have devalued them.

You want to talk about how important they are to a democratic and liberal (old meaning — having liberty, being free) society?

Then quit using your fields to denigrate those very things.

And for crying out loud, don’t bring down your own field.

To be sure, I think postmodernism has mainly moved on, but one often sees a bunch of miasmic offerings in the humanities. If one can be an English major without needing to read the major authors…….why should anybody else value what you obviously don’t?


Maybe the Japanese humanities weren’t that degraded, and I have found that humanities departments at land grant institutions do tend to be very good. That was my experience at NCSU, and as an adjunct at UConn now, I’ve seen lots of really good things.

And, of course, the main problem the humanities have in universities is that they are in universities, as opposed to going out in the public.

What got me to start reading Dickens wasn’t my regular English literature classes I had to take. I did manage to keep a love for Shakespeare, but Dickens? Ugh.

This guy – Elliot Engel – is who got me hooked. And he was an English prof at NCSU at the time, but he gave public lectures on all sorts of great authors, and Prof. Engel is an excellent speaker.

Many of the lectures he lists for download I have on cassette tape. (somewhere) I went on a literary tour of England that he led, visiting Dickens house in London, as well as places Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Wordsworth lived, with a lecture on the relevant authors before each visit. I think my favorite was going to the pub Samuel Johnson used to hang out at.

After Prof. Engel hooked me, then I started sucking up lectures from The Teaching Company, which is now Great Courses.

I’ve done far more studying humanities after having left school than I ever did in school.

If these people feel the value in what they do, they need to share it.

Get out there! Shout it out loud!

Show how much it means!

It’s a pity that it takes a threat like this to ty to get people out of their torpor, but unfortunately that’s often the way when one gets too comfy.

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