Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Foolishness of Educational Ethnocentrism

Anytime the Japanese education system, and the advisability of adopting some of its features, comes up, most certainly voices will arise in dissent. Americans have heard somewhere that Japanese students are so driven they commit suicide in droves, that their education emphasizes rote and regurgitation, and a whole host of other negative attributes. Thusly reassured that the American system is not so bad by comparison, everyone goes back to sleep, confident that the proclaiming of some supposed negatives eliminates all positive features of the Japanese system from further consideration. What a foolish response!

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Japanese were at the top of their game in their corner of the world. Or so they thought. The Tokugawa Shogunate came into power around 1600 bringing peace and stability to what had been a land ravaged by competing warlords. Socially, class distinctions were rigidly drawn and fiercely maintained. The Shogun made the laws; punishments were severe. The Shogun, the daimyo (literally “great names”) and their samurai retainers topped the vertical social scale, followed by farmers, then craftsmen, and at the bottom, merchants, those despised handlers of “filthy lucre.” Japan experienced an economic boom enriching especially the merchant class to the dismay of the ruling class.

Most of what Westerners admire culturally came out of this period also known as the Edo period.
The Edo period is nowadays seen as the high-water mark pf Japanese cultural tradition... Beasley, W.G. (1999). The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. pg. 171
That poet laureate of haiku, Basho, wrote during the Edo period. A new kind of drama, kabuki, was first performed in Kyoto. Hokusai produced his famous woodblock print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Nevertheless, after a couple hundred years, Japanese society was becoming acutely stressed by the increasing disparity of wealth and especially the redistribution of wealth from the samurai class to the merchants. Contradictions and inconsistencies plagued the carefully constructed system. Throughout the Edo period the Japanese had limited interaction with other foreigners, first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. Then one fine day in July 1853, the people beheld Commodore Perry and his Black Ships coming over the horizon. He was not well received. No matter, he would return the following year. And so he did with twice as many ships. He meant to open Japan to the West and he succeeded by threat of his greater military power. Ten years later, the threat was made real when in 1864, a coalition of four countries launched a fleet of seventeen ships which bombarded the coast at Shimonoseki to open the straits for trade.

The Japanese realized they had lost the ability to compete and set out to rectify the situation. The Japanese sent students to the West to study just about everything with a view to acquiring whatever made sense for them to adopt and adapt to their own culture and society. Before Commodore Perry, the Japanese had held an unswerving confidence in their own superiority. Perhaps if they had been strong enough militarily to repel the foreigners, they might never have questioned their superiority. They realized they had lost the ability to compete. In order to compete militarily, they realized they needed to educate their people. They understood they had to (as the President said), “outeducate in order to outcompete.” Much of their present educational system was first adapted first from the Prussians and modified by influences from America.

America is in a similar situation today. There is an unshakable confidence in our own superiority in spite of contradictory evidence. But many Americans do not seem to feel the urgency of the situation. The main arena of competition today is not military but economic. What will it take, the economic equivalent of Commodore Perry's Black Ships? In order to outcompete economically, we have to outeducate our children. Strangely, calls to learn from others, such as the Japanese, are met with resistance and rationalizations.

It reminds me of an incident a few years ago when a group of Japanese Christians decided that California was a pretty wicked place in need of missionaries. The response from the Californians they visited was anger and derision. “We sent missionaries to you. How dare you think of sending missionaries to us?” A group of these missionaries visited my friend's place of employment. Japanese missionaries usually end up focusing on the Japanese American community.

We had a Japanese missionary to California visit our church recently on furlough, and she was saying that there are about a million Japanese living overseas at any one time. The number of Japanese who came to faith and got baptised inside Japan last year was about 7,000 out of 120 million; the number who came to faith and got baptised outside Japan was about 4,000 out of 1 million.

Now it is not necessary to go off on a rabbit trail about Christianity and missionaries. The point here is the attitude displayed. It is educational ethnocentrism to think that it is impossible the Japanese should have anything to teach us. If we are not careful, we may wake up one day and find we have been outcompeted. Game over.

Most of what is written in American media about Japanese schools is mistaken. Very few writers have the long-term experience and fluency in Japanese to make sense of their observations. Japanese children are not rote and regurgitate robots.

At primary school, there are many opportunities for children to take the initiative to study on their own or in small groups, but the entire class almost always comes together again after a while to discuss findings and conclusions. Indeed, Japanese primary classrooms are very impressive for their emphasis on inquiry and explanation.

What helps to underpin the combination of energetic inquiry and discussion is the unremitting effort to develop a classroom community. All children take turns in leading the class, and all participate in a great variety of small groups for organising everything from chores (including cleaning) to fun and games. This is often very effective in developing a sense of mutual consideration and respect.

In Japan, all education is essentially moral and Japanese education seeks to foster integrated wholeness in every child.

At secondary school, most children join after-school clubs, mainly run by teachers, which offer sporting or cultural activities, usually almost every day of the week. Sports clubs in particular play an important role in instilling an ethos of effort and self-discipline, as well as enabling children to develop non-academic abilities and experience camaraderie outside the classroom. All in all, Japan's schools have been remarkably good at enabling their charges to develop all-round mental and social capabilities that stand them in good stead as individuals and contributors to society...


I confidently expect continued sensationalist deploring of the shortcomings of Japanese schools and young people - either as undisciplined know-nothings or fact-stuffed robots - because "crisis" makes copy that sells. But the more mundane reality is that Japanese education does a pretty good job of turning out young people who are thoughtful, hard-working, energetic, knowledgeable, and often, remarkably creative - even if it could do still better.

The Japanese themselves are not wholly satisfied with their education system. They worry because their ranking in international comparisons is slipping. However, it is foolish to dismiss good ideas from Japan because of an educational ethnocentrism that grasps at any reason to discount and then ignore valuable lessons from the Japanese education system.

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