Sunday, November 7, 2010

Trials and Tribulations of Higher Education in Japan

This week, I spoke at an international conference on modern languages and literature. As usual, talks presented varied greatly in quality. Still, one of the presentations shocked me like no other by the extremely low level of scholarship that informed it. The academic who gave this talk was from Japan. I hate to say it, but her presentation was a jumbled mess. The quality of the talk was such that if it were given by one of my undergrads, it would have received a failing grade. The offending scholar made every basic mistake that beginners in literary criticism can make: she offered an exremely long and confusing retelling of a very famous novel (which most of the people present at this session have probably read more than once), she started many of her sentences with "What the author wanted to say here is. . .," she attempted to offer a shaky biographical analysis of the author's decision to write this novel.

To make things even worse, she kept insulting the listeners' intelligence with feeble efforts at explaining some pretty self-evident things. To give an example, we were regaled by the following explanation of what Protestantism is (remember that the conference was taking place in Chicago, so many of the academics present could be expected to have a fairly intimate knowledge of Protestantism): "Protestantism comes from the word 'protest.' It originated in the XVth. . . or I mean the XVIth century. It was when Martin Luther . . . do you know who Martin Luther was? . .  Well, he was a priest. . . or I mean he was this person who protested. . . I mean, he wanted to protest. . . and many people protested after that. . . so it's called Protestantism because it comes from the word 'protest'."

Before attending this talk, I had no knowledge of what was going on in the Japanese system of higher education. So I decided to find out. The first article on the subject that I encountered offered me a glimpse into the reasons behind the sorry state of Japanese scholarship:
Public spending on higher education in Japan has been the lowest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nations. In addition to this, the government has cut the state subsidies to national universities by 83 billion yen over the past six years under the structural reform policy, causing all the universities to face financial problems while attempting to carry on with existing academic programs.

But wait, there is more:
According to the World University Rankings 2010-2011, published by the Times Higher Education on Sept. 16, the number of Japanese universities ranking among the world's top 200 dwindled to five from 11 the previous year. . . The poor performance shown by Japanese universities is a clear indication of the dwindling standards of the nation's science and technology. A dramatic decline has been noted in recent years in the number of academic papers written by researchers at national universities and inter-university research institutes and printed in science journals. . . Japan also languishes near rock-bottom among the OECD nations with regard to allocations of public money for primary and secondary education calculated as a percentage of GDP. It would be difficult to find another industrialized nation as stingy as Japan in setting aside money for education.
On Tuesday, the American people have allowed the Republican party to take control of Congress. The Republicans have told us on numerous occasions that the only way to address the growing national debt is to introduce huge budget cuts. Since they are obviously not going to force any cuts on the Pentagon, it is self-evident that education will be the first to suffer. The results of such policies are easy to predict. All we have to do is look at Japan.


astridvanwoerkom said...

It was my belief that, since the Japanese education system is so competitive, it must also be of high quality. Thanks for correcting me on that.

Clarissa said...

It used to be of very high quality. This is an example of how easy it is to destroy a great system of education through governemental mismanagement.

sarcozona said...

Not just how easy, as you point out Clarissa, but how FAST.

Clarissa said...

Exactly. It will take just a few years to bring down the system of higher education. Look how fast the No-Child-Left-Behind insanity destroyed primary and secondary education.

DM said...

I find it hasty to conclude any general facts from talk by a Japanese scholar. My experience with Japanese students (including from giving talks in Japanese universities) is that they tend not to have a good command of English, plus an adherence to pre-established formats, which translates into a totally unnatural way of giving talks.

Some of them give talks that have obviously been pre-rehearsed, but are incapable of answering questions because they don't understand English sentences beyond subject-verb-complement.

It is possible that these naive-sounding "here, the author says..." are actually the sign of an incapacity to form more complex thoughts into English.