Why Universities In Japan Are Ditching Humanities And Social Sciences

The dramatic shift in the country’s educational policies signals a problem much bigger and more troublesome than it appears.

japan, education

More than two dozen of Japan’s national universities have announced plans to cancel courses on humanities and social sciences following a government dictum to focus on disciplines that “better meet society’s needs.”

As it turns out, Japan's Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura sent a notice to the heads of 86 universities in June, telling them to eliminate their undergraduate and graduate programs devoted to these subjects, or shift their curriculum to fields with greater practical value. The demand also had a clear “or else” threat, as it reminded the universities that they receive government funding.

Sadly, law and economics fall within the purview of the condemned disciplines.

Although two of Japan’s top colleges, Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo, have refused to comply with Shimomura’s request, dozens of public schools are doing as the government demands. In fact, of the 60 national universities that offered courses in these disciplines, 26 complied with the order and announced they'll either close or scale back the relevant faculties.

While experts and analysts have denounced the ministry’s philosophy, the utilitarian vision actually dovetails Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to bolster Japan’s economic and political stature. On several occasions, he has expressed concern over Japan’s faltering research in natural sciences.

During an interview, he even said, “rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.”

Abe is also fixated on landing 10 Japanese universities in the list of top 100 universities across the world within the next decade, and his latest policy change might be a (risky) step in that direction.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

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The truth is, every country needs lawyers, sociologists, political science and economics majors, as much as they need engineers, architects and doctors. Japan’s new dramatic policy indicates the government’s ignorance about the vital link between science and the arts.

Japan's latest push to get universities to pay complete attention to vocational disciplines not only undermines education, it may also have hazardous effects on the economy.

“Academics contribute to the creation of an intellectually and culturally enriched society … We see it as our duty to produce, enhance, and transfer in-depth and balanced accounts of knowledge about nature, the human beings, and society,” stated the executive board of the Science Council of Japan. “Thus, the [humanities and social sciences] make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole.”

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