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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (IV) -The Absurdity of the School Streamlining Argument-

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After the five-day school week policy was proposed and began to be implemented, the issue of "slimming down" the schools came under debate. This expression may sound strange to English-speaking people, but in Japan, is used as a slogan to mean streamlining schools. Oddly enough, we hear no arguments to oppose it. Nowadays especially, as administrative reform, economic restructuring, and relaxation of regulations have become current trends, and as it has been decided that the five-day week will be completely in place from the year 2002, school streamlining is thought of as par for the course.

There are at least three reasons that the strange way of thinking that "slimming down the school is essential for improving education" has come to be thought of as self evident.

The first reason is, it goes without saying, the implementation itself of the five-day school week system. At first, the five-day week came in for a lot of criticism, because a main substantial imperative of this policy was not educational, but to realize two weekly holidays for teachers without any additional financial expenditure along with the general policy of reducing the total working hours of Japanese workers. At the same time, however, there was much ancillary discussion arguing that careful selection of educational materials and reduction of class hours were necessary for making it workable and effective. Eventually, this ancillary discussion reversed itself, and educational critics and reformers began to argue that we should make careful selection of educational materials, eliminate the obstacles to expanding the five-day school week system, and thereby improve education.

However, will doing this really be good for education? Thinking about this question logically, reducing the number of class hours will result either in even further restriction of school events and special activity time beyond what has already occurred so far, or lowering of the standards of study in major subjects such as math, science, language, history and geography (careful selection of educational materials), or otherwise, in order to avoid such a result, overcrowding will become worse. We cannot be misled by fine phrases like "We will be able to enhance the quality of education through selecting educational materials carefully, encouraging self-motivated learning, and cultivating 'Ikiru Chikara (ability and zest for living).'" Of course there may be many exceptions, but "Yutori (flexibility and peacefulness in activity and mind) " and academic standards are a function of time. What basis there is for saying it is possible to somehow magically reduce the gross number of class hours, and still create "Yutori," value the basics (i.e., maintain academic standards), and cultivate "Ikiru Chikara," is completely beyond comprehension.

The second reason is that there is a belief that Japanese education is too tied up with a multiplicity of roles, and as long as this situation of excess in the schools does not change, neither the schools nor education will get any better. This belief is one that became widespread since the middle of the 1980s; and we can see its typical example in the proposal which was released in April, 1995 by the Japan Association of Corporate Executives. They proposed moving "from schools to 'amalgamated schools'" on the following fundamental premises: 1) slimming down the schools , 2) promoting the participation of a variety of people in education, and 3) allowing children to grow up among many kinds of groups. It proposed a loose network of "amalgamated schools" as a "new school concept:" 1) "schools" which give instruction in the national basic standards (language competence, ability in reasoning and thought, Japanese identity), 2) "free classrooms" as sites for study of scientific developments and physical education; and 3) "experimental classrooms" as sites where children can encounter nature and other people.

According to this proposal, for example, "experimental classrooms" where local communities organize educational trips, sports meets, club activities and the like, "will revitalize educational functionality and also compensate for the deterioration of educational support in the home, particularly in guidance with problems in daily life." I am probably not the only one who senses in this a certain nostalgia for the local communities of the 1950s, where energy for reconstructing the society devastated by war was overflowing. In any case, not only this proposal, but also reports by National Council on Educational Reform and the Central Council for Education repeatedly emphasize the importance of the cooperation of school, family, and community. But it is partly because the educational support given by family and community has deteriorated that the schools have taken on this role. The second type of argument seems to assume, however, that ambitions and teleological expectations can reverse this historical and functional causality.

The third reason is the illusion fostered by the words like "slimming down" and "system fatigue". "Slimming down" is a word that arouses an image antithetical to that of "fatness" or "obesity" causing a deterioration in energy or functionality, and that, be it in the human body or in an organization, makes people to perceive it as a good thing that raises energy levels. The same is true of "system fatigue." It has the power of blind justification for new reforms and replacements without conducting any substantial investigation about their validity and effectiveness. Today's educational trends are being overcome by the magic power of words like these.

Saying that it is good to remove fat through surgery seems like the essence of the "school slimming" argument, but real slimming is something that cannot be achieved without effort, be it by a person or an institution. I look forward to the efforts of schools and teachers.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" July, 1997 issue published by Benesse Corporation]

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