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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (VIII) - Why Are Children "On a Knife's Edge"? -

Ever since a female teacher was stabbed to death in Kuroiso, being "out of control" and carrying knives are seen to symbolize today's children. However, I cannot help but harbor doubts about these stereotypical arguments. "Well-informed" comments and supposedly common-sense stereotypical solutions get much attention. These say, for example that children are exhausted by the pressures of competition over school entrance examinations and the stress of human relations including bullying; that they are taxed to the extent of their capacity for endurance; that now in particular there is a need for a safety-valve for children who are in such a bottled-up state that this discontent and stress could at the slightest provocation explode into violence; that we must change the way we run our oppressive and educationally excessive schools.

The stabbing was a shocking incident that followed hard on the heels of the serial murders of Kobe schoolchildren. It is not that I do not understand that one might wonder about the connection these incidents have with the schools, all the more so because in both cases the crimes were committed by middle-school students. However, thinking that both cases have the same nature or the same root cause, or attributing them to "educational excesses" in the schools, is too one-sided.

Although it is a fact that there has been an increase in the sort of morbid and cruel or pleasure-seeking deviant behavior that we saw in the Kobe case, and that cultural trends that nurture such behavior have been growing stronger, in my opinion, the Japanese situation can in no way be compared to that in the United States.

The problem is, rather, in an increase in the number of children who suddenly "lose control," a growing tendency towards impulsiveness and violence, and the growing numbers of schools and classrooms (schools in disorder) where the defiant attitudes and behaviors of children are strikingly apparent.

Why is the number of "out of control" children growing? Why is the number of schools in disorder growing? The background of this problem is complex, it goes without saying, but in order not to be misled by simplistic arguments about the excesses of school education, it is important to keep in mind the following points:

First, in the context of the development of our information- and consumption-oriented society, the everyday life of children has become replete with sensory stimulation, and they now face a situation where experience that passes through the conduit of thought is in retreat. Media such as television and photo-illustrated magazines, which directly stimulate the visual and aural senses, have spread to an unprecedented extent, and the volume of stimuli that are experienced sensorially has proliferated with rapidity. The advent of our prosperous society and the expansion of urban lifestyles have widened the realm of sensory experience too. We can get whatever we want by simply opening the refrigerator, we can go shopping in the middle of the night at convenience stores, and our streets are glutted with material goods and stimuli. Human relations that are mediated by material goods are growing more common, and gratification of desire at the level of the physical senses has become increasingly habitual as well. In this situation, there are a growing number of children who "lose control" at the slightest thing, who have a strong tendency of reactiveness to sensory stimulation, and who exhibit explosive or violent behavior.

Second, changes in the nature of social relationships and human relationships are important. In the past, society was permeated with poverty, discrimination, and prejudice. Also, relationships between parents and children, adults and children, and teachers and pupils each had their own normative roles and power relations, and this maintained human relationships at an established distance. This social distance that was an intrinsic part of children's lives offered children many chances for self-control and reflection, for thoughtfulness and consideration. However, as prosperity and permissiveness has spread, and the ideology that idealizes equality in human relationships and individualism has become dominant, the stability and regularity of human relationships has been shaken, and a tendency towards unconditional tolerance of expression of individualistic desires and the emphasis on self-assertion has grown stronger, and there are fewer chances for self-control and fewer opportunities to be considerate of other people and of specific situations. It can be argued that this situation also is part of the increase in the numbers of children who "lose control."

Of course, I am not saying that this kind of macro-level change extends in the same form to each individual household and child. Parents who unquestioningly persist in using corporal punishment, parents who have unlimited tolerance of their children's self-assertion (selfishness), teachers who repeatedly treat children in an unreasonably discriminatory way, parents and schools that excessively stimulate competition - it goes without saying that these various individual factors play a part. However, if we recognize the importance of the two issues I pointed out above, it becomes possible to say that we need to make an effort to overcome the negative tendencies intrinsic to this situation. This effort is not a matter of expounding arguments about making schools smaller or eliminating pressures, but is one of enriching opportunities for thought, conversation, and consideration, and making time for this to be possible.

[Source: This article was originally written for "Shinken News" April, 1998 issue published by Benesse Corporation]

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