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Japanese Education at the Crossroads (IX) - The Distorted Perspectives of Educational Reform -

It is said that bullying and truancy show no signs of abating, knifings in junior and senior high schools have happened one after another, and misbehavior in young people has gotten increasingly cruel and violent, and on top of that, we hear reports that the number of primary schools with poorly-organized classes and middle schools in disorder is growing. Faced with a situation like this, various official agencies and organizations, including the Central Council for Education, have become increasingly active, and seem to show three tendencies.

The first is limited recognition of free schools, more "emotional education," and concrete measures to improve the educational environment. For example, there is a recommendation for, starting in the next school year, the establishment of "emotional education classrooms" as places where the children can feel at home by putting empty classrooms to use and allocating counselors and retired teachers there. Also, as we see in the Ministry of Education's Council Committee report "Problem Behavior in Pupils and Students," and the interim report of the Central Council for Education's Subcommittee on "Emotional Education," these recommendations do not advocate that schools should try to be responsible for everything, but rather propose improving the living environment of young people through "open cooperation" in concert with the police and other groups.

Second, on the subject of matters like bullying, truancy, "out of control" children, "classrooms in disorder," superficial views that say, "schools are sick," "children have closed themselves off" and speak of "the message of children in distress" as usual get most of the attention of the media and of the pundits.

And third, a reform of the school system, curriculum, pedagogy and school organization is being promoted based on these views, and more than that, liberalization of school selection and the idea that "children have the freedom to not go to school" are being circulated. It goes without saying that increasing individualization, liberalization, and the marketization of education are at the bottom of this.

In contrast to the first kind of trend, dealing with the problems by treating the symptom, the second and third argue for the necessity of dealing with them in a more fundamental way. However, just because I call it a method that treats the symptoms, I do not have any intention of criticizing it simply for this reason. An appropriate treatment of the symptoms is far more desirable than a skewed fundamental strategy. The question is not over a treatment of the symptoms or a fundamental response, but over what really constitutes an appropriate reform. On that point, recent trends in reform and the arguments that promote them have relied on some distorted assumptions.

What are these distortions? First is the acceptance, without any evidence, of assumptions that a series of "pathological" phenomena can be dealt with by system reform including reform of the curriculum and educational organization. The second is, as we see in arguments that call for slimming down schools, increasing freedom of school choice, and marketizing education, the tendency is growing stronger to accept as a guiding principle of reform a way of thinking that treats education as a commodity and responds to consumer needs. Third, as a backdrop to these trends, the basic viewpoint that it is we ourselves who improve the schools and the living environment of children is losing ground.

On the first point: For example, in response to incidents like the one in Arkansas in the U.S.A, where middle-school children shot five people to death with rifles, President Clinton instigated studies into the background of these cases, and earmarked $17,500,000 for crime prevention, but as far as I can ascertain, reform of the educational system and curriculum were not mentioned. However, in Japan, in both the cases of the serial killings of Kobe schoolchildren and in the murder of the Kuroiso teacher, criticisms were leveled at "oppressive" school education and there were calls for reform.

On the second point: Arguments that standardized education is out of step with consumer needs, that we must secure freedom of school choice and freedom that cultivates individuality are being circulated by "urban intellectuals." However, the argument in favor of increasing freedom of school choice is something that discriminates by means of preference and ability, and is an argument that is only concerned about who can gain entrance to the school of their choice. Moreover, lurking in the background to this argument is the commodification of the schools, and the idea that school choice is the same thing as choosing a high-quality product. This idea leads to the third point. The understanding that "it is we ourselves who improve the schools" is losing ground, and a consumerist way of thinking - that the Ministry of Education and the schools are institutions responsible for providing education as a high-quality finished product, and that people are entitled to choose and enjoy it -- is becoming stronger. However, not only does this way of thinking and this approach erode the foundation of public education, but I believe it affects the way we treat children, and is something that has distorted the environment of children's lives.

What is needed now is a renewed inquiry as to what our responsibilities are, and a return to the concept and the approach that "it is we ourselves who improve education."

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

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