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"Or" and "And": Simplified Rules that Make Debate on Education Unproductive


The drop in college students' academic achievement has become an issue in the media. It is said that there are some college students who cannot even do fractions. Some newspapers have also come to research stories at my institution. "We hear a lot from science professors, but nothing from humanities and social sciences professors. What's it like in the humanities?" was the question. We said that Tokyo University's humanities professors also view the rising number of high school students who do not complete courses in Japanese history or geography as a problem, and when asked for an example, I happened to mention that in certain classes some students did not know "the years of the rise and fall of the Kamakura military government." All I intended was to give an example to show that the bias was towards completing courses, but the article came out as, "Tokyo University professor emphasizes ignorance of historical dates."

Afterwards, the same newspaper published numerous "rebuttals" to my comments. They printed letters that said things like "in my whole life up to now I have never faced a situation in which it mattered whether or not I knew the date of the fall of the Kamakura military government;" and "this professor who seems to think useless information is important is just a pedant."

I knew that my comments were used out of context in the article. However, what I noticed was a pattern of simplification when discussing educational issues. As soon as people start talking about cultivating "the ability to learn for oneself, and think for oneself," the conscientious teaching of factual knowledge turns into "pedantic" cramming. And then, pointing to the date of the fall of the Kamakura government or quadratic equations, and reasoning that such information is useless, people say that education focused on memorization is no good. Educational reform and theories around academic ability whether one speaks of education that fosters "zest for living (IKIRU CHIKARA in Japanese)" or "cramming information"--tend to be simple dualistic theorizing that comes down to the word "or."

Of course, I am not saying that there are no entrance exams that ask questions about trivia. In this sense, education based on sterile memorization definitely does exist. However, generalizing from this isolated phenomenon to the idea of treating all teaching of factual knowledge as cramming is very much a simplification.

A similar simplification occurs with "zest for living." In this case, the oversimplification is exacerbated by assumptions that experiential learning and study based on discovery and problem-solving will lead to education that fosters "the ability to learn for oneself and think for oneself" without a debate on how to provide for conditions that do this and teachers' skill. Despite the fact that in some cases, learning ends with just the experience and students thinking that they have learned something, introducing new ways of conducting classes is considered to be education that fosters "zest for living."

It is not that I am saying that education that emphasizes factual knowledge is better than that which fosters the "zest for living." I want to point out that problems with the simplistic idea of choosing between "A or B." Dualistic theories in which everything comes down to "or" ask us to choose which is the better of the two, based on gross simplifications. The important thing is to ask, what can A (teaching factual knowledge) and B (fostering the "zest for living") do, respectively? What can't they do? What kind of obstacles are there, in that case? Moreover, how are A and B related? Even if we fail to address these, and present A and B as opposites, a solid argument cannot emerge.

In fact, in the actual experience I have had in universities, emphasis is placed on an ability to think that is based on factual knowledge. First of all, if one does not properly read earlier research and have an adequate understanding of it, one cannot come up with new ideas. This is because creativity is organizing new knowledge while grasping the context in which knowledge has meaning rather than fragmenting it. In this sense, we cannot do without either knowledge or thought, and the results of education where both are linked with "and" will come to be different. We will not have to choose between them.

Isn't it true that educational debates that end unproductively and ideas that simplify opposing ideas into "or" choices are ubiquitous? We should emphasize the importance of changing our thinking from "or" to "and."

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. "Or" and "And": Simplified Rules that Make Debate on Education Unproductive (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 245 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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