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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 10, 2010

Nationalism, 'Moral' Education, and English

"Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind”
“Nationalism, in my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression.”

You might want to note the source of the above quotes: Albert Einstein

I'm sympathetic to this viewpoint. Nationalism is irrational and, in my opinion, little more than misplaced narcissism- projecting one's uncertain self onto a bigger entity, the nation. It tends to inculcate an us vs. them mentality, one that is devoid of deeper philosophical principles and based mostly upon primal tribal loyalties. In short, it is a gang mentality. The fact that you were born into a country/race/culture is quite an accident. It's not as if you somehow achieved it. My instinct is that those who look to membership in a nation or race as a source of personal pride must be lacking in terms of real personal achievement.

Whenever I meet someone who says, “I’m proud of my race/country” I feel uneasy because it’s really just extended egoism (what a shocking coincidence that the country you think is the greatest just happens to be the one you were born into!) and moreover, whether intended or not, it comes off as a type of challenge: My country can beat up your country.

Now you might be thinking, “Mike, aren’t you proud to be a Canadian”? And the answer is that being Canadian is not something I’m proud of per se (although I will be cheering madly for our hockey team at the upcoming Winter Olympics) but rather I’m glad that I’m Canadian. And I think I can be fairly objective saying this- I was lucky enough to be born into a prosperous, progressive, and stable nation (I think that Canada might be described as so by almost anyone) but it’s not anything that I personally achieved. I’m just glad that I was fortunate enough to grow up there.

OK- I can think of a few cases in which national pride might be justified (although I still instinctively feel uneasy about claims of ‘love of nation’, since 'nation' is often just a substitute for 'current regime' or 'status quo'):
- When you are officially representing your country or you have played a major role in making your country what it is
- When you make the choice to immigrate and take on the citizenship of that country
- For countries, cultures and ethnicities that have been decimated and dominated, where the people have lost a sense of self-worth, dignity or identity.

But Japan doesn’t fall into any of these categories. So I naturally feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear Japanese people talk about being patriotic, taking pride in being Japanese etc. It has nothing to do with the war record or anything like that. I simply feel uncomfortable when anyone from a strong, successful (as defined by most standard measures) country beams with national pride (which, as I’ve said, I always find to be implicitly contentious).

Japanese people already know who they are and what it means to be Japanese, quite possibly more than any nation on earth. There is no escaping Japaneseness if you were raised here. It doesn’t need any artificial buttressing, additional flag-waving or chest-thumping. Such acts seem to me to represent the pathetically forced bravado of the weak, and therefore is unbecoming of a nation like Japan, a nation that should have confidence and thereby no need for proving its self-worth.

So it is with interest that I have read of Education Ministry’s (Monkasho) attempts to foster patriotism and national pride in the past. Granted, the previous LDP administration tended to push this more so than the current Hatoyama regime (most famously the forced singing of Kimigayo and Hinomaru displays) but the current education guidelines were set in 2002 under the LDP, so any changes in the current administration’s mentality have not yet been enshrined in official guidelines.

Interlude- a few facts you should be aware of:
First, most ‘patriotic’ education is provided in classes called ‘dotoku’ (or morals) classes. The term might well make some people uncomfortable because 1) theses classes were the essential educational propaganda sessions during WW2 and 2) associating morality with love of country is a dubious enterprise. On the other hand, I have often asked my son (2nd year JHS) what goes on in ‘dotoku’ class and he has never noted anything remotely sinister, mostly content similar to guidance classes back in North America, and more of a focus on human/social problems and situations rather than pounding one’s breast to the tune of Kimigayo.

Second, Monkasho guidelines are just that- guidelines. They are not edicts. Teachers can apply them as they wish or even ignore them- and trust me, many teachers are unwilling to do Monkasho’s bidding.

Third, no such guidelines exist at all for universities. The professors and researchers would have none of it. Monkasho knows enough to stay far away from trying to influence the content of university education.

Fourth, the guidelines themselves are not so full of jingoistic rabble rousing. Here is a translation of one of the key sections on ‘dotoku’ classes found in the 2002 teachers’ guidebook (moral education guidelines):
“The 21st century is said to be "knowledge-based-society", in which increasing priority is placed on new knowledge, information and technology in many spheres of the society such as politics, economy, and cultures. In this kind of society, due to globalization there will be fierce global competition for ideas and human resources, while at the same time, there is an increasing need for coexistence with different cultures and civilization”.

And from another (source:
This basically states that moral education should be taught not only in ethic classes but also in different subjects while paying attention to the developmental stage of students. The purpose of moral education is:
"to nurture feelings of awe toward the human soul and life founded on the basic objectives of education defined in the fundamental law of education and the School Education Law" as well as:
"to create Japanese people who can respect other nations and contribute to peace and development of international society by learning the importance of the public good”In other words, an emphasis upon co-existence and cooperation permeates the document- that any sense of national pride should be subsumed under the rubrics of ‘international society’ and ‘the public good’. It’s hard to argue with that. Not nearly as insidious as some might think.

But how is patriotic education manifested in English classes? Here’s a section from:
B. Materials should be useful in deepening the understanding of the ways of life
and cultures of foreign countries and Japan, raising interest in language and
culture and developing respectful attitudes toward these.
C. Materials should be useful in deepening the international understanding from
a broad perspective, heightening students’ awareness of being Japanese
citizens living in a global community and cultivating a spirit of international

Regarding this, a (Japanese) high school English teacher I discussed this topic with stated:
“The guidelines for English is more balanced than other subjects like social studies and moral education. The only changes I noticed as far as I am concerned is that there is more content about Japanese people who are working outside Japan (like Sadako Ogata), or content that explains about Japanese customs or cultures, such as Japanese cuisine. There is a shift away from content based only on American cultures”.

This seems to be a move in a positive direction. Divesting students of the belief that internationalization or the English language is automatically associated with the U.S. is a welcome move (and I say this with absolutely no malice regarding the U.S.). And using internationally successful and/or significant Japanese people as topics can help students understand that Japanese can work meaningfully in the international arena.

What I hope to see teaches and administrators avoid is the old nationalistic motivation of learning English in order to explain about Japan and Japanese policies, culture and beliefs to non-Japanese. I’ve always urged my students to avoid this approach for several reasons.

For one, people no longer exist in service of their country. Students shouldn’t feel a duty to be a representative, a diplomat. Also, it may be that the individual’s beliefs, morals or habits are at odds with the alleged (often mythical) Japanese way. The notion that any given Japanese can and will represent Japanese thought implies a monolithic singularity that is nothing short of governmental hubris.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s just not effective. People want to meet people, not cultural salesmen or women. It gets a little too obvious, a little too staged, often pushy when your homestay guest pulls out his or her Japan rep manual bag of tricks. It actually works against genuine human interaction. People on the receiving end of rather forced national apologia (or equally staged ‘let’s exchange cultures’ motifs) will rightly feel they are being targeted and are thus likely to regard the perpetrator with greater distance.

Students should want to learn English so that they can communicate whatever they want to a wide variety of people, NOT so that they can merely propagate the national line. Whatever that's supposed to be.

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