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The Uni-Files

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

May 07, 2013

Provocative conservativism: Deciphering and dissecting one weirdass policy piece

I'm a bit of a sucker for cognitive dissonance, especially if the source of that dissonance is at least somewhat esteemed, experienced, and aware of the contours of whatever topical playing field they are addressing. A high ranking Tea Party spokesman who extols the virtues of some aspect of the welfare state-- now you’ve got my attention. A radical environmental activist who points out the virtues of corporate investment and indulgence—hell, I’ll give it a read.

Upsetting the pie of established EFL canon

The same holds when it comes to language education. I’m not really interested in a longtime ELT stalwart pointing out the necessity of fostering learner autonomy because, well, because frankly it’s a yawner. I don’t feel that my inner teacher is going to be nourished or stimulated by another layer of whipped cream on the pie of established EFL canon. But if that grizzled classroom vet offers up their views on why a teacher-centered classroom will actually boost learning-- then I’m all ears. Not because I innately believe the titular premise, far from it, but I expect that my pedagogical peptides might be upset, even offended—which is always a good way of getting me out of the didactic doldrums.

What then to make of this opinion piece (the original is now offline so I’ve pasted the text at the end of this blog entry) from the April 16th, page 17, copy of The Japan News (ex-Daily Yomiuri) by one Masakazu Yamazaki, noted playwright, critic, ex-Professor of Osaka University, and former chairman of the Central Council for Education. In short, a Japanese person of some note (short for notoriety?) and influence. The title (titles are almost always decided by copy editors, not the writer, by the way) seems promising enough: “Forget Cram Schools, Boost Compulsory Education”. Unfortunately, it soon descends into a doctrinaire stew, a pungent potpourri of pedantic pedagogical policy (sorry 'bout that) alternating schizophrenically between a slightly seductive post-modern revisionism and predictably old-school throwback flag-waving.

Crystalline insights and Luddite knuckle-dragging

I urge you to read the whole thing and try to place the logical puzzle together—if you can. I suspect a few key pieces are missing. Shards of crystalline insight are coupled with stains of luddite knuckle-dragging, but lacking the sense of irony that might allow these intellectually apposite bedfellows to blend into something resembling a cohesive philosophy. Normally, I would not afford such a screed the time of day but given that this is a man of apparent learning and influence and that his piece holds a prominent place in the newspaper that I contribute a column to, the educator in me feels a need to put up my hand—if only to ask to go and wash them.

Yamazaki describes current maladies in Japanese education as arising from “the public’s perspective of education,” “a mind-set deeply rooted in Japan”. So far, this in line with standard progressive modes of thinking—but he then goes off-track by defining this 'deeply-rooted mindset' as being post World War 2 educational reforms, “…a superficial replication of American-style education imported after the war”. Superior, he believes, is Japan’s pre-war education policy. More on that later. Now, if you are confused about how ‘deeply-rooted mindsets’ line up in this rhetorical picture, you’re not alone (not to mention that he seems to associate corporal punishment, the current center of much controversy, as a by-product of the post-war era too). But wait, there’s more.

Egalitarianism-- a bad thing

The post-war policy, he says, “prompted Japanese to seek egalitarianism and homogenization.” So…. egalitarianism is a bad thing? The devil’s advocate in me wants to bite at that interesting nugget but little support for this contention is offered. Nor is any forthcoming regarding the very dubious notion that pre-war Japan was not homogeneous. If Yamazaki wants to put forward an off-the-wall reading of history, fine, but it has to be backed up by something more substantial than his Osaka U. pedigree and person-of-merit awards.

The wisp of support he offers here is the argument that post-war education rejected “cram education” in pursuit of “higher educational backgrounds” (whatever that means) and “creative education”. Now, dear reader, you should be really confused because, in short- he is saying cram education= good, creative, egalitarian education (that ‘deeply-rooted, post-war hallmark of Japanese education apparently) =bad. In fact, it seems that the copy editor was confused too because this sentiment directly contradicts the article’s title.

Curing the dropout problem-- by kicking them out

We are then treated to a bizarre diversion. He argues, and many will be sympathetic to this, that the current easy entry into universities means that many university students cannot carry out even basic academic functions, connected to a lack of perseverance. And in high schools many are unable to keep up in class and high-school dropouts account (not surprisingly) for a majority of juvenile delinquents. He also laments the inability of teachers to fail students (perhaps part of his criticism of egalitarian education). So far, so good.

But then, Yamazaki goes on to argue that the reason for the number of High School dropouts is that primary and junior high school students with “poor ability are allowed to go on to high school”. Ummm, yeah. So if, as in pre-war Japan, only those with high academic ability went on to high school, the academically-challenged would/should be quitting after junior high school instead. You have to admire the stunningly twisted logic at play here: High school dropouts form the majority of JDs so if they drop out from junior high school instead delinquency would go down. It’s like saying that most welfare recipients come from lower educational backgrounds. Therefore, if you didn’t give them any education at all we’d have fewer welfare recipients.

Anti-elitist elitism?

To his credit, Yamazaki rues the lack of curricular distinction between those students truly seeking higher education as opposed to those who seek only basic education. It leads to a muddled mediocrity (my words) in which academically gifted students are left unchallenged and become complacent. Government aid should focus on supporting this academic elite, he claims, and it should be based upon intellectual merit and not just a perpetuation of wealthy students heading off to Daddy's elite alma mater. Fine. But this would presume a greater stratification in Japan’s educational system, although I’m not sure that a substantial hierarchy of this type does not already exist and was even more widespread before the war.

Thinking for yourself 'creates confusion'

But now we get to the real meat of the essay, as far as English teachers reading this blog (or the original article) would be concerned. Yamazaki contends that this higher academic education should focus upon… wait for it.. rote learning, as opposed to wishy-washy post-war imported John Dewey-based notions of getting students to think for themselves which, Yamazaki states, “causes ‘confusion’ in this society” (as if his essay wasn’t already doing that).

Now let’s just stand aside for a moment here, suppress our knee-jerk auto-correction instincts, and survey the proposed pedagogical landscape from a detached, objective point of view. There is in fact a place for rote learning in the education system (along with drills and grammar translation). As Yamazaki notes, it is almost impossible to internalize the basic multiplication tables without rote. Basic second language vocabulary also involves no small amount of rote drudgery at some (usually early) stage. But as a basis for education?? (and some might argue, although I do not, that rote learning is still the dominant model in Japanese education, pre and post-war distinctions be damned). Sorry, but at some early point languages, as with most subjects, have to be treated as dynamic, interactive, open-ended, flexible, context-dependent organisms in order to be internalized and hold the later potentality of turning into something more fecund and productive.

Does recitation equal understanding?

Yamazaki’s shoddy logic is herein exposed most viscerally. He states that in pre-war education, students recited, by rote, “all kinds of famous literary works” and further, that this helped students “memorize various ways of thinking and expression”. Just a second. One doesn’t come to understand something as all-encompassing and nebulous as a ‘way of thinking’ by memorizing it. These are not discrete knowledge-units in which comprehension can be reduced to recitation. Expressions too, have to be placed within a meaningful context to be understood and applied productively. Memorizing isolated, de-contextualized expressions alone aids in usage no more than memorizing an entire golf instruction booklet will help you shoot par at Augusta.

Yamazaki proceeds to argue that rote learning is most effective in moral education. And again, his initial point is not entirely without merit. A certain amount of what we consider courtesy and socially appropriate behavior is generated from repeated exposure to social norms. But it is precisely locating this behavior in the realm of human experience, with real social interactions, that help inculcate it. The repetition of greetings “with a loud voice” will not lead to becoming “more considerate to other people” unless one equates mindless adherence to procedure and ritual with morality. A conditioned, cowed response is not a ‘moral’ one.

Young people as corporate fodder

Finally, I encourage readers to note the final sentence of Yamazaki’s piece, where he discusses how hardship encountered in practical, continuous real-world education (again, the kernel of a good idea) can bear fruit in terms of “contributing to the growth potential of corporations”. Ouch. Here I stand sandal to sandal with the 'progressives'. If the bottom line of Yamazaki’s proposed new policy for Japanese education is to ultimately treat young people as fodder for the strengthening of corporations, I have just felt the floor drop from under his tenuous scaffold of an argument. He’s out of touch with both the ceiling and the floor.

OK. I’ll give the man his due. He’s not trying to be popular, he’s not pandering to tired notions of progressive thought—what he’s arguing is truly “alternative” (meaning you won’t find the Birkenstock and pony-tail crowd hammering these points home at a teacher’s conference anytime soon). I like the fact that he doesn't buy the norm and wants to twist and re-tie the popular narrative. I’ll even forgive the lack of cohesion in his argument, as the rigid, formulaic analyses typically employed by teacher-types to make tepid pedagogical claims is soporific in the extreme. But I can’t ignore his selective views of history, the standard elderly persons' blinkered nostalgia for a Golden Era that never really existed, the confining dualisms, and most of all, his simplistic, almost child-like, view of rote learning. I can’t help but think that this is a man who perhaps should have eaten his daily bowl of imported Dewey and not be so sanguine in extolling the virtues of a mindset that helped bring Japan close to international pariah status and near total destruction.

Here's the original piece:

Forget cram schools, boost compulsory education

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration considers education reform
as one of its top priorities. As the future of Japan hinges upon
establishing a social foundation that fosters intellectual development,
the government should make an enormous effort to nurture human resources
to this end. Against a backdrop of a recent stream of cases of corporal
punishment and bullying at school, it is understandable for the prime
minister to emphasize the importance of child discipline and moral
education. As the government is responsible for education, it has no
choice but to advance structural reforms in school administration in
implementing its education policy.

I am eagerly looking forward to seeing the Abe Cabinet's initiatives
on the educational front achieve tangible results. However, I cannot
help thinking that the root cause of Japan's education-related problems
lies in a malady that cannot be easily cured by administrative reforms
in schools. It seems to me the public's perception of education,
together with a mind-set deeply rooted in Japanese society and its
conventional wisdom, has distorted the country's education system. The
malady stems from the social trend following the end of World War II
that gave rise to "popularization," prompting the Japanese to seek
egalitarianism and homogenization.

In a nutshell, the trend can be summarized as a combination of two
phenomena--the insatiable pursuit of "higher educational backgrounds"
and the rejection of "cram" education that emphasizes rote learning and
memorization--the latter idea coupled with a naive yearning for "
creative education." Needless to say, the two phenomena represent the
public's antipathy toward Japan's prewar education and a superficial
replication of American-style education imported after the war.

Postwar Japan adopted the so-called 6-3 compulsory educational system
--six years of primary school and three years of middle school.
Eventually, students going on to high schools started to increase, with
the high school attendance rate now standing at 98 percent. Likewise,
the enrollment rate for colleges and universities has risen to 50
percent. This was accompanied by an increase in the number of colleges
and universities, but the expansion was so rapid that, technically
speaking, their combined capacity is large enough to admit all
applicants. To support the trend in which virtually everyone can receive
a high school education, the former Democratic Party of Japan-led
government acted to make high schools tuition-free.

Despite the emphasis on the popularization of higher education, there
has been no genuine increase in the country's overall academic ability.
For example, some students admitted to universities do not even know how
to add or subtract fractions, while many students lack perseverance--
they cannot be bothered to read through the lead story of a newspaper's
front page. According to government statistics, high school dropouts are
said to account for the majority of juvenile delinquents, evidence
perhaps that many high school students are unable to keep up in class.

The reasons for this are simple. Primary and middle school education
falls short in terms of quality and students with poor academic ability
are allowed to go on to high schools. The postwar educational system
does not permit primary and middle school teachers to fail students and
let them repeat the same grades. In other words, schools are like pasta-
making machines--they allow failing students to graduate year after year.

Although the competence and devotion of teachers has to be questioned
as to this situation, it should be noted that parents focus primarily on
the diplomas their children obtain rather than what they actually learn.
In one case, a primary school teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching
students with poor records he gave them extracurricular lessons. The
parents were so incensed they stormed the school to denounce the teacher.
These helicopter parents--known as "monster parents" in Japan--accused
the hapless teacher of "bullying."

Screen students more strictly

What this country should do is concentrate spending--out of a limited
budget--on programs to improve primary and middle school education
rather than make high schools tuition-free. It may be a good idea to
hold a universal graduation examination for primary and middle schools
throughout the country. But, first of all, every primary and middle
school should carry out frequent exams of their own to determine which
students are failing and help them improve their academic abilities. A
provisional enrollment system could be introduced to allow high schools
to accept students with lower academic achievements, as long as they are
given supplementary courses a few hours a week in subjects they did
badly in at middle school.

In the realms of higher education, there should be stricter screening
to divide students into two groups, with one seeking early employment
and the other going on to universities. Of course, students wanting to
pursue careers as athletes or entertainers should be permitted to do so.
To nurture future leaders in the development of a knowledge-based
society, excellent students seeking a higher education should be
entitled to receive grants that cover not only tuition but also living
costs. At present, Japanese university students spend an average of only
four hours a day studying, including hours in and outside school.
Students chosen to receive scholarships should be obliged to study by
themselves for more than 10 hours a day.

My proposal is not aimed at widening the social divide--it envisages
a completely different goal. At present, an inordinate number of
students entering top universities are from wealthy families and many of
them attend private cram schools and middle schools specialized in
entrance examination preparation. I am confident that improving
compulsory education will rectify such inequality.

If our society can rid itself of the social malady caused by the
pursuit of "diplomas of higher education" and "poor academic ability,"
it may be possible to eliminate the chronic mismatch between job-seeking
university graduates and employers. This mismatch undoubtedly results
from the belief on the part of students that "I'm a graduate of a four-
year university, so I'm supposed to land a clerical job at a major
company." In reality, this delusion only narrows students' job

Rote learning suits Japan

As I mentioned, the second characteristic of postwar education is the
rejection of "cram school" education, a trend that favors creative
education to encourage students to think for themselves. The person
behind this idea is John Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher and
education reformer. There is little space here to elaborately criticize
Dewey's ideas, but I have to point out that they caused needless
confusion in our society. For instance, when students are told during a
composition class to "freely write whatever you think about," they
probably are at a complete loss about what to write.

For human beings, language is a basic cognitive tool that allowed us
to become thinking animals. In other words, we cannot do anything
specific without learning a sufficient number of speech and writing
patterns in the first place. In prewar schools, students recited all
kinds of famous literary works. They were therefore given rote learning
lessons to memorize various ways of thinking and expression. What must
be done now is to reinstate this tradition and cram kanji characters,
phrases and the usage of metaphors into students' memories.

The same thing can be said about science and mathematics. Everyone
knows we cannot take those courses without memorizing the multiplication
table first. I remember a TV program that featured a Columbia University
professor who invited a group of middle class students who did not like
science to join an ad hoc class. The teacher had the students memorize
genetics material while listening to hip-hop music. After acquiring a
basic knowledge about genetics by rote learning, the students,
surprisingly enough, began studying science on their own.

Rote learning is most effective in moral education. What children
find easy to comprehend are not patriotism and filial piety but things
related to daily discipline, such as saying "Good morning" or "Good-bye"
in a loud voice, or "Clean your classroom when you make it messy." Once
children are used to doing this, they will become more considerate to
other people and conform to accepted standards. This will be achieved
only under the cram school model.

Education never ends

Finally, I want to emphasize that education does not end after a
student leaves school. For many years, I have said people should put off
planning their lives by 10 years because of the declining birthrate and
aging society. To be specific, the mandatory retirement age should be
extended to 70 and university graduates should become eligible to find
full-time jobs at an average age of 30--with the exception of police,
firefighting and defense personnel, because physical strength is needed
in these professions.

In the 10 years after leaving university, graduates should have the
option of studying abroad or participating in nongovernmental
organizations to obtain social experiences in Japan and overseas. To
earn their way, they could work in the agricultural, fishery and
forestry industry and at artisans' workshops, among others. A decade of
hardship would surely become the most meaningful period of
apprenticeship in their lives and, from the perspective of employers,
employing these young people would be a superb way of contributing to
the growth potential of corporations.

(Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Yamazaki is a playwright and critic. Previously, he served as a
professor at Osaka University and chaired the Central Council for
Education. The government has accorded him a Person of Cultural Merit

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