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Sunday, April 27, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

University exam pressure


JAPANESE HIGHER EDUCATION AS MYTH, by Brian J. McVeigh. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, NY, 2002, 301 pp., $25.95 (cloth) In this withering critique, Japanese universities are portrayed as an educational Potemkin village. McVeigh's excellent analysis of institutional dysfunction focuses on how learning is sacrificed and students are poorly served by the simulated schooling that passes for higher education in Japan.

Drawing on his personal experiences, ethnographic training and a firm command of the secondary literature, McVeigh exposes the sham of Japan's "quality education" with great sympathy for the students who are the hapless victims of a system that stifles learning and intellectual curiosity. He laments that, "There is a dark spirit plaguing the Japanese university classroom. It is the ghost of opinions suppressed, voices lost, self-expressions discouraged, and individuality restrained. The ghost is malevolent, and in its vengeance demands silence, self-censorship, and indifference from the students it haunts."

In his view, "Japan's higher education has been sacrificed on the altar of rapid modernization, slain by the gods of statism and corparatist forces."

Overall the Japanese educational system performs no better or worse than educational systems in other Group of Seven nations in producing "workers demanded by modernity's capitalistic socioeconomic systems." However, this comes at a cost to learning, creativity, critical thinking and curiosity. The system may succeed in training diligent workers and well-behaved citizens, but "many students are not well trained in writing critically, arguing coherently, or expressing their views with conviction or verve. In short, they have trouble with specific forms of knowledge manipulation and production that some people, with different schooling experiences, might take for granted."

According to McVeigh, the greatest tragedy of the education system is the emphasis on examinations and the consequences of this focus on students. He is not so concerned about the content of the exams, rather it is the process of preparing for and sitting exams that is so devastating. Learning is trivialized, "Because it is used merely for testing, knowledge is sliced, disconnected, disjointed, stored, packaged for rapid retrieval, and is abstracted from immediate experience. Consequently, knowledge loses its meaning as a body of information that points to something beyond itself, and acquires an overly practical, banal, and dull character. Daigaku [universities] rest upon pyramids of shattered knowledge, with the more substandard schools sitting atop small pieces of knowledge ground into fine bits by the crushing stress of examinations."

Exams may be an efficient way to rank students and select the "best and brightest," but they are detrimental to learning. The root problem is a, "managed education system that overemphasizes examinations as a means of weeding out less-than-desirable workers." In this sense, Japan's educational system is not aberrant or dysfunctional because it does achieve what is intended: "Together, state machinery, economic interests, and social norms work to produce obedient and efficient workers." "Exam hell" is a process of socialization and ranking that is designed to inculcate values, fears and inclinations that serve the interests of the system.

McVeigh describes how universities impose a "dumbing down" process. Students are pushed along the conveyor belt of credentialization with little concern for academic standards. Everyone involved is an accomplice in a system that is antithetical to learning. Rather than the substance of education, universities focus on elaborating the rituals of entrance, graduation, faculty meetings and paperwork.

Regarding this "compensatory ritualization" he writes, "what I found remarkable was the primary purpose of paperwork; not to record academic achievement or keep accurate records, but to simulate the occurrence of education. Because there is so little actual classroom education, entire paperwork rituals must be carried out in order to ensure that it at least looks as if learning has taken place. More than just a formality, paper education is officially sanctioned forgery, an institutionalized form of record doctoring that is intended to evade questions of educational evaluation, quality and content."

Why is English language education in Japan so miserable, and how can so much time and money produce such paltry results? McVeigh argues that simulated education naturally extends to foreign language teaching with predictable results; without Albania, Japan would comfortably rule the bottom of the world average TOEFL score rankings. As with other aspects of the educational system, there is a purpose to this dysfunction. Rather than building bridges and promoting cross-cultural understanding, English language instruction, "ironically builds national identity among students. Japaneseness, as a powerful ideology embedded in an array of institutions, converts English and non-Japanese instructors into practices and people that reinforce Japanese identity. . . . English is dissected and reassembled into a malformed creature that has little to do with communication, but everything to do with sitting for exacting examinations and, as ironic as it may sound, demonstrating one's Japaneseness."

Students and society pay a high cost for this impoverished educational system. The "fabric of institutional mendacity" that passes for education has robbed students of motivation for learning and certifies that they are educated even when they fail to study. The chances for significant reform appear remote because the problems are deeply embedded in Japanese society. The rhetoric of reform has not been matched by substantive initiatives because those who would lose from reform have coopted the process.

As a result, there is little hope of breaking down the "cartels of the mind" parochialism that hampers Japan's international interactions. "Japanese Higher Education as Myth" is also a sobering reminder about Japan's future, as chances for a more robust civil society rest on the efforts and initiatives of tomorrow's graduates. The numbing process of socialization detailed in this fine book seems programed to churn out listless and apathetic citizens. However, there are countless examples of people who overcome the scars of their education, and one can only hope that these exceptions are finding more support and social space than in the past. Clearly, Japan needs such people more than ever.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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