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Worth Noting

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"Everyone knows that Japanese education is in trouble. The government thinks it can save the system with quick fixes like introducing a five-day school week, but I believe that nothing short of abolishing compulsory education altogether will work. We need bulldozers, not Band-Aids. ...

Our schools are nothing but prisons. High absentee rates testify to the distress felt by the nation's unwilling young scholars. One out of 1,000 elementary schoolchildren and one out of 100 junior high students skip classes at least 30 days each year. Many others attend regularly but are terribly unhappy. ...

Before World War II, compulsory education was geared mainly to the twin goals of industrialization and military strength. The idea was to train citizens to become good soldiers or obedient wives.

Most teachers believed they were carrying out a vital mission on behalf of the emperor himself: molding a new generation of subjects. Their role was to create servants of the state.

Essentially, this meant imbuing all children, no matter what their temperaments, with courage, diligence, and loyalty. Education was synonymous with discipline.

This brand of nationalism has always dominated Japan's school system, with the exception of the immediate postwar period, when defeat discredited the state and United States-led reforms championed democracy. (I had the good fortune of attending elementary school during those years.) Otherwise, a state-centered educational philosophy has prevailed.

As the nation's economy got back on its feet, the old thinking resurfaced with a new but familiar goal: to train citizens to become good workers or obedient wives. Today, schools prepare young people to do battle for a new army: Japan Inc.

Graduates of this boot camp are tough indeed. So brainwashed are Japanese employees that they will endure chronic overwork--to the point of illness or even death--as well as long-term assignments away from their families.

The real purpose of education should be to guide children in the process of personal growth--not to indoctrinate them or fatten them up for sacrifice on the altar of The State. A school has no more business trying to make a dull child intelligent than it has trying to give a blind child sight. The slow learner, also a valuable human being, must be helped to find individual fulfillment. Character development and artistic achievement should be encouraged, as they will contribute to happiness in later life.

The overemphasis on exams and grades runs counter to these goals, which is why I advocate scrapping the system.

I propose testing children at age 12 and again at age 15 to see whether they've attained a certain level of knowledge and skills. How they acquired this foundation would be up to them and their parents.

Those who passed both examinations would be regarded as on a par with junior high school graduates. Those who failed could try again. The same tests would be administered annually to all Diet and local-assembly members. The lowest score achieved by these legislators would be the passing level for that year's crop of students. Who knows--there might be times when zero is passing!

The public schools need not be abandoned. Like municipal hospitals and libraries, they should be available for those who wish to use them. Parents also ought to have the option of teaching their kids themselves.

Let's unlock the cages and open the doors. We cannot allow our youngsters to be penned up like criminals. They need room to stretch and grow.''

--Sachiya Hiro, a Buddhist scholar, writing in the Japanese magazine Voice. (Translation by the Asia Foundation.)

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