Is College still your kid’s best option?

Posted below are links to a number of Guardian articles questioning the viability of college education and career prospects of college graduates. They are good in-a-nutshell examinations of the “to-go-or-not-to-go-to college” issue, and and apply equally to kids’ heading for college and their career prospects in Japan, and so I will use them as a springboard for discussing college vs. non-college career options in Japan.

The Guardian article “Does a degree really set you up for life?” says and I quote “what Britain really needs is more plumbers. Which is true. And not just plumbers.”

You could say what Japan needs is more farmers, more nurses, more social workers, more engineers and IT workers, more of everything that requires more sweat and hard human labour and hands on human skills really. And you could argue that it is the fault of modern (Prussian style education) conventional public schooling that creates Japanese youths who are disconnected from the earth and land, and from the community around them. Afterall, why would Japanese youths want to farm the land, or fix the plumbing or spend hours labouring over arts and crafts if all they have been trained for is to push pen and paper to ace the standardized testing hoops and hurdles, and they know that economic security is tied to getting into a top ranking university in Japan.

“Many talented school leavers are waving goodbye to academia and diving straight into hands-on training or setting up in business, helped by energetic charitable foundations such as Young Enterprise and Edge, whose chairman Gary Hawkes says: ‘Our work to combat the perception that vocational and practical learning is a second-class option is crucial to the well-being of our future generations, and to our country’s economic vitality.’ ”

Vocational school and technical colleges and art schools or colleges naturally are also options here in Japan. Technical colleges do a creditable job churning out engineers but have a lower status than traditional full subject range universities; and art colleges have an even lower status here even though the standards of arts and graphics, craftsmenship and service industry are very high in Japan. In fact, all of these options lead to a very competitive job arena as well. According to one account, 23.1% of high school graduates go onto vocational schools and 99.6% of them find employment after graduation.  According to the same account, there are labour shortages in engineering and IT areas because young Japanese don’t like engineering and technology.

But for the wannabe entrepreneur, law-economics-commerce-or-finance options outside traditional universities, are dismal since business is largely tied to large-to-mega-corporations which in turn hire from affiliated colleges and universities, and the costs of running a business in Japan are astrononomical.

Quoting from the Guardian article, “For those less bullish about their motor skills and entrepreneurial nous, university is still the place to spend your A-levels – somewhere to turn raw, binge-drinking joie de vivre into something noble and fine. Many would add ‘marketable’ to that, though I am still glued to the idea of education for the adventure of it, on the grounds that thinking long and hard for three years, even about surfing, might teach you how to think in general. And where better to grow up, smoke, learn to cook and contract an unpleasant disease than 100 miles from home? As Prof Edward Acton, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, says: ‘Going to university is the fastest, most agreeable way to gain confidence and enhance one’s creativity. A society rich in critically thinking graduates is best equipped to build and sustain the good life.'”

In the case of the Japanese college student, college seems to be the place to spend their time binge-drinking and if recent news reports and surveys indicate …smoking marijuana. As Karel van Wolferem says in his book “The Enigma of Japanese Power” that “graduates who have spent four years doing nothing at name schools can always find employment at a higher level than more capable graduates with lower-ranking diplomas. For most students the university means pure relaxation, a brief fling at life before entering the regimented world of business organisations. … Many Japanese think that the ‘rest’ students get at the ‘better’ universities is well deserved, because getting into them is an extremely nerve-racking process.”

However, many critics of Japanese higher education system would certainly disagree that the latter statement ‘Going to university is the fastest, most agreeable way to gain confidence and enhance one’s creativity. A society rich in critically thinking graduates is best equipped to build and sustain the good life.’ would apply to the case of the college student in Japan.

As to whether higher education in Japan would nurture creativity in Japanese youths, Van Wolferen gives Japanese education poor marks:

” That Japanese pupils do well in international written tests is not surprising. To take just such tests is what Japanese pupils are trained for from elementary school to high school. however, if the tests were to evaluate, say, the ability to draw conclusions, to abstract from facts, to connect abstractions, to organise one’s thoughts in an essay, to express oneself in another language or just the ability to ask questions, they would reveal where the Japanese education is deficient. … Far from sharpening the reasoning ability of its charges, the Japanese education system, on the whole, is hostile to such a purpose. Spontaneous reasoning, along with spontaneous behavior, is systematically suppresed in practically all schools; there is no patience with originality. Pupils are not taught to think logically, or to ask the right questions – indeed to ask any questions at all. Instead, the emphasis is on rote memorisation. Japanese students who ‘have done well’ carry masses of facts around with them in their heads; if they have been able to connect the facts and work them into a cohenrent view of life, they have had to do so entirely on their own.”

“…it suits the System admirably. Even if the masses of facts pumped into their heads are largely useless, even if (as with English) the students have picked up bad habits difficult to unlearn, the people selected to reach the top will be very tenacious and have extremely good memories. Officialdom and the business world value persistence, dedication and memory much more highly than inventiveness.

These observations are not new. One of the first foreign teachers in Japan, the American missionary William Griffis, wrote of Japanese teachers in 1874 that their ‘chief duty was to stuff and cram the minds of … pupils. To expand or develop the mental power sof a boy, to enlarge his mental visions, to teach him to think for himself, would have been doing precisely what it was the teacher’s business to prevent.’ …

An education system geared almost entirely to the production of experts in taking multiple-choice tests does not select original thinkers. moreover since intellectual curiousity can become a threat to convention it is actively discouraged, rendering the Japanese learning environment extremely inhospitable to creative thought.”

Further on in his book, Van Wolferen writes again cryptically about the elite alumni graduates of University of Tokyo or Todai, considered the best of Japanese universities:

“Its ranks have been selected mainly for stamina and dedication. Todai graduates tend to be ‘bright’, but many Japanese with very capable minds of a different cast are discarded and doomed permanently to operate on the fringes. Much capacity for original thinking is wasted. The Japanese ruling class is far more thoroughly schooled than it is educated: a fact of more than peripheral importance for the attitude and approach of Japan’s administrators towards the international world.”

Of the value of Japanese higher education, Van Wolferen has merely this to say:

“By deciding who will end up at what level and in which segment of which hierarchy within the System, Japanese education performs a function that can be found in most, if not all, other countries; but it fulfils this function in a more relentlessly rigid fashion than anywhere in the West and perhaps most of the communist world as well. It shapes elites who, dispersed throughout the System, will give it cohesion, in somewhat the same way as the old-boy networks of the English public schools and universities, but in a much magnified and multiplied form.” … and eventually,

“The meticulously pre-sorted ‘members’ of Japanese corporations will maintain contact with former classmates who may be of value to the company through their positions in other parts of the System. ..Within the business conglomerates, communciation is heightened by informal groupings often derived from the schools that top employees have attended.”

With the recession biting and the graduate job pool shrinking this year, the figures show more and more parents and their kids are aiming for quality in higher education. Even more so here in Japan, than in most countries, the competition to get into the top ranking schools and colleges is intensifying. Only here, if Van Wolferen is right, the college option does not mean buying a quality education for our kids, but ‘membership’ into elite careers and segments of society.

The harsh indictment of educational critics of Japan’s higher education notwithstanding, are there really better ways for our kids to get ahead than college or university?  Following all that has been said above, we ask you parents, students, teachers and job counselors, what indeed is a kid’s best option today? 


The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel van Wolferen

*Does a degree really set you up for life? The Guardian

*So you want to study: A master’s in English The Guardian
It’s been asked, what good are the works of Shakespeare when it comes to clinching a job (acting aside, naturally)? Well, while it doesn’t come
wrapped in vocational packaging, the skills you obtain from an MA in English will prepare you for most professions.

Vocational schools on the move by Taro Fujimoto

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