Japan rethinks its approach to moral ed

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Read the following story. Discuss it with your classmates: In the hours Keisuke and Yasuo spent criss-crossing the length of the school pool, they forged a friendship and rivalry. Yasuo always won their races. Then illness struck, and he was unable to swim. Keisuke was secretly glad - the prizes would be his - then ashamed. When he visited Yasuo to offer encouragement, Yasuo felt resentful and ignored him. After Keisuke left, Yasuo wrote a letter apologizing, asking for support, and wishing Keisuke success. What does this parable teach you? For more than 40 years, Japan's teachers have told stories in moral-education classes designed to instill ethics. But faced with a surge in youth violence and profound social change, today's educators are trying to reinvent the way they teach values. The approach they've settled on makes activities outside class as important as the lessons taught within. Though some critics question the changes and even the viability of teaching morality, educators argue these lessons are more necessary than ever. "Today more children have difficulty judging what's right and what's wrong," says Yutaka Nabeshima, a Ministry of Education spokesman. "We'll be putting a stronger emphasis on moral education." The new interpretation, to be implemented in April, includes community service and draws in parents. Families will be enlisted to help students pursue activities they can discuss in class. These include work at libraries and museums and helping seniors. Teachers will be encouraged to meet with colleagues from other schools to exchange ideas and to invite guest speakers to their classes, including sports instructors and foreign students. "We've learned there's a limit to simply using textbooks," says Akiko Haga of the Tokyo Board of Education. "Now we are working on a shift outside the classroom and into daily life. Our interpretation of moral education has expanded." While moral education has been part of the curriculum since 1957, it wasn't until the 1970s that the education ministry developed the textbook readings. Stories like the one about Keisuke and Yasuo represent the classic style of moral lessons: a reading - on everything from love of family to appreciation of hard work - followed by class discussion. Responsibility and cooperation are also taught through work students do around school. Janitors are a rare breed in most schools, and students are responsible for cleaning classrooms and halls. They also take turns serving lunches and tidying the schoolyard. But critics say these traditional lessons haven't been enough. A rash of violent crime by school-age children shocked the country last year, and juvenile arrests for crimes like theft and drug abuse have soared. It's not just what Japanese youth are doing but what they're thinking that worries their elders. In 1996, 85 percent of kids here told the Japan Youth Research Institute they had the freedom to rebel against their parents, compared with 16 percent in the United States and 15 percent in China. The same surveyors found that 9 percent thought extorting money was acceptable (compared with 8 percent in the US and 1.6 in China), and 25 percent thought prostituting yourself was not a bad thing. The varied approach to moral education was inspired in part by the shift to a five-day school week (dropping Saturday mornings) coming in 2002. This also prompted a plan to supplement moral education with "heart education counseling," which puts a parent or professor in each school 16 hours a week to consult with students. In each prefecture, the ministry will also promote a "model school," where teachers and parents can take moral education courses. And it is urging graduate schools to produce more specialists who can teach moral education. Some critics note that when the Central Education Council drew up the changes, it didn't include any religious leaders, though religious and philosophical thinkers were consulted when moral education was first created in the 1950s. The ministry deflects this criticism by citing space concerns on the committees and pointing to constitutional limits on religious involvement in matters of state. Other educators argue that the ministry's guidelines are weakened for their lack of a spiritual element. "There is no sense that we human beings live because of some greater being," says Yoshiteru Sasaki, principal at Caritas Women's Junior-Senior High School. "Cultivating hearts is much more complicated than something we can teach in a classroom." Mr. Nabeshima of the education ministry argues that instruction can buttress the values families and religious groups teach. "Schools can do a great deal," he says. "Classrooms have more people than families. Students can share ideas with more people, they're exposed to more opinions, and they can learn a great deal by listening to others." Even so, educators acknowledge the difficulty of what they're trying to do. "In math, there's a definite goal," says Hisayoshi Ohashi, a principal at Yotsuya No. 1 Middle School in Tokyo. "In moral education, the goal is the inner self."

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