Japanese education. Why the cultural element is key

SEVERAL years ago, a Japanese minister of education visiting the United States met with some puzzling praise. His host, then-US Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, was lauding the Japanese juku - private schools Japanese students attend to supplement their regular classes. These, the secretary proclaimed, symbolized Japan's commitment to learning that America would do well to emulate. There was a ``shocked silence,'' as Prof. Merry White of Harvard University recounts in her new book, ``The Japanese Educational Challenge'' (The Free Press, New York, $18.95). Juku are part of the ``examination hell'' that befalls Japanese high schoolers; many there regard both as a national embarassment.

As America's Japan envy shifts from that country's factories to its schools, such misunderstandings seem likely to increase. ``We assume the trade war begins with the Japanese kid,'' Dr. White observes, and consequently we look to their schooling to get our balance of payments back in order.

But we cannot fix our schools by taking parts from Japan's, like so many door panels and fenders, White warned during a recent interview with the Monitor. And we will miss the point completely if we try to mimic the forms of Japanese education without understanding the culture that produces and reinforces them.

``The cultural environment is the significant factor in Japanese education,'' she writes.

White began her study of the Japanese schools some 25 years ago, as an undergraduate at Harvard. She spent a year there in the mid-'70s, during which her children attended a Japanese school, and she visits annually to keep in touch with families she has followed in her studies.

On the surface, the Japanese schools would seem to offer much ammunition to the ``back to basics'' movement in the US. The school year is 240 days, as opposed to 180 days here, with classes on Saturday morning, and students take a core curriculum with few electives. Facilities are Spartan. (It's a frugality that extends, amazingly, to computers: ``Class time is too precious to use machines,'' one teacher told White.) Students are noted for being hard-working, and their achievement levels are awesome. The lowest fifth-grade math scores there, White observes, are higher than the highest such scores here.

``What we sometimes call the `Protestant ethic' is strong in Japanese education,'' Secretary of Education William Bennett concluded in an epilogue to a recent report by his department. ``There are clear rewards for success.''

White, however, sees a tendency on the part of Bennett and others to ``select the things they like and want to turn our schools into.'' Education in Japan defies the ideological agendas of the West, she says.

On the elementary level, for example, the long school year is combined with an approach to teaching that often borders on the permissive. Americans envision attentive Japanese boys and girls with their hands folded at their desks. But the classroom atmosphere, she says, can appear ``chaotic,'' as students work out answers among themselves. ``If you could see the classroom, you would wonder how it's achieved,'' she says of the staggering math scores. Teachers put great stress on feelings. Before embarking upon cubing, for example, elementary schoolers write in their math diaries how they feel about this daunting task. ``Feelings are explicitly part of the learning process,'' White says, in contrast to the US, where the schools deal with emotions primarily when they are abnormal.

To view the hard-working Japanese through the lens of the Protestant ethic, moreover, is to miss half the story. The Horatio Alger myth there has a totally different outcome: ``The happy ending for the Japanese hero was in no way contingent upon personal reward,'' she writes. ``Harmony in interdependent relationships is both goal and setting for sufficient proof of one's virtue.'' Achievement is a form of belonging and bringing honor to the group. In elementary schools, much of the work is done in han, small groups within the class (led by a hancho). White cites a recent study showing that Japanese students value extracurricular activities because they strengthen friendships; Americans, because they help in getting into college.

There is a connection, White suggests, between the group spirit of an elementary school classroom and the loyalty of Japanese workers and executives to their companies. It is not the sort of thing that can be conjured up simply with courses on ``ethics'' and ``morals.''

The culture reinforces the school in innumerable other ways. Adults rank education near the top of their political concerns. And not to be overlooked is the Japanese mother, who shepherds the child during preschool years, helps with homework, and otherwise serves as almost an auxiliary teacher - ``Education Mommas,'' the most determined are called. (See related story, page 33.) The most popular home study desk, White says, has both a built-in calculator and a buzzer to summon Momma for snacks.

Such desks are one Japanese product that would seem to pose little threat to US producers. For America to provide the kind of cultural reinforcement the Japanese child receives will require ``mobilization on our own terms,'' White observes - replacing the word ``Momma'' with ``parent,'' for example. The biggest danger, she says, is the trade war mentality that makes us look for quick results. The Japanese put great stress on what she calls the ``moral force of method,'' on doing things the right way for its own sake. Students are admonished to be persistent, not to get the highest score. ``Product,'' she observes, ``is byproduct.''

``For Americans bred on Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, culture is what's left over after the market economy and attendant social mobility have worked their will,'' she writes. ``If we want to borrow anything from the Japanese, it is, paradoxically, the attention they devote to their own paramount cultural priority: the improvement of children's lives.''

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