THE key to a nation's future is its human, not natural, resources, says Kenichi Ohmae, a Tokyo-based consultant. Mr. Ohmae himself had a world-class education. He is a graduate of the astoundingly efficient Japanese educational system as well as having a master's and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now he heads the Tokyo branch of McKinsey & Co., an international consulting firm. ``The quality and number of educated people,'' Ohmae says in his book ``Beyond National Borders,'' ``now determines a country's likely prosperity or decline.
``Japan, with its 120 million well-educated and hardworking people, is better endowed with the resources vital to success than any other nation in the world.''
Forty years ago, however, Japan was unable even to feed its own people. Ohmae attributes this dramatic turnaround directly to the nation's system of universal education - a system Japan largely copied from the United States.
But something has gone wrong with the original.
The symptoms are by now familiar. One million students a year drop out of US public schools. Up to 20 percent of the US population is functionally illiterate. Many people are not getting educated, and the human capital of the US is declining as a result. Some economists talk of a ``Latin American'' future for the United States - an educated elite and a huge underclass - if radical action is not taken.
``A Nation at Risk,'' the much-cited 1983 report of the National Commission for Excellence in Education, warned: ``The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people.''
A similar worry exists in Britain, and the government of Margaret Thatcher has made education reform a third-term priority.
Now, the schools have always been a worry to everyone from parents to editorial writers and political candidates. But as never before, Americans are up in arms about mediocrity in the classroom. The United States' economic standing in the world is at risk because of lackluster school graduates, many economists warn.
``When the United States was overtaking Great Britain as the world's economic leader between 1860 and 1900,'' notes economist Lester Thurow, ``America had the best educated, most skilled labor force in the world. Mass high-quality compulsory public education was an American invention, and America rode it to economic success. Where America once had the best-educated labor force, it now has a labor force that does not stand comparison with most of the industrial world.''
It is this sort of worry that is galvanizing Americans about educational reform.
A poll conducted last summer by Louis Harris and Associates for the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy found that 97 percent of the American public believes ``the US will have to have a well-educated work force to do more skilled jobs to produce new products and services that will be highly competitive.''
The poll finds most Americans less than confident about public education and more willing than ever before to pay higher taxes (a telling sign) if this improves the schools.
Marc Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, notes that while there still may be debate on whether educational standards have been declining in the United States, this is not the point. In a global economy, he says, comparisons with other nations are what matter, and here the US is lagging well behind Japan and is slipping with respect to Pacific Rim nations such as South Korea and Taiwan as well.
``If we want to maintain our standard of living, we've got to meet high school graduation standards that we've never dreamed of meeting before,'' Mr. Tucker says. Japanese vs. American students
IN this connection, education in the United States is often compared with that in Japan. The differences are indeed startling. To begin with, Japanese students study almost twice as many hours as Americans.
The Japanese attend classes five days a week from 8:30 to 3:15 and on Saturdays until noon. They spend 10 hours a week on homework and two to three hours a week in academic activities such as clubs, tutoring sessions, and special juku (cram) schools. In all, Japanese students go to school an average of 240 days a year.
American students attend classes five days a week and do perhaps five hours a week of homework. The school year is only 180 days - a holdover from when youngsters were needed as cheap labor on farms during the summer. (``It makes no sense,'' said a report by the National Governors' Association last year, ``to keep closed half a year the school buildings in which America has invested a quarter of a trillion dollars while we are undereducated and overcrowded.'')
Studies by educational specialists also show that Japanese students appear to be constructively engaged in their lessons about 85 percent of the time, while Americans are engaged as little as 25 percent.
Such contrasts almost always indicate that Japanese students get a much more thorough elementary and secondary education than American students. Japan has an impressive literacy rate (99-plus percent, compared with about 80 percent in the United States). The world marvels at Japanese productivity and quality.
But, critics say, rote education is still practiced widely in Japan, and there are questions about whether this promotes the kind of creative, solution-seeking, or cultural achievement that the US is capable of. Japan itself is modifying its educational system to deal with this, making it somewhat paradoxical that Americans are looking at the Japanese system as a model for what the US might do.
Modern education in Japan, says Naohiro Amaya, an education adviser to the Japanese government, ``succeeded in producing a high number of average educated people, which contributed to the economic development of Japan'' from the Meiji Period (mid-19th century) forward. Even in colleges and universities, he says, standardized education prevails.
``Now we are finished with that era,'' Mr. Amaya says. ``Standardized people of pretty high quality worked pretty well, but now they won't meet the demand of future Japanese society.''
In the future, he says, Japan, like the United States and other developed nations, ``will need much more creativity and initiative.'' He uses terms such as ``robotlike'' to describe the general products of Japanese schools today and laments the fact that there are ``very few Edisons or Einsteins'' that have been Japanese.
Amaya agrees, as do most education observers, that American colleges and universities are much better than Japanese ones. Competition among professors in the US weeds out the less capable ones, course selection is much more varied, and a questioning, analyzing ethic is encouraged.
``The government and the people are not happy with a system that is too mechanical, too inhuman,'' Amaya says. ``Competition is severe. The knowledge side is too much emphasized and the human side neglected.'' The best situation, he says, is for basic skills to be emphasized in lower school, ``and with high school and above, more creativity and individuality should be emphasized.'' `Marching at double time'
KENICHI KOYAMA, a professor at Gakushuin University and a member of the National Council on Educational Reform, notes that ``in Japan's 100-year effort to modernize and to catch up with the industrialized countries of the West, Japan's educational system developed into `a group marching at double time.''' Centralization, standardization, and insularity resulted.
But it is too easy to pass off Japan's high school graduates as robotlike and the system as insular, notes Merry White of Harvard University, author of ``The Japanese Educational Challenge.'' The vast majority are able to read and write skillfully, to perform complex mathematics, and to communicate clearly.
Nor, she says, can America simply attempt to copy bits and pieces of Japanese education in order to improve the US school system.
``One can't simply look at the difference between 240 days of schooling and 180 days,'' Dr. White says. Educational reforms ``that borrow from Japan are somewhat inexpedient. Every setting has its own social and cultural fixes.''
Creation of well-educated, socially adjusted children - ``human capital,'' as it's now called - is a national priority in Japan. It begins long before school, in the family, and is found at all levels of society. Mothers, for instance, are virtual servants to school-age children. US situation a blessing and curse
MARY HATWOOD FUTRELL, head of the National Education Association, points out that Japan has a homogeneous society, while the US is heterogeneous. US society is a blessing in that it mixes new cultures and ideas into the melting pot. It is a curse in skewing societal standards, literacy, and communications - working counter to ``cultural literacy,'' as author E.D. Hirsch Jr. puts it.
This is what Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was apparently getting at in his ill-conceived remarks last year that American blacks and Hispanics were dragging down the intelligence level of the US.
Whether there is a racial or ethnic reason behind the slide in educational achievement in the US is a matter of great debate. In the case of children who haven't mastered standard English, it undoubtedly is a factor. And, as Richard Cyert of Carnegie-Mellon University points out, home environments that emphasize athletics, say, over intellect do little to encourage school achievement.
Teachers, parents, and politicians have their agendas for improving the schools - from federalizing them, to using vouchers to promote interschool competition, to getting back to basics (or ``new basics,'' which include the sciences and computers along with the old ones). And more people recognize the crucial importance of education as being ``the indispensable investment required for success in the `information age' we are entering,'' as ``A Nation at Risk'' put it.
Yet while high-quality education as an issue has become all the rage in the US - and in Britain - the cause still does not evince the kind of shoulder-to-the-wheel commitment that it has won in Japan. There, teamwork and students' mastery of techniques are national goals, reinforced in a hundred subtle ways throughout Japanese society and mirrored by efficient, productive businesses.
There is a good reason for this. For a nation with few natural resources, consultant Kenichi Ohmae points out, human capital - educated people - is Japan's competitive advantage in the world.
Next: Trouble in Technopolis