Brian McVeigh's Japanese Higher Education as Myth paints a bleak picture of universities in Japan. He writes about an educational system that has "been designed for the catch up phase of Japan's development--structured to produce a large number of workers of a standard quality and to emphasize the selective function of examinations" (page 46) With education thoroughly in control of the government, in concert with large businesses, perverse incentives are created for students, teachers, and administrators alike to engage in what McVeigh calls "simulated learning". He writes, "Examinations have their effect [of linking nationalism, statism, and capitalism together] not so much because students are tested on the specifics of Japanese nationalism, statism or capitalism.... Instead, the practices of preparing for and sitting for examinations function as a testament of one's loyalty" (page 87), and Japan's system of education is entirely centered on examinations. Worse yet, the horrible truth is that there is little hope for any true reform.
Politics and crony-capitalism play a lead role in creating the examination-oriented education system in Japan. As a result, students don't learn how to learn, they learn how to take tests. When they begin going to university, they are freed from the examination hell of their high school years, but continue the bad habits that they have spent nearly their entire lives learning in government schools. Teachers, recognizing the role of universities as not places for education, but for preparing students for entering the workforce, see little benefit in actually changing the way they teach. The corruption within the system of higher education in Japan caused by political and business interests is reflected in the bored and apathetic stares of students, in bullying, in the frustration of teachers with the students and administrators, and the low standards administrators have for receiving passing grades. Students, teachers, and administrators feel the gaze of government officials and employers alike, and are forced to conform to their desire for moral citizens and hard workers, not thoughtful citizens and innovators.
While reading this book, I was reminded of a TED speaker named Ken Robinson. He has given several extremely popular talks about education in the industrialized world and how it kills creativity in children, is based on creating good workers in an industrialized society, and doesn't allow children to learn and grow organically. He says in his TED talk entitled Bring on the learning revolution!, "Many of our ideas have been formed not to meet the circumstances of this century, but to cope with the circumstances of previous centuries." He later says that we are hypnotized by certain ideas about education and that we need to "disenthrall" ourselves from them. He says that we have a fast-food model of education based on standardization, and that instead we should see education more like farming. Humans are organic. We don't grow all at the same rate at the same times and do the same things. We need to revolutionize our educational system and create an environment that is not linear, but instead creates the ideal circumstances for children to grow in their own way, in the same way a farmer creates the right circumstances for his crops to grow, although he can't force them to grow.
Everything that Ken Robinson says that is wrong with the US's educational system is magnified and taken to its logical extreme in Japan. Many times I saw parallels between the American system and the Japanese system, but the intensity of the problems in the Japanese system are magnified to a frightening degree.
After reading Japan's High Schools and Japanese Higher Education as Myth, I feel like I need to learn more about modern circumstances and ask Japanese students, teachers, and former teachers alike about the system. I need to formulate some questions to ask so that I can draw out some honest answers.