Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Kenji Kosaka (2000) 'Predictions for Social Research On Line: Educational Reform'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 23/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

Toward the close of the year 1999, Japanese people were somewhat disappointed to reflect upon events of the past year. This is not solely due to the fact that the Crown Prince's wife had suffered a miscarriage and any chance to give birth to their first child after having been married for six years. The media had consistently and repeatedly released news of an impending pregnancy announcement - or at least raised the expectation of such an announcement - among Japanese people for weeks. This general malaise among people was more due to the fact there had occurred a very depressing and disturbing chain of events within Japan in 1999. Among these chain of incidents were: (1) a criticality nuclear power plant accident at Tokai-village, (2) leakage of cooling water at another nuclear plant in Tsuruga, (3) falling concrete materials in walls of tunnels along the San'yo Shinkansen (Bullet Train) western Japan route, and perhaps most damagingly, (4) the fiasco of the failed launch of Japan's home-made H2 rocket.

Japan has merited a most credible reputation for its advanced level of science and technology over the past half century. Nevertheless, people now seem to be depressed and losing confidence in what they have had despite the many years of progress and prosperity, this progress in large part due to Japan's high level of science and technological research and development. The outgoing century has truly been the century of science and technology, as represented by the fact that TIME magazine has now selected Albert Einstein as the most influential person of the 20th century. However, the coming century will be, and will continue to be, more and more influenced by developments in the humanities and social sciences than by scientific and technological developments as such.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Japanese people began to dream of the kind of things written about in science fiction novels; they had also begun to dream about things they more logically believed would never happen in reality. For example, they dreamed about a bullet train that would travel between Paris and Tokyo in five days. Other dreams included the elixir of life, TV sets that would convey fragrances, TV education, and high-rise apartments controlled by a single switch or button. These and other dreams, at least in their basic forms, were all amazingly realized or close to realization even as the twentieth century came to an end. Japanese people began to ponder, "what dreams are there left for us to have and pursue?"

People can surely speculate about, and possibly even predict, the nature of scientific and technology in the near future. Biotechnology will be so developed that those who are suffering from diabetes will be diagnosed early enough so that they can be cured. The workings and mysteries of cancer, for example, how it originates and spreads, will become clearer. It is thus conceivable cancer can be eradicated by 2013. Robotics used for rescue operations at times of disaster will be most likely be developed by 2015. Chips for artificial intelligence that can accurately capture the essence of human emotion can conceivably be created in 2024. These are only some of the possible or probable developments in the near future. Yet, these predictions or dreams differ fundamentally from those of a century or half century earlier because people are not so excited about their realization. In fact, it may be true that people are actually tired of so many continued scientific and technological advances.

Even the most magnificent products introduced by high technology can do harm to people unless these products are somehow controlled by an ingenious social system, by human intelligence, and by principled norms or ethics. The slightest moral hazard could conceivably or inevitably kill workers at a uranium plant. Furthermore, people are plagued with all sorts of strife, conflicts, and mishaps, disaster (seemingly natural but social-systemic to a greater extent), and continued socio-economic stagnation. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these hazards are caused by the paucity of human intelligence, and it is this deficiency in human intelligence which will nurture our expectations of the humanities and social sciences to solve a variety of problems. In the near future there might be created and produced a clever "commercial basis" robot to replace a nagging maid, but this robot will be unable to write a "Plan des travaux scientifiques n"é"cessaires pour r"é"organiser la soci"é"t"é"," no matter how long it devotes time to writing a manuscript. In other words, science and technology -its apparatus - which can and often does create perplexing problems, will not be able to solve social problems.

Since problems are so intricate and perennial, perhaps the best way in which to tackle with them is through educational reforms that provide a long-range effect by outputting intelligent human resources. So it is a question of creating more awareness and expertise in solving problems by nurturing human resources who are educated to be intelligent. The standardization of an educational level has been the primary motive for Japan's being able to evolve from the feudal society (or conglomeration of Hans) into a modern nation-state. Japan's educational system is now highly developed, so much so that nearly 100 % of those who could go to high school actually do. In fact, the rate of enrollment at colleges and universities in Japan is fast approaching 50 % of all those eligible - that is, those who have graduated from secondary education institutions or high schools or equivalent. Everyone who wishes to enter or university will soon be able to, unless the prospective entrant is very choosy in selecting the institution he or she wishes to enter. Are these conditions conducive to substantive educational reform?

The fact is that the higher the rate of attendance at the college and university level, the lower the academic quality of students. The Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho) has made chameleonic change in educational reforms for the last decade; its recent policy for universities to pursue is best summed up in one word ?individuation. The University Council submitted a report in October of 1998, the focus of which was the image of universities in the 21st century and the policy of reforms to follow. Putting aside the details of the report, this document speaks of the necessity of "universities shining with individuality." The main question remains, however, can universities actually shine with individuality? I feel not for the simple reason that I shall spell out below.

If you examine the Japanese Compendium of Laws, you will discover a law that specifies the conditions for the chartering of institutions such as universities. The University Chartering Council was established in order to assess the many applications forms that are regularly submitted by school corporations to the Monbusho. When we wish to create new departments or universities there are a number of conditions which cannot be ignored. Among these are the following. Universities can be established at particular regional places, but are prohibited at other places. Certain urban areas will not permit the establishment of a university in order to avoid excessive population density (strangely enough this regulation is applied both to factories and universities), and school grounds that are three times as spacious as actual school buildings are needed. In addition, students quotas for each new department are strictly determined by the Monbusho. Consequently, a university is prohibited from admitting more students than 1.3 times of the designated quotas, this despite the fact that the department may be willing to expand to attract more students. On the other hand, it is a fact that universities are led to lower entrance hurdles sneakingly for examinees if and when the department becomes unpopular or less attractive for some reason or other. In short, the market principle of competition is working here, but only within a very strict framework and a number of constraints set by the Monbusho.

The above conditions were set as minimum requirements so that universities can maintain quality as well as their raison d'tre for the general public's benefit. Similarly, there are rigorous conditions for the chartering and maintenance of hospitals. Indeed, chartering and maintenance regulations have played an historical role in Japan. Yet meeting these conditions does not ensure the maintenance of academic quality any more. Scholastic achievement is declining generally so drastically to the point even students who major in the natural sciences cannot handle the division of fractions. The Central Council of Education recently advised universities to introduce supplementary classes taught by high-school teachers or JUKU (i.e. preparatory school) instructors to compensate for this deficiency. Those students who are in their senior or fourth year in university are so preoccupied with job-hunting that they cannot find much if any time to attend classes on campus. University faculty and teachers are so busy in administrative work, including activities that involve work on an enormous variety of entrance examinations, that their contribution to the academic world seems to be, and is, actually declining.

This is displacement of goals, to use the Mertonian term. Indeed we cannot legally claim to be a 'university' unless the chartering conditions have been satisfied. However, universities today are not what they once were a half century ago. Now the labor market absorbs nearly half a million of graduates every year. The incomparable and serious high rate of unemployment and low rate of recruitment aside, private firms have no other choice. No matter how much academic standards have been diminished, companies continue to employ graduates turned out every year. Companies apparently do not care whether these young people are actual university graduates or not. What I mean by this is that companies seem unconcerned whether or not these graduates have actually learned anything (e.g., creativity, critical thinking, argumentation ability, inventiveness that might benefit them in carrying out their future work responsibilities. All that seems to matter is whether or not the graduate has a graduation certificate - a piece of paper - which in reality offers very little to assess the person's scholastic or academic abilities.

Why is it necessary to have such nominal certificates of graduation? I propose that we should create institutions that are free from chartering conditions as outlined above. Universities should function as institutions of learning for real creative higher education. In 1998, NPO Law (Law to Promote Specified Nonprofit Activities) was enacted in Japan, which allowed flexibility in activities to established new universities. Thus, in my view, universities that function as NPO fit the image of a 21st century university, and these should not be constrained by the Monbusho. If such new universities start functioning widely, the Monbusho would then lose any role it has had in chartering and regulation. Its last contribution to this new 21st century university would be its complete withdrawal from "university making and university keeping."

The twenty-first century is already the age of digital capitalism and cyber networking and nobody can easily deny this fact. Traditional Japanese universities that are deeply rooted in hardware image or imaging will be left behind as a kind of university museum. Instead, we should explore cyber education and a kind of higher education that cannot be managed by an electronic network. Furthermore, we should examine the possibility of a hierarchy of knowledge, where a given body or compendium of knowledge has to be preceded by more fundamental or basic knowledge. Unless such a hierarchy is elucidated and institutionalized, knowledge cannot be or become cumulative in any sense. One serious obstacle to current lifelong learning lies in the fact that we do not know this hierarchy. Therefore, from the time we are young to the time we become old we repeat learning unsystematically. The analogy of Sisyphos trying hard to carry large stones to the top of a mountain - mostly in vain - comes immediately to mind. Contemporary society is overwhelmed by enormous amount of information appearing in random fashion. Individually we must organize knowledge from its basics to more advanced forms and substance ourselves, and thus invent a curriculum framework that would make it possible.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000