Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 19, 2010
NOT LONG after I arrived in Japan, the students in a sixth-grade class I taught at an English school told me about a mock test they had taken earlier that day in their regular school. To say that they were astonished by the test content would not adequately describe their reaction. They had learned something very important, but it had little to do with the subject matter of the exam.
The test given to the sixth-graders was a collection of math problems culled from American textbooks used for ninth-graders, i.e., third-year junior high school students. My students were shocked at how easy the questions were. As one girl told me, “We learned all this stuff a long time ago.”
A few years later, the subject of studying abroad came up while talking casually with another student, a girl who intended to go to medical school. (She is now practicing medicine in Nagano). She wasn’t interested. “The academic level at American universities isn’t very high. The only reason to study in the United States would be to conduct advanced, specialized post-graduate research.”
To be sure, these were students of the local schools for the academically precocious; the primary school the first group of students attended is affiliated with a nearby university, and it accepts only the brightest children. But that is precisely the point.
Today Japan Realtime, the pseudo-blog about Japanese matters that appears in the Wall Street Journal, ran a piece about the sharp decline in the number of Japanese students enrolling in American universities. They—and some in the Japanese government and media—think this is somehow not a good thing:
It is a troubling concern for Japan in what is yet another symptom of the “Galapagos syndrome” afflicting the country — where a complacent Japan is increasingly looking inward while rival countries are globalizing at a clipped pace.
Putting aside the presumptuous bagatelle that (a) Japan needs to “globalize”, and (b) attending an American university is the royal road to globalization, the author of the piece demonstrates the mindset of the frog at the bottom of the well. For example, the article cites concerns that only one Japanese student would be part of this year’s freshman class at Harvard. Meanwhile, Americans realized long ago that the primary reason for attending Harvard or other similar schools is for the members of a certain class—not necessarily economic—to create personal networks, rather than receive the ultimate in educational opportunities. The piece also contains this passage, which I would have called illogical if there were evidence that logic was in any way involved with it:
Worried that a lack of exposure to the U.S., a key Japanese ally, will inevitably cloud future views of the relationship, not to mention the reason behind the heavy U.S. military presence in Japan, the government announced a series of initiatives to increase the flow of Japanese students and others sent to the U.S.
The lack of exposure to the U.S. in Japan is a problem that ranks in seriousness somewhat below that of say…the lack of an adequate supply of fingernail clippers in mass merchandise retail outlets. What is a serious problem is the attitude in some American circles that the slopes and gooks need to come to the seat of colonial authority so that the educationally and culturally deprived can attend a finishing school for the international credentialed gentry.
Might it be that the increasing unwillingness of Japanese to attend American universities is an indication of the intelligence and perspicacity of the Japanese, rather than their complacency? Why spend an enormous sum of money for a degraded education of dubious value? Why would a student wishing to become an automotive engineer, for example, relinquish the opportunity to learn the way they do things at Toyota to learn how they do things at General Motors instead?
There are several reasons for the decline of American universities. Here’s a recently published article by Michael Barone warning that the American education bubble is about to burst:
Government-subsidized loans have injected money into higher education, as they did into housing, causing prices to balloon. But at some point people figure out they’re not getting their money’s worth, and the bubble bursts.
I saw elsewhere within the past week that the tuition at one four-year school in the United States will be raised to $50,000 per year. In 2007 American college costs averaged $31,000 per year. What do the students get for that king’s ransom? Nothing for a foreign student to write home about:
The National Center for Education Statistics found that most college graduates are below proficiency in verbal and quantitative literacy.
And those are American proficiency standards, mind you.
The American Council of Alumni and Trustees concluded, after a survey of 714 colleges and universities, “by and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum.”
They aren’t taught the basics of literature, history or science. ACTA reports that most schools don’t require a foreign language, hardly any require economics, American history and government “are badly neglected” and schools “have much to do” on math and science.
The students in my small Japanese city had that sussed out long ago.
But if the students at many American universities are no longer being properly educated, what—other than learning how to binge drink—happens to them? Exposure to the great minds and great ideas of the day? I think not:
Far too many of today’s tenured faculty are political activists first and teachers only secondarily, if at all. Their agenda is indoctrinating students in their own political prejudices, while their academic colleagues who are not activists or ideologues studiously refuse to notice the abuses that are going on.
This dry rot has spread far beyond the courses taught or lectures given by the denim jacket and black turtleneck-clad denizens of the Che Guevara Memorial Faculty Lounge, or the empty majors in Gender Studies and Queer Theory that qualify graduates either to teach similar courses at another university or to train for counter work at McDonald’s.
Now students at American universities can take courses in “The Phallus”, “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music”, or “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie”. Then there’s the UC Berkeley course, “Pornographies On/Scene”:
This seminar will bring together debates about the nature of pornography with debates about the nature of the visual. Both will be considered in relation to the (mostly unwritten) history of American visual pornographies and with an eye towards imagining, and even contributing to this history. What, for example, is the canon of hard core pornography? We will concentrate on two moments in the history of moving image pornography: an earlier era of “obscenity,” in which explicit sexual images were kept off-scene for the consumption of private elites in the era of the stag film, and a more contemporary, and increasingly electronic era of “on/scenity” in which pornographies of all sorts become available to wide varieties of consumers, including those to whom it was once forbidden. Although moving-image pornographies will be our primary objects of study, this seminar will also consider the different rhetorics of still and image moving images which aim to arouse, techniques of arousal, and related popular images which also aim to “move” the bodies of spectator/users. Approximately one third of the class will be devoted to general readings in the growing “field” of pornography studies, another third to the question of what constitutes the canon of the stag era (here I will invite those interested to imagine a two disk DVD with notes arguing for what constitutes this canon) and another third to the burning question of electronic, interactive pornographies on small screens.
It was no surprise to see that the first among the required texts was written by Michael Foucault (and another was titled, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy). It was also no surprise that the lecturer added a note to discourage students from auditing the course.
In 2007, Swarthmore students could have taken a course called “Non-Violent Responses to Terrorism”. (The syllabus said the course would “deconstruct terrorism (and) build on promising nonviolent procedures to combat today’s terrorism.”) The Johns Hopkins University—my alma mater—offered a course called “Mail Order Brides: Understanding the Philippines in Southeast Asian Context”. Mount Holyoke College had a course on “Whiteness” and Occidental College—Barack Obama’s alma mater—had a course on “Blackness”. Students at the University of Pennsylvania could get academic credit for a course called Adultery Novel, which offered “various critical approaches in order to place adultery into its aesthetic, social and cultural context, including: sociological descriptions of modernity, Marxist examinations of family as a social and economic institution (and) feminist work on the construction of gender.”
The first sentence of the WSJ “blog” post read:
Japanese students are increasingly content on staying put in the classroom – at home.
And, assuming they put time and effort into their schoolwork, are probably learning a lot more—and wasting a lot less of their parents’ money—because of it.
That The Wall Street Journal thinks this is an important issue is evidence of a nasty strain of cultural chauvinism among the American elites.
There’s an obvious cure for their myopia, of course.
* There are problems in other English-speaking countries, too. Asian students in general might find themselves subject to quotas at Canadian universities, as this MacLeans article explains:
When Alexandra and her friend Rachel, both graduates of Toronto’s Havergal College, an all-girls private school, were deciding which university to go to, they didn’t even bother considering the University of Toronto. “The only people from our school who went to U of T were Asian,” explains Alexandra, a second-year student who looks like a girl from an Aritzia billboard. “All the white kids,” she says, “go to Queen’s, Western and McGill.”
Alexandra eventually chose the University of Western Ontario. Her younger brother, now a high school senior deciding where he’d like to go, will head “either east, west or to McGill”—unusual academic options, but in keeping with what he wants from his university experience. “East would suit him because it’s chill, out west he could be a ski bum,” says Alexandra, who explains her little brother wants to study hard, but is also looking for a good time—which rules out U of T, a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy.
Or, as Alexandra puts it—she asked that her real name not be used in this article, and broached the topic of race at universities hesitantly—a “reputation of being Asian.”
* One wonders if the people at the WSJ website have any idea of how many foreign students come to study at Japanese universities. I teach a few courses at my local university, which is a national school. The students and teachers would be the first to admit that it is not the first choice of the academically inclined. Yet they attract quite a few people from abroad to study engineering and agriculture. Among my acquaintances, past and present:
- A Sri Lankan man who received a doctorate in engineering. His Japanese was only OK at best, so after I got to know him I asked him if he had any difficulty with his classes. “Oh, no. All our classes are in English.” He and his Sri Lankan wife enjoyed Japan so much they named their first child Hiroshi.
- An Egyptian man studying for a graduate degree in agricultural engineering. (I don’t know what happened to him; he stopped hanging out after 9/11.)
- A Ugandan woman who told me she was studying “rice”. She left after receiving her graduate-level degree to work for some international agency in New York. While here, she worked part-time at a Country and Western music-themed bar.
- Just last weekend they had a school festival, and I went to see what it was like. I spent about 15 minutes chatting with some Malaysian engineering students there on scholarship and eating the food at their booth.
- The professor to whom I answer at the school is a Japanese man who is an expert in Faulkner (whom a lot of native speakers can’t understand).
- Then there are the many Chinese and Korean students, most of whom have no trouble finding part-time jobs in shops around town.
Ah, but the Japanese have to globalize…
* If they had enough money, the Japanese students wouldn’t have to do any real work at all at an American university. They could easily hire someone else to write their papers for them.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful?