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The Japanese educational challenge.

The Japanese Educational Challenge

The Japanese have not had good press withthe young people of America. To those born around World War II, they were the little people who snuck through jungles and crashed warplanes into American battleships in movies like Bataan.

Kids today have new reason to dislike theJapanese. A school year 60 days longer than our own, for example. Classes on Saturday morning. Mountains of homework. Requirements to sweep the halls after school. As America's Japan envy shifts from that country's factories to its schools, these and other features of Japanese education are being touted as models for our own.

Given the staggering test scores of Japanesestudents--the lowest fifth grade math scores there are higher than the highest here--the attraction is understandable, at least for those whose childhoods are safely behind. And Japanese workers are famous for their ability to do complicated math on the shop floor. As Merry White says in her new book,* "We assume the trade war begins with the Japanese kids.'

* The Japanese Educational Challenge. Merry White. The FreePress, $18.95.

But transplanting institutions from one cultureto another is tricky business. A few years ago, the Japanese minister of education visited the United States, and then-Secretary of Education Terrel Bell was playing the expansive host. Bell heaped praises on the Japanese juku, private cram schools that students attend in the afternoon after their regular school. These juku, Bell proclaimed, symbolized Japan's commitment to learning and should be a model for America. There was a "shocked silence,' White recounts. Juku are part of the "examination hell' that many Japanese regard as a national embarrassment. Parents and teachers would dearly like to be rid of both.

But like Gramm-Rudman and Nautilusmachines, the boot camp aspect of the Japanese schools suits America's shape-up mood of the moment. "Psychologically projective and self-projective,' Dr. White calls this view. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pronouncements of Secretary of Education William Bennett. In an epilogue to his department's recent report, "Japanese Education Today,' Bennett portrays the Japanese schools as just more proof of the back-to-basics agenda he's been pushing all along.

To be sure, Bennett has a case. In addition tothe long school year and Saturday classes, the Japanese favor a no-frills curriculum with few electives. They forego fancy buildings and administrative legions and use their money to pay teachers a healthy middle-class wage instead. The Japanese see no need for the high-tech paraphernalia upon which our local school districts are lavishing millions. ("Class time is too precious to use machines,' a teacher told White.) Perhaps most attractive of all to the right-wing American mind, the Japanese mama stays home and helps little Yoshi do his homework while dad goes out drinking with his office buddies after work.

The trouble is, it would be just as easy to makethe Japanese schools sound like a National Education Association plot. There are the healthy salaries, which Bennett mentions guardedly-- government spending, after all. The schools are under the control of a central bureaucracy that lays down standards for the entire country (an arrangement, Bennett is quick to note, "we would not want to emulate'). The national government basically pays the bill as well, thus enabling local educators to worry about education instead of property tax levies. The Japanese commitment to the public schools is total; vouchers aren't even an issue. And a very strong teachers union keeps watch over the proceedings.

But any effort to fit Japan's schools intoWestern ideological agendas totally misses the point, White argues. Moreover it's not the grind that makes those schools work. If America extended the school year tomorrow, for example, we'd gain little besides 60 more days of mediocrity. What really counts in Japan, she says, is a culture that says schools and kids are important, and that reinforces the values the schools try to teach.

Typically, Bennett sees these values through aWestern lens. "What we sometimes call the "Protestant ethic' is strong in Japanese education,' he writes. "There are clear rewards for success.' But the Protestant ethic is almost exactly what those values aren't. The Horatio Alger myth in Japan is fundamentally different from the American version. "The happy ending for the Japanese hero was in no way contingent upon personal reward,' White writes. "Harmony in interdependent relationships is both goal and setting for sufficient proof of one's virtue.'

Striving in that country has a different meaning,a fundamentally social meaning. People like Bennett "want only the elements that would work in a neoconservative society,' White said in an interview. "The trouble is, there is a lot of other stuff too. The basics are taught in a context of community.'

A faculty member of the Harvard School ofEducation, White began her study of the Japanese schools some 25 years ago and spent a year there in the mid-seventies, during which her daughter attended a Japanese school. She goes back annually to keep in touch with the families she has followed in her studies. Her book combines a wealth of detail and cultural insight with a parent's feel for how the schools really affect kids.

It will surprise those who have read the proliferatingaccounts of the Great Grind. The Japanese secondary schools do have problems in that regard. (Secondary schools everywhere have problems in some regard.) But at the elementary level, the Japanese appear to have just about perfected the art of turning out happy and inquisitive little kids. Throughout, one finds the spirit of a liberal American educator who had a great influence in Japan before the war and whom conservatives put in the same category as Dr. Spock. "John Dewey lives in Japan, though in a Japanese frame,' White says.

Entering an elementary school classroom canbe a shocking experience for Americans, White says. We expect to see little learning machines riveted to their seats, soaking up multiplication tables. Instead, the scene verges on the "chaotic.' Much work is done in small groups, called han (presided over by a hancho), in which children thrash out among themselves problems posed by the teacher. "If you could see the classroom, you would wonder how it's achieved,' she says of the staggering math scores.

Elementary school teachers there put great emphasisupon emotional engagement. Before fifth graders embark upon cubing, for example, they write in their math notebooks how they feel about this daunting exercise. (By contrast, American schools tend to separate thinking and emotions, White observes, and deal with the latter primarily when they are abnormal.)

Americans have been seeking solace in thethought that while Japanese students are prodigious achievers, Americans are more "creative.' There is some truth to this charge. But White argues that Americans confuse self-expression with creativity, forgetting that the ability to solve problems cooperatively, which is creativity in a group mode, can be as important as the individual breakthroughs of an Einstein or Ford. In any event, Japanese probably put more emphasis on the arts than we do. All children learn two musical instruments, and take drawing and painting as well.

The group ethic is pervasive, and the processstarts in the home. Where American mothers see a child as a dependency to be broken ("You can do that by yourself, Sammy. You're a big boy now'), the Japanese mother sees a gap to be bridged. Dependency is nurtured, and continues when the child goes off to school. White says she was expected to sit alongside the other mothers in the waiting room while her daughter attended a gymnastics class, even though the school was only a block away from their home.

The most popular home study desk inJapan--one product not crowding the container ports in Oakland--has a built-in buzzer to summon Mama for snacks.

Though it is paradoxical to the Western mind,such dependency is seen as the engine of effort and achievement because it is reciprocal. The Japanese word is amae, the desire to be loved passionately and unconditionally. As Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese Babe Ruth, put it, amae "warms the heart but also enables you to work twice as hard.'

Japanese discipline seems equally paradoxical.Rarely is it overt. Japanese parents and later, teachers, use gentle cajoling and subtle signals of displeasure, until a child sees the advantage of complying with the prevailing norm (a form of discipline, it might be noted, that would work neither with old-fashioned knuckle-rapping nor with notes on the refrigerator door).

In school, children are taught to work hard tobring honor to the class. There is no tracking. At the annual sports day, called undokai at the elementary level, team sports such as relay races and tug-of-wars are stressed. "[T]here are no champions or most valuable players, except as informally noted by classmates. If there is a winner, a team is cheered, not a person.' White cites a study showing that Japanese students value extracurricular activities because they strengthen friendships; Americans, because they help in getting into college.

The Japanese sense of community extends toparental support of the schools. Involvement with the PTA is "amazingly high,' White says. Adults rank education at or near the top of their political concerns. Where American parents threaten to sue teachers, their Japanese counterparts importune them to be more demanding.

There is a direct connection, White suggests,between the group spirit of the Japanese classroom and the loyalty to their companies of Japanese workers and executives. "The reason why Japanese industry works and why Japanese schools teach, why workers don't quit, and why children don't drop out of school, is that what is most wanted out of life--stability, security, and support--is acquired through effort and commitment.'

It is hard to fathom how this kind of culturalintegrity can be conjured up with courses on "ethics' and "morals' of the kind Bennett and others keep proposing. When American kids look at the world of work, they don't see qualities like loyalty and commitment. They see job-hopping executives (and baseball players and owners) and T. Boone Pickens. And nobody has to tell them which model really counts.

White is mindful that the group ethic ofJapanese schools has an ugly side, suggested in the Japanese education minister's well-publicized slur on the intelligence of American blacks, not to mention the nation's treatment of its own minority group, the Koreans. The clannish intolerance even extends to Japanese children who have lived abroad for a few years. Those who return with funny accents and backpacks and American-style assertiveness are called gaijin (foreigners).

White is aware as well that the Japaneseschools are not without problems, especially at the secondary level. The "examination hell' can be a genuine nightmare (though some Japanese say parental pressure is the main problem), and the no-tracking policy leaves little room for the eccentric math genius who has no interest in languages whatsoever. "Here, the average level is a bit lower,' a Japanese teacher at the Harvard School of Education, told me, speaking of American schools. "But you have a much larger number of creative and imaginative students.' A young Japanese student living in the Boston area who has attended schools in both countries says the ones in Japan turn out "very smart robots.'

But White maintains that there are importantlessons from the Japanese experience. They are not techniques we can mimic like just-in-time inventory control. They involve instead basic American assumptions regarding motivation and success.

In the last century, the Japanese adopted thesaying, "Western technique, Eastern values,' to govern (and justify) their borrowing from the West. The Japanese Educational Challenge suggests that America now needs to reverse that process. Instead of trying to borrow back from the Japanese techniques they originally borrowed from us, we could learn something from the values that cause these techniques to work for them so well.

The Japanese put great stress on what Whitecalls the "moral force of method,' on doing a thing right for its own sake, whether lining up shoes by the door or cutting paper "just so.' Students are encouraged to be persistent, not to get the highest score. The assumption is that something done the right way will end in success. "Product,' she says, "is byproduct.' If we grasp at Japanese techniques to get our balance of payments back in order, we'll get all said and no wind.

This may be the biggest paradox of all. "ForAmericans 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,' White writes. "If we want to borrow anything from the Japanese, it is . . . the attention they devote to their own paramount cultural priority: the improvement of childrens' lives.'
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1987
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