Prime Minister Abe’s administration has told the presidents of all Japan’s national universities to abolish undergraduate departments and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or tailor curricula to fields with more utilitarian values.
It is ironic that Abe is taking this position in the interest of international competitiveness when it is likely to have the opposite effect. This is a time in which leaders of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are increasingly recognizing the critical importance of humanities and social sciences to the success of their own fields. For example, 122 U.S. engineering deans recently signed a letter of commitment to President Obama to educate a generation of engineers prepared with the skill set and mindset to attack society’s grand challenges. The letter acknowledges that such challenges as making solar energy economical, reverse engineering the brain and preventing cyber-terrorism cannot be solved by technology alone. They require deep understanding and partnerships with scholars and practitioners in human behavior, policy, business and more. A similar commitment letter is being circulated and signed by members of the Global Engineering Deans Council this month in Adelaide, Australia. Among the components they commit to are an interdisciplinary education and global experiences that prepare students with the breadth of understanding of behavior and policy and cultural competency they need — i.e. humanities and social sciences.
As the rest of the world switches from STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math), it is too bad that Japanese universities may be left out of this global movement.
There are lessons to be learned from this type of educational meddling. Speaking at a Shanghai summit on education for economic innovation in 2011, a former Chinese minister of science and technology said China had been producing 750,000 narrowly trained engineers each year. Many, he said, could not find jobs because multinational corporations did not deem them appropriately trained.
Thomas C. Katsouleas
University of Virginia, Executive Vice President and Provost