The Japanese educational challenge: a commitment to children.

The Japanese educational challenge: a commitment to children. – book reviews

Paul Chance

The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children

In the United States today, all eyesface East. The small island country of Japan seems to be everything America is supposed to be: wealthy, high-tech, industrialized, a country filled with people who make money the old-fashioned way, by earning it. It is widely assumed, both here and in Japan, that much of the credit for Japan’s success is due to its educational system, so it is no wonder that American experts in education look to the rising sun for inspiration. But Merry White, director of international education at Harvard University and author of The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children (Free Press, $18.95), sounds a note of caution to those who would Japanize U.S. schools.

White admits that the Japanese approachto education has worked wonders: Illiteracy is virtually unknown, 94 percent of students graduate from high school and 34 percent earn a college degree. Achievement tests also show that Japanese students are learning far more than their U.S. counterparts. Unfortunately, says White, the Japanese educational system does not promise the quick fix we Americans crave. In Japan, the entire country is preoccupied with education. It is, she says, a “national obsession.’ At the heart of this obsession is the Japanese mother. “An overwhelming majority of Japanese mothers give up their own chances for a career or for outside employment during the years their children are in school, to spend time helping them with schoolwork or simply to be there when needed.’ The Japanese mother spends hours reading stories to her children and playing what we would call educational games. She breaks each task into small steps, lavishes praise on the children as they master each one and seldom resorts to punishment. We in the West would say she uses behavior modification, but the techniques arise from a different cultural tradition.

In Japan, innate ability counts forvery little. Success is attributed largely to qualities that anyone can acquire, such as cooperativeness, persistance and a willingness to work hard. Thus, whereas Americans like to say that anyone with the right talent can grow up to be president of General Motors, the Japanese believe that anyone with the right mother can grow up to be president of Toyota. The mother, therefore, forms an alliance with her child; they work together to conquer educational challenges.

The result is that the child comesto share the mother’s obsession. Many Japanese youngsters attend juku (private lessons) after school, and then return home to spend several hours on homework. By high school, children spend most of the week studying. They are as devoted to learning as Olympic athletes are devoted to their sports. The difference is that in Japan the most sought-after prize is entrance to prestigious Tokyo University.

Much has been said, here and inJapan, about the detrimental effects of the Japanese obsession with education. We hear that students who cannot live up to the high standards rebel violently against the system, that those who do poorly on important examinations commit suicide. White reports, however, that in the mid 1970s there were more assaults on teachers in New York City’s schools than there were in all of Japan, and that the suicide rate among those 15 to 20 years old is higher in the United States than it is in Japan.

Yet White does not advocate theJapanization of U.S. education. She warns that their system of education is a product of their unique culture, and we can no more borrow the one without the other than we can lift the design from a stained-glass window. It is extremely unlikely, she notes, that large numbers of U.S. women would be willing to trade their careers for the job of tutor and cheerleader to their own children. We cannot simply transplant the Japanese solution to our problem, but White believes that we can learn from the East. We can adopt their commitment to excellence and find a way to achieve high standards that is compatible with our own culture.

White’s look at Japanese–and bycontrast, U.S.–education is fascinating and enlightening, but the optimistic note on which she ends her book is unconvincing. Japan is a small, overcrowded nation on a volcanic archipelago devoid of natural resources. It leads a precarious existence, dependent on the outside world both for raw materials and markets in which to sell its products. It seems likely that the Japanese are zealous about education because education is vital to their survival. The United States, on the other hand, is rich in natural resources. We can afford a wasteful educational system, and that is what we have. Sadly, our educational system is as much a product of our culture as the Japanese educational system is of theirs.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

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