HACKING DOWN THE HUMANITIES: THE JAPANESE WARNING

This piece of news has taken a long time to reach my ears, which since then are ringing. The very fact that it did not make front lines in Spain (which I do check more or less daily) is proof enough of the insidious ways in which the Humanities are under attack.

To cut to the chase: on 8 June the Japanese Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura sent a letter to all national, state-sponsored universities requesting that Social Sciences and Humanities faculties were closed down. This request was accompanied with a direct threat to withdraw funding if the measure was not implemented in the academic year 2016. Even though recently the Minister declared that his instructions have been misunderstood, nonetheless 26 universities (out of 60) have already announced plans to close their corresponding faculties or to convert them, as the letter ordered, “to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. The Minister, needless to say, was simply applying the liberal economic doctrine defended by President Shinzō Abe, popularly known as “Abenomics”.

Among many other articles, “Humanities under attack”, an opinion piece by Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, published by the Japan Times on August 23 (quite late…), informed the rest of the world about the catastrophe threatening the survival of the Humanities in what had so far appeared to be an extremely civilized society (see https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/08/23/commentary/japan-commentary/humanities-attack/#.VmmQrl7W1Bp). Sawa complained against the long-lived interference of business interests in Japanese higher education, explaining how during World War II, “students of the natural sciences and engineering at high schools and universities were exempt from conscription and only those who were studying the humanities and social sciences were drafted into military service”. In 1960 there was a first attempt by the Government to abolish the same faculties now under attack or, alternatively, push them onto private universities. Sawa makes the far-fetched claim that only Social Sciences and Humanities students have the “superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders”, which seems to be a faux pas. I agree though that we teach students to cultivate a “robust critical spirit”, indispensable in democratic societies.

A more recent article, of 6 November, by German correspondent Julian Ryall (https://www.dw.com/en/backlash-prompts-japan-to-rethink-controversial-university-policy/a-18831857), informs that the controversial policy is being reconsidered because of the vast protest coming not only from Humanities and Social Sciences academia but also even from its alleged enemies: industry (represented by the business federation Keidanren) and science (with organizations such as The Science Council of Japan). In a further document of 1 October, the Japanese Government clarified its position, or, rather, backpedalled, stressing that “The importance of versatility cultivated by liberal arts education is indeed growing in an era that calls for the autonomous ability to seek out solutions to problems without definite answers”. Unsurprisingly, Japanese academics remain wary and distrustful. With exceptions. Ryall reports the treacherous words of one Yoichi Shimada, professor of International Relations at Fukui Prefectural University. According to this gentleman, the Ministry’s main concern is “to secure jobs for graduates” since, he adds, “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs and don’t contribute much to society. This would be beneficial to them”.

I don’t know how many Japanese university teachers will see their careers destroyed by the decisions made in these 26 universities loyal to the Ministry, but I assume this will be a considerable number. I can only sympathize and think of that popular Spanish refrain, “cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas pelar pon las tuyas a remojar” which translates more or less as “when you see mischief done to your neighbour prepare for mischief to be done to you”. So there we are. If the Japanese Government can do it, then any other Government will do it. By the way, the same person who told me about the news in Japan, an Anglo-Indian senior lecturer in London, also told me that according to new anti-Jihadist British Government policies (see https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/contents/enacted) teachers should be monitoring students for signs of radicalization. One of her students recently asked her whether watching Edward Said on video could be taken as one of these signs. And, yes, if you Google the word ‘Jihad’ in a school computer to learn what it is about and how to be in a better position to maintain a critical stance against it, this will trigger an alarm. There are, then, many ways of killing the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I am in this context fascinated by the contrast between the two main meanings of the word ‘liberal’: a) a believer in the freedom of the market, b) a believer in the freedom of thought. I’m vastly simplifying here a very complex issue but, essentially, the ideology started in the Enlightenment in defence of the individual has eventually lead to quite a bizarre situation by which the doctrines of economic liberalism are trying as hard as they can to eliminate intellectual liberalism for the very simply reason that liberal intellectuals are the main critics of liberal business.

So far, we, liberal thinkers, depend on the delicate balance of prestige, by which societies have willingly accepted that part of public funding pays for our jobs. As it can be seen, the point that Minister Shimomura is making on behalf of the Japanese Government is not at all that the Social Sciences and the Humanities should disappear but that they should receive no public funding. Of course, all liberal thinkers understand that they offer a public service (I certainly do) and that placing us in private universities makes absolutely no sense at all. Many liberal intellectuals have certainly developed their careers in private contexts, above all in the United States, but there is always something suspicious about a critic who makes a living off who knows what private-company interests. And needless to say, barring the access of working-class and low-middle-class students to the Humanities and the Social Sciences is simply a social crime, for they are the ones best equipped to understand the inequalities brought on by economic liberalism.

Having staked my claim in defence of my own field (and job), I will now declare that the Japanese and international protests against Shimomura’s famous letter (not even a decree by law!) ring hollow. They feel completely patronizing. Two main arguments are advanced, both built on shaky foundations: business also needs persons trained in the Humanities and the Social Sciences because business requires skills not always taught in the corresponding schools; or, society needs persons willing to put intellectual commitment before spurious business interests. Both ways we are told we don’t have a role of our own: either we become part of business or we accept that we’ll never be successful persons in society. If both business and society believed in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences then it would never be the case that “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs”. Notice that the public university is in most countries the one and only institution willing to offer us jobs. If our university departments close, this is the end.

There was a time when I believed the university was a safe haven for us, Humanities and Social Sciences scholars, mostly (though by no means always) liberal thinkers–not any more. Little by little we are becoming like any other worker, a person whose rights are never secure and whose job can be always eliminated. Just because a Minister sends a letter. In a way this is only fair, for who are we to demand a special treatment from the appalling liberal economy that is causing so much suffering? Yet, at the same time, what’s the point of our jobs and our task if we are not encouraged and respected by the very persons who fund these? No point at all…

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3 thoughts on “HACKING DOWN THE HUMANITIES: THE JAPANESE WARNING

  1. The saddest thing is, I don’t sense any alarm about this, either here or in Japan. We’re heading for nothing, apparently. As the High Executioner in the Mikado says, “I’ve got them on the list. I think they won’t be missed.”

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