Monday, December 21, 2015

“Without exception, totalitarian states invariably reject knowledge in the humanities, and states that reject such knowledge always become totalitarian.”

That's from an editorial in the Japan Times as reported in ICEF Monitor, in reaction to the Japanese government's call for
"universities to close social sciences and humanities faculties." 

According to the article,
"Higher education policy in Japan is now reportedly determined via the President’s Council on Industrial Competitiveness, a special body composed of government ministers, business executives, and (two) academics. And it appears that the Minister’s June letter to universities emerged from deliberations within that group and, more fundamentally, from the President’s conviction that Japan’s higher education institutions should be more directly focused on the country’s labour market needs." 

(Another factor in this debate is the decline of the student age population in Japan which means there are fewer applications to universities.  The article also mentions a threat of loss of funds from the government to universities that don't comply.)

This is happening in the US as well and which we see here in Alaska.  As I reported in a series of posts on the selection of the University of Alaska president this year, our Board of Regents has become populated with mostly corporate executive types.

And the University of Alaska Fairbanks is shutting down the philosophy department and others.  Budget cuts give good cover for making such moves. "We wish it was not necessary to reduce the number of programs we offer, but our state budget scenario leaves us few choices."  Of course, Alaska's legislature, like many others, is under constant anti-government and budget cutting pressure from right wing lobbyist organizations based on so called 'think tank' studies.  But that's another story.  (The Anchorage International Film Festival had a documentary, The Brainwashing of my Dad, which chronicles how the right is pumping out this sort of propaganda, that eventually leads to this sort of regretful, handwringing apology for shutting down such programs.)

I recall when the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program worked with its advisory committee - made up of active executives in state, federal, local, military, and non-profit organizations - the faculty were surprised by the outcome.  While our existing program emphasized thinking and problem solving skills, our then existing objectives focused on practical management skills such as human resources, budgeting, supervisory, and planning, and public involvement skills.  But our advisory board was more interested in students who could think, solve problems, were flexible, and could deal with ethical dilemmas, than it was with a mechanical understanding of the budgeting process or personnel rules.  And so we adjusted our program learning objectives to reflect those processes we taught already, but hadn't explicitly identified in our learning objectives.

And apparently this is the case too among key Japanese business leaders.  Again from the ICEF Monitor article:
"The powerful business lobby group Keidanren was also quick to respond to the government’s assertion that the business community only requires people with practical skills. “Some media reported that the business community is seeking work-ready human resources, not students in the humanities, but that is not the case,” said Keidanren Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara. He added that Japanese companies desire “exactly the opposite” – that is, students who can solve problems based on “ideas encompassing the different fields” of science and humanities."

 And in the US, while some universities are shutting down humanities programs to focus on vocational preparation, the US military academy, West Point, isn't. Brigadier General Timothy Trainor, West Point’s academic dean:
“It’s important to develop in young people the ability to think broadly, to operate in the context of other societies and become agile and adaptive thinkers,” Trainor said. “What you’re trying to do is teach them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. They’re having to deal with people from other cultures. They have to think very intuitively to solve problems on the ground.”
That's more or less what our advisors were saying in the MPA program back in the 1990's.

There's a lot more to say on this.  Is this just the task-oriented types narrowly trying to eliminate what they see as useless philosophizing wasteful programs, or are these more calculated attempts to stop universities from teaching students to think?  Which harkens back to the quote on totalitarianism in the title.  But my job here in LA is to clean out my mom's house and play with my granddaughter for the few more days she's here.  So consider this post, like many posts, just notes on the human condition and how we know what we know.

[Sorry for those seeing this reposted - Feedburner problems again.] [And the reposting got it onto other blog rolls in three minutes this time. The original post had not gotten picked up after several hours.]

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