Undermining social sciences and humanities

On a visit to Shanghai, China, in August last year, I spotted a headline in the ‘Oriental Morning Post’ (Dongfang ZaoBao): "Half of Japan’s national universities to cut humanities courses".

The article reported on former education minister Shimomura Hakubun’s June letter urging national universities either to close social science and humanities programmes or reform them to ensure that they "actively serve the needs of society". It cited allegations in the Japanese media that this was part of efforts to suppress voices critical of the political establishment.

The article concluded by warning Chinese students to "consider whether they really want to study in Japan", and, if so, to "consider whether they will be able to graduate before their supervisor retires, and whether their field of study will survive".

Coming from a Chinese newspaper, such expressions of concern reek of hypocrisy, but anxiety has been voiced elsewhere too, including in Japan.

Seeking to ‘clarify’ the ministry’s position, senior officials have since denied that there is any intention to ‘abolish’ liberal arts and recently appeared to soften their line.

But those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences are not so easily reassured. There is a widespread suspicion that minister Shimomura’s letter reflected a visceral antipathy among senior government figures to critical social and political analysis.

This suspicion is supported by the drift of the Shinzo Abe regime’s entire social policy – from the introduction of a draconian official secrets act, through reforms to school curricula and textbooks (especially for ‘moral education’ and history), to the appointment as head of the broadcaster NHK of Momii Katsuto, who has declared that the state broadcaster "should not much deviate from the position of the government in its programming".

He meant it. Last June, I was one of few Japan-based academics to sign an ‘open letter in support of Japanese historians’, organised by America-based scholars and sent to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

This expressed concern over attempts by the government, and by Liberal Democractic Party-affiliated right-wing groups, to suppress debate over wartime history and especially the ‘comfort women’ issue.

Shortly afterwards I received an email from one such right-wing group suggesting that I must have signed the letter out of ‘racist’ prejudice. An NHK reporter subsequently interviewed me about this, but no report was ever broadcast. I know at least one other researcher who had an identical experience.

Meanwhile, policy on national universities also suggests increasing hostility to social or political critique. Symbolic of this is the ministry’s stipulation that universities play the national anthem and raise the national flag at key ceremonies, such as graduation ceremonies. Of more concrete significance are moves to strengthen top-down control of university governance: empowering presidents and deans and weakening the authority of faculty councils.

These changes, combined with already strong ministry control over the organisation and funding of national universities, raise fears that decisions over appointments and research priorities will increasingly be steered from above.

This is no idle fear. Recent developments at many national universities indicate the pressures faced by senior management. Twenty-six have committed to ‘restructuring’ their social science and humanities faculties. In internal debate, this is typically framed as a matter of appeasing the ministry.

One consequence is a recent raft of attempts to promote ‘inter-disciplinary’ research. On one level, this is most welcome; better cross-departmental cooperation is urgently needed. But with collaboration between natural and social sciences strongly encouraged, the emphasis is on ‘scientising’ the latter, rather than ‘humanising’ the former.

This trend has especially serious implications for my own field: Education, the focus of much restructuring. The axe is now poised over at least one leading education department, which faces the prospect of being transformed into a 'department of psychological science'.

The ‘needs of society’

We can all agree that universities should ‘serve the needs of society’. But what are these needs, how are they determined, and by whom?

One important function of higher education is to turn out scientifically and technologically skilled individuals. More broadly, universities have a duty to help prepare their students for the world of work. In these ways they serve an economically ‘instrumental’ function.

However, society’s ‘needs’ go far beyond simple economic utility. They include citizens capable of engaging in reasoned political and ethical debate. The arts, humanities and social sciences are crucial to informing debate not only over ‘how to’ improve society, but over what ‘improvement’ itself means. It is through studying history, literature and philosophy that we become capable of critical reasoning regarding our nature and purpose as human beings.

Japan is not alone in questioning the value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, with neoliberal Britain and communist China being cases in point.

Neoliberalism, like communism, adheres to a blind faith in ‘progress’ and claims ‘scientific’ insight into its workings. Where one subordinates society to the authority of an all-powerful party-state, for the other an untrammelled ‘free market’ reigns supreme. For both, debate over the ultimate ends of social life is largely irrelevant; discussion revolves around means – ‘what works’.

The key task for education is to deliver ‘human capital’ for corporations, or ‘model workers’ for the socialist paradise.

Fascism, while rejecting the modernist faith in progress, takes such instrumentalism to extremes. For fascists, the individual exists to serve the nation – or a fundamentalist religious vision, or god-like leader – while ‘outsiders’ are more or less de-humanised. Education must inculcate absolute loyalty, along with the scientific and technological skills needed for military-industrial strength.

Chinese nationalism today tends in this direction. And Japan has been down this road before. It led to horrors such as the biological weapons experiments of Unit 731 and the vivisection of captured American pilots at Kyushu University Hospital.

Social sciences and humanities in crisis?

But if democratic societies today exhibit scepticism towards the social sciences and humanities, scholars in these disciplines must share some of the blame.

Our duty to inform public debate on historical, social and political issues obliges us, as far as possible, to address our fellow citizens in a language they can understand. However, many social science articles are written in jargon incomprehensible even to other social scientists. Linguistic obscurantism or methodological obfuscation can give vacuous or banal content a spurious aura of profundity.

We would do well to remember that, as the French thinker Georges Sorel put it, the most essential method of those who study society is ‘honesty’. Others make exaggerated claims for the significance of their work – a tendency not confined to academia – often by claiming to have identified theories equivalent to natural ‘laws’. Economists feature among the chief culprits. However, ill-advised government action has exacerbated these and other problems, emphasising quantity over quality.

Whatever policy-makers’ intentions, older and more prestigious universities in Europe and the English-speaking world retain a culture of learning to which the arts, humanities and social sciences are absolutely central. If these institutions face cuts in such fields, they do so from a relatively high level.

Not so in Japan or its East Asian neighbours. Here, a century and a half of ‘catch up’ modernisation has left top universities already massively skewed towards the sciences, technology, engineering and medicine.

In the case of Japan, overall public spending on higher education as a percentage of gross domestic product, or GDP, (0.5%) stands at less than half the OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – average. And the proportion of that low total spent on the humanities and social sciences is itself significantly lower than in other OECD societies.

What kind of ‘restructuring’?

So the humanities and social sciences in Japan’s national universities certainly need restructuring – but not in the way the government appears to be contemplating. If anything, these fields require more public support, not less. They should also be at the heart of current efforts to ‘internationalise’ top Japanese universities.

This applies not least to 'Education'. To meet our ‘social needs’ over coming decades, far more than scientific and technological innovation will be required.

Demographic ageing and climate change, for example, will compel our children to radically rethink how they organise their own society, and relate to other societies. Educational research can make a vital contribution to the debate over how to equip them for these challenges. ‘Psychological science’ will not be enough.

But more fundamentally, meeting our various challenges, while enhancing and safeguarding our democracy, demands that we value learning in itself, not just for its contribution to pre-ordained economic or social ends.

This was what Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi meant when, shortly before fleeing Beijing in 1989, he lamented: "Our common people – and actually our political leaders too – don’t realise that science is a kind of culture. They think of it as just something that… lets you repair electric lights. They don’t understand the system of thought that lies behind."

Is Japan today going to imitate China in subordinating the humane goals of education to an authoritarian, nationalist agenda? Or is it going to set the world a better example by enhancing the long-neglected role of the social sciences and humanities in its universities? We fear the worst, but hope for the best.

Edward Vickers is associate professor of comparative education in the education department of Kyushu University, Japan. This is an edited version of 'The Crisis in the Social Sciences and Humanities as a Global Trend' which appears (in Japanese) in a special issue of Chuo Koron.