Open letter to Japan’s Prime Minister and Education Minister on their instruction to close humanities and social science faculties

In case you hadn’t heard, the Japanese government have recently instructed public universities to close their humanities and social science faculties and concentrate on “areas that better serve society’s needs”. Here is the Times Higher Education article about it. This open letter is my response to the men behind that decision.

Dear Messrs Abe and Shimomura,

I wanted to write this letter a few days ago, when I first heard about your directive to public universities to shut down humanities and social sciences faculties. However I have learned with experience that writing when blazingly angry is often counter-productive, so I have taken a few days to calm down and think round your decision. However hard I try, and I pride myself on pretty good critical and creative thinking skills, I cannot fathom why you would make this step.

First let’s look at the functional argument. You talk about areas that “better serve society’s needs”. Even leaving aside the question of how you determine what those are without sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists, this makes no sense. If all of the country’s great minds are focused on IT, engineering, and other sources of technological innovation, that leaves open questions like:

  • how will these innovations be developed if no-one is thinking about how teams work together? (management and organisational sciences)
  • how will these teams deal with issues of ownership, intellectual property, trademarks etc that are so crucial to providing the economic return you so obviously crave? (law)
  • once these products exist, where will the know-how come to package, promote, sell, advertise and promote these products? (marketing and communications)
  • how will they understand how to price them so that they sell? (economics)

Even as I sat reflecting on the short-sighted nature of this decision, I came across articles on the importance of integrating social science into research and how anthropology can guide better project design. So it’s not just me, it’s the people out there, working in the real world, that recognise the contribution of the social sciences.

Much of the research around the future of work (here is just one example) shows that in developing skills needed for the future, the emphasis will be on critical and creative thinking, empathy, curiosity, flexibility, adaptability — all skills that are to the forefront of humanities and social sciences. I’m not saying that these are absent in other disciplines, but they are the skills that the humanities are designed to deliver.

The other problem I have with your proposal is that those of us who are drawn to the humanities are still going to exercise those skills. People are not substitutable. I would never have been a life scientist. In the absence of degree courses that didn’t suit my skills and aspirations, I would simply not have gone to university. And the big problem with that is that the activities I have indicated above will still go on, but with a shrinking academic base. We will see more charlatans, more ideas based on instinct than evidence, more “woo”. Is that the way you want our world to be run? If so, I’m afraid I can’t buy into that vision.

So even within the constraints of your own world view, your decision doesn’t make sense to me. But my anger goes further. I don’t want to live in a world where all we worry about is where the next product comes from. Clearly neither of you have had the experience of losing yourself in the world created by a talented author. Or been to a talk in an art gallery where a knowledgeable curator opens a piece of art to you. Or got lost in a piece of music. If that’s the case, I feel terribly sorry for you. If I’m wrong, then your decision seems even more unfathomable, as you must therefore be aware of the huge contribution to our society made by the arts and humanities.

I’m sure you won’t even read this. But I hope the outrage of voices more powerful than mine might make you reconsider this ridiculous edict.

Yours sincerely,

Antonia Mochan

Bachelor of Economic Science, London School of Economics

Executive Master of Arts, University of Melbourne