Japanese Universities Are Shuttering Social Sciences and Humanities Departments

Just how valuable is that degree in literature?

Empty Lecture Hall
Daniel Mirer/Daniel Mirer/Corbis

Most higher education institutions offer a wide range of topics, from engineering and science to literature, history and sociology have long been a backbone of . But, as Alex Dean reports for The Guardian, that is changing in Japan as over 50 universities reduce or eliminate their humanities and social sciences departments entirely.

The change comes after Hakuban Shimomura, Japan’s education minister, urged national universities and institutes of higher education to “take active steps to abolish [social science and humanities departments] or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs,” writes ICEF Monitor

It’s a move that’s sending “shivers down academic spines” worldwide, says Dean. Shimomura’s criticism of humanities education aligns with the “utilitarian” priorities of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, writes TIME’s Nash Jenkins: In an attempt to rebuild Japan’s stature, Abe has urged his government to focus on vocational education.

Inside Japan, the announcement that dozens of universities intend to leave behind the humanities has horrified some academics — even those in the sciences. “The university is both an educational and a research institution,” wrote the Executive Board of the Science Council of Japan in a statement. “Any devaluation of the [humanities and social sciences] in higher education could result in narrowing the opportunity for academics to fully exercise their scholarly expertise. This would in turn discourage those who aspire to be academics and hereby hamper the balanced progress of academic knowledge.”

The “softer sciences” and arts have long been stigmatized as useless, frivolous and impractical. But that view could be changing, at least outside of Japan’s government: Recent research shows that liberal arts majors can close much of the pay gap with those who specialize in STEM over time, and humanities degrees are now in high demand among high-profile startups.

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