[Liberal Arts 01] Why is Japanese Education Failing its Potential…Liberal Arts Starting from a Pencil


※This article was translated by junior and senior high school students who are members of “Take Action Club” supported by Globaledu. The Take Action Club is working to disseminate the forefront of global education in Japan toward the world.

Translator: Hazuki Nishioka
Take Action Club Member

1st grade of Chiben Gakuen Nara College High School. I am crazy about classical music, philosophy and neuroscience. I’d like to involve with many people all over the world through music!


Author: Kotaro Aoki

Japanese version >>

Let’s talk about Liberal Arts

Hi, my name is Kotaro Aoki.

I am Japanese, born and raised in Japan, and I graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016, a liberal college in the United States. I finished my middle school and high school education in Japan and spent 4 years from 2012 in the United States.

Wesleyan University

Wesleyan University

I am going to talk about “liberal arts Education and the future of education” in a series of 5 articles. I guess that the readers of this series are junior and senior high school students who are to decide on what kind of the future and education they want to pursue. I will make sure that the content would also be of use for parents and educators as well.

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For the last 10 years, the concept of liberal arts education has been getting more attention in Japan.

The importance of liberal arts has been growing here, as there are more establishments dedicated to liberal arts education, such as Waseda University, Akita International University, Tokyo Institute of Technology and so on. Furthermore, the value of liberal arts is increasing in the business community as well.

However, when Japanese universities and businesses describe what liberal arts is, the most important aspect of liberal arts is often overlooked.

The core of liberal arts Education is to understand and discover “self” and “the world,” more than objective and broad knowledge or the discussion skill.

The first article in this series is “Liberal Arts Starting from a Pencil.” I am going to talk about the core idea of liberal arts education, combined with the meaning of studying and education for middle school and high school students.

Japanese Education is Failing its Potential

If you were a junior or senior high school student with honest curiosity and a little spirit of rebellion like myself a few years ago, you would naturally ask why you have to study to your teachers, parents, above all, yourself.

Japanese education cannot give an answer to “why do I have to study?” For instance, memorization of the numerical formula which is useless in daily life, learning foreign languages that are of no practical use and literature classes without any interpretive activities—good students seem to be training their patience until they go to college or university. That is the strategy of bright students here. (I gave up on studying relatively early in high school and put all my energies into sports.)

Looking back now, I think such education didn’t live up to the potential of education. Studying is the way to become oneself more than cramming knowledge and skill.

I learned that “we study to know the world and become who we are” at Wesleyan University. Some people might say that “we are what we are by nature, so we do not need to become what we are.”  I doubt it.

We are always formed and limited by our backgrounds. For instance, a son of  a politician tends to become a politician, or students at a prestige school choose a similar life path. What liberal arts education is about is to raise critical awareness against the world surrounding us, and study that relationship between “self” and “the world.”

What is a Pencil? Defined by “the World” and “Self”

To deepen our thoughts on the points above, let’s imagine a pencil. Those who may criticize for using such example in the paperless age, those who doubt whether a pencil relates to liberal arts education, I get it. Let us just try to imagine a pencil. Just a normal pencil, black or color.

Here is the question. How do you define a pencil? Why does a pencil exist as a pencil, not as a stick made of wood or charcoal?

Some may answer “it’s a simple question. We can write letters on paper with a pencil. That’s why a pencil is a pencil.”, and others look for the source by the Chinese character of the name “pencil.” For now, let’s use a definition that a pencil and other tools are defined by the sources of their names and the functionality.

Everything in the world has a function (as~), and there exists “a world” because each function relates to each other. To take the example of a pencil, we can write on a paper with a pencil and a paper can be written by a pencil, or a pencil can stab into paper and paper can be stabbed by a pencil. A piece of paper with written letters would be used as a letter or a bill, and then it would be handled as trash and thrown away. In this way, tools have specific functions and relate to each other. Not only tools, people and events are related to each other in particular relationships such as a family, a school and so on. These relationships together exist as “a world” and our society is composed of overlap, myriad “worlds”

So then, what can define you as what you are in this “words within the world”?  This is a difficult question.

I suppose that we can not think of this in the same way we did with a pencil. If you were defined by a set of functionalities and the source of your name, you would exist as  just your parents’ child and just a student who goes to some junior or senior high school.

However, you are different from tools—your existence doesn’t have any functions defined from the start (as~).  This existence can become an undergraduate, a drop out of school and become an entrepreneur. In the process of life, at each watershed, human beings determine what defines them as what they are. In the case of human beings, they have no function predetermined like a pencil, and they have a specific characteristic to shape their personal identities for themselves. What “world” we belong to, and how we relate to occurrences and things—these are the questions to become “oneself”.

Understanding the World and Becoming “Oneself”

We need the right environment to become “oneself” like a fish can only swim smoothly in water. Now it is where education comes in.

You become “yourself” through education.

For example, learning Japanese history is to understand that you are a Japanese, and that leads to knowing yourself that exists in “a world,” Japan. Or, you may find yourself in a linear algebra class, and discover an unknown side of yourself that is passionate about math and science. This way, a world of math and science becomes opened up for you to belong to.

Left alone, the possibility of “worlds” you live in is tied to your parents, school, where you live and your country. To expand your “worlds,” to search for a variety of “worlds” and extend your possibility of “as”—that is what liberal arts education is about.

Such liberal and flexible education produces following questions. What “world” do I belong to out of many “worlds” in the society? How do I understand the relationship between things which consist of “the world” and occurrences (“as~”)? We can not answer these questions by just watching news, sitting in front of the TV. We need to learn about the composition of “the world,” in order to understand “the world” and become “oneself”.

Critical Thinking, Learning from the Old Times

Liberal arts education is an education of  “a world” of  “human beings”. Concretely, it emphasizes classical education such as philosophy, psychology, economics, history and physics, in contrast to more practical skill and knowledge that changes with the time. That’s because classics composes “a world” of “human beings” and liberal arts education holds a belief that “a world” of “human beings” contains myriad of “worlds.” Also, learning “an old world” enables us to see “a world” of modern times we live with fresh eyes.

It is important to output by discussion and essays in addition to knowledge input, because the focus of liberal arts education is to make a relationship between “oneself” and ” the world”, not to just follow “the world”.

Classes with a small number of students are the standard, so that teachers can judge the quality of students’ output and give comments for improvement.

Through this process, students learn about how they feel, how to think and the composition of “the world”. Concretely, they would train critical thinking and logical thinking. (I am going to explain the detail of these ways of thinking next time.)

Liberal Arts, Liberal but Dangerous?

Given such a free and flexible learning environment for 4 years,, students come out of school as completely different people from who they were before they entered a college or university.

For instance, a friend of mine had been a conservative person at first, a Christian and dreamed of becoming a doctor in the future; however, he became absorbed in Buddhism and well versed in philosophy toward the end. Another friend of mine, who had devoted himself to parties every weekends, awoke to the joy of study, and now he is at a business school studying organizational theory.

Liberal arts colleges promote cultural and political liberalism. It means there is a danger that you might turn into a person who is too free to conform to the society after you graduate from a liberal arts college.

Liberal Arts Is Necessary for Japan Today

Some might say “education should develop useful human resources” and ” liberal arts education would not prepare students for the world after graduation.”

However, in today’s world where  people’s work is ever more diverse, education with a short-term goal can have the opposite effect. We need liberal arts education, precisely because “the world” is changing at a rapid pace.

The extent of “the world” individuals experience is much larger than before, because of globalization and the mobilization of employment in our time. If “the world” individuals experience becomes bigger, the education for these individuals must become large and flexible as well.

Liberal arts education in college or university gives students liberty so that can explore “the world” freely. 4 years is still too short for us to explore “the world”, but such education can equip students with curiosity and toughness to live as “oneself” in “the world” after graduation.

This sounds a bit too abstract and complicated, but I hope that you understand that liberal arts education is an education for individuals to become “oneself”.

You might doubt “how this education relates to daily life?” You might also question the cost-effectiveness of liberal arts education.

Next time, I will explain the value of liberal arts education, what kind of thinking and skill students learn at the school.

Editorial supervision by Kotaro Aoki

Kotaro Aoki 

Kotaro Aoki is a writer, translator and aspiring philosopher. Kotaro is enthusiastic about education, philosophy, literature, and global and local scale human affairs. He is born and raised in Japan, and spent 4 years at Wesleyan University (CT), USA, for his bachelor degree. Upon graduation from Wesleyan University, he joined BlackRock, an American financial institution. He was involved with the trading and liquidity function, and after 4 months he decided to quit the firm. Since then, he has experienced different jobs in diverse industries from publishing to bartending. He is currently learning programming and on his way to launch a web application that might benefit people and himself.


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