Practitioners of the Liberal Arts

Original print publication: The Language Teacher, 19 (11), 43-44 (1995).

Practitioners of the Liberal Arts

by Steve McCarty


Foreign language teachers are seen as imbued with the mission of the liberal arts along with other general education faculty. The recent Aum cult incidents in Japan have increased criticism of the reduction in general education requirements, giving language teachers a window of opportunity to advocate a balanced curriculum countering the trend to vocationalization of universities.

An article in the vernacular daily Asahi Shimbun (Yamagishi, 1995, p. 9) commented on the fact that many Aum cult leaders have been highly educated science graduates. The decrease in university general education requirements is seen as regressive, because there is no recourse but to the liberal arts for the ethics needed to accompany advances in technology. Thus while the recent shocking misuse of science stings the conscience of the educational establishment, the contribution of the liberal arts, including that of language teaching, has been given an opportunity to be reevaluated.

The essence of the university is its universality, as represented by academic standards, ethics, and meaningful subject matter that transcends cultural boundaries. Language teachers are practitioners of the liberal arts, wherever they may be stationed in a college or university. Liberal arts requirements for all the students unify the university, lest its purpose be
narrowed to vocational training in separate departments. Therefore language educators would do well to promote awareness of both the practicality and the universality of the liberal arts.

Scholars in the West have agonized over similar trends to vocational specialization, but the liberal arts tradition has remained strong. When atomic weapons and other scientific advances posed potential hazards to civilization, those with a well-rounded education pointed out the dire necessity for ethical responsibility, encouraging initiatives such as bioethics and disarmament.

Not to idealize Japan's higher education in the Showa Period, but a balance was sought in the teaching of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities to which language teaching and linguistics belong. Since the Meiji Period, universal scientific and technical knowledge for modernization has been internalized, so the natural and applied sciences are part of the Japanese identity, as it were. Yet a balanced education cannot be realized so long as the liberal arts are externalized, to indulge in or leave outside like Western imports. Foreign language education
lies at the most conspicuous extreme in this dichotomy of the internalized and the externalized, so the status of L2 educators may be tied to the fate of the liberal arts in Japan.

If the crux of the problem is that the liberal arts can be uprooted from Japanese colleges because they are perceived as coming from the outside, then the liberal arts need to be redefined in a way that resonates with faculty and students internally. It may prove difficult, however, to disentangle the liberal arts from the Western tradition, for such courses hark mostly to Western sources. More Oriental content might serve to make the liberal arts more internalizable. The abundant literature in Japanese on many fine arts and so forth could constitute liberal arts electives or at least be recognized as thus qualified. Japanese people could find enough ethical guidance in their own tradition if they studied their own classics.

Space limits the remaining discussion to a few choices faced by language teachers. One is semantic: when discussing these issues particularly in Japanese, ippan kyoiku or general education sounds like an unspecialized catchall category. Therefore the term kyoyo kyoiku or liberal arts education is much to be preferred, as it implies the active cultivation of individuals.

In some scenarios language teachers in effect compete with other liberal arts faculty by attempting to show the greater relevance of their subject to Japan's future (miraisei). Language teachers might have a stronger case than other faculty on the merit of continual classroom innovations such as English for Special Purposes (Wadden, 1994, pp. 33-35) or for International Communication. But rather than competing against other liberal arts practitioners, cooperative alliances for mutual survival may be more effective while also befitting our humanistic mission.

As an example, even at my humble college a committee was formed of general education faculty and top administrators. This was before the Aum incidents, but professors took the opportunity to stress the importance of liberal arts education as a whole for the students along with the difficulties of changing the status quo. Bridges could even be built to the specialized departments, for instance by introducing CALL to Practical English (Jitsuyo Eigo) classes for computer-related majors.


Wadden, P. (1994). College curricula and the foreign language teacher: A forecast for the late nineties. The Language Teacher, 18(7), 32-35.

Yamagishi, S. (1995). "Oumu-kyo jiken ni miru daigaku kyoyo kyoiku no hinkon" [Aum incidents bare impoverishment of university liberal arts]. Asahi Shimbun, May 8, 1995, p. 9. A closer translation of the article and some ideas here appeared earlier in the JALT CUE N-SIG newsletter: McCarty, S. (1995). Decline of liberal arts related to Aum phenomenon? On CUE, 3 (1), 8-10.

[Bio-data at the time of the article in 1995]

Steve McCarty, full professor at Kagawa Junior College, translates for the CUE N-SIG while serving as Kagawa Chapter Publicity Coordinator and Bilingualism N-SIG Chair.

Updated on 12 December 2002

Make a link or a bookmark
to tour this Website again as it expands!
(^_^) /

Click to e-mail Steve McCarty

Proceed to the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection