Practitioners of the Liberal
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,
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
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