Nathan Allen
10 min readMay 2


How We (Japan) Got Here: Part 2. Reinventing the Curricula

Over the past few years, there have been many elegies for the humanities, particularly the English major (most notably, The End of the English Major). Many humanities majors have significantly declined in enrollment over the past decade or so. Arguments tend to suggest the problem is the seeming irrelevance (economic or otherwise) or teleological confusion of many humanities majors. But the crisis of the humanities is not an unrecoverable death spiral but rather an opportunity to rediscover an increasingly lost art and to reimagine its application. This rediscovery of the art of the English major begins in Japan.

Act I. Godzilla to Gecko in a Generation

In the late 1980s, I had a history teacher (Ph.D. Princeton) inform me that Japan’s global domination and the West’s subjugation was simply a matter of time. “With their manufacturing, they could produce a military that could easily crush the U.S. Two years, max.” The Japanese bought Columbia pictures, Rockefeller Center, and 45% of the prime real estate in downtown Los Angeles. Nine of the ten largest banks in the world were in Japan, and metro Tokyo had a larger GDP than the entire United Kingdom. Japanese manufacturers ruled the planet, and their consumer electronics — led by Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba — dominated every market.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Samsung was still a bazaar of seemingly unrelated companies, including a discount department store, that was selling many of its products (such as its first computer) only in Korea, while getting in legal hot water for selling bootleg Texas Instruments chips in America. And Apple was losing market share while on the road to becoming a near-bankrupt niche producer of technical oddities.

And yet today, Samsung’s market capitalization is significantly greater than Sony’s, Panasonic’s, Hitachi’s, and Toshiba’s — combined. And Apple is worth more than Japan’s entire consumer electronics and auto manufacturing sector.

Many economists point to Japan’s real estate bubble bursting as the culprit, yet this doesn’t explain how a nation that seemingly led the world in manufacturing, brands, distribution, and engineers could fall from market dominance to near obscurity. Did you even know that Sony and Panasonic make cell phones?

There are several causes of Japan’s economic retreat, but one crucial technical trend of the 1990s is often overlooked. Electronics — particularly consumer electronics — increasingly became software-first industries, replacing the older hardware-first paradigm. Consider a 1980s Sony Walkman versus a late 1990s Apple iPod; the first is fundamentally a mechanical machine, while the later deploys hardware in the service of software. The Japanese simply couldn’t pivot to software. (Consider all the globally dominant software platforms — how many of them are Japanese?)

But why?

In 2016, Foreign Affairs published an article that summarized the primary — and, by that time, long-held — conclusion.[1] The first shock came as Japanese domination of the consumer electronics market slid into oblivion in the early 2000s. The final blow came in 2015 when Japanese universities — one of the last jewels in the crown — were ranked below several other (non-Japanese) universities in Asia. The University of Tokyo, Japan’s Harvard, was ranked seventh — in Asia. Being ranked below Harvard was one thing, but being ranked below a Chinese university was, for the Japanese, rock bottom. Perhaps Japanese education may have never been very good; they simply had been competing with undeveloped countries in Asia. As soon as other Asian countries began to catch up with Japan economically, their universities began to out-rank Japan’s.

The national introspection had begun years prior. Japan’s productivity had been lowest in the G7 for nearly 30 years (the Japanese are almost 40% less productive than the French. Yes, I said the French.) A major recruitment agency reported that the Japanese had the largest skills mismatch in the entire Asia-Pacific region; university graduates simply did not have the skills employers needed, and yet they were turning out endless engineering and business majors. Ultimately, the Japanese realized that the cause of their fall from preeminence lurked somewhere in their education system.

Reforms had been previously attempted. In 2009, the Japanese government began aggressively funding and promoting education reform, but this only created new university fiefdoms that contributed no change to the overall education system. More efforts ensued, and the problems grew worse. The conundrum was simple: Japanese students consistently ranked at the top in global science and math metrics, yet their humanities programs withered in perceived irrelevance. The Japanese, after all, were engineering and business majors.

Observing this initially unintuitive disconnect between overachieving STEM majors and the nation’s economic problems, Deputy Minister of Education Suzuki Kan said, “Japanese people are good at solving questions that they are given. They are passive and diligent. But with the digital economy, that work will be replaced by artificial intelligence. So human work will be totally changed — becoming creation, creation, creation. Not routine work.”

Government education adviser William Hiroyuki Saito similarly commented, “Why don’t people ask questions in Japan? In the U.S., you’re taught, ‘there are no stupid questions.’ In Japan, it’s the opposite. You’re taught in Japan not to question authority, so by the time you are an adult you don’t even know how to do it.”

Kumiko Aoki of the Open University of Japan said that Japanese education turns students into “robots” and that “imagination, serendipity, and how to learn are the things that are not being taught.” She continued, “The goal of education hasn’t been to equip people with tools but rather to make people passive and obedient.”[2]

And so, how does a college equip people with the tools of imagination, serendipity, and how to learn?

Foreign Affairs suggest a fairly obvious answer. “Also noteworthy was who did not win a Nobel this year: the Japanese favorite for the literature prize, Haruki Murakami. The prize instead went to American songwriter Bob Dylan. Only two Nobel Prizes in Literature have ever been awarded to Japanese authors.”

This is not so much a criticism of the humanities but rather of Japan’s engineering curricula; the Japanese produced engineers that fueled global economic domination for a generation, but at what cost? Could it be that Japan’s excellent engineering curricula over the decades — one that ignored the tools of the humanities — cost the nation untold trillions of dollars? Such a conclusion seems preposterous. It also seems true.

Act II. The English Major Isn’t Dead Yet

There are many criticisms of The New Yorker’s The End of the English Major that will be left unaddressed here, including that the humanities should be the civilizational counterbalance that prevents a capitalist system from devolving into a consumerist hellscape, and yet instead the humanities have been mined for their economic and political utility until there’s ore no more, which is no more capitalist than it is Marxist.[3] But let’s not dwell on minor issues.

The first issue with the humanities in general and English majors specifically is the inveterate dumbing-down that’s occurring across colleges in order to attract mass-enrollment. This lowest-common-denominator approach has led Harvard to eliminate poetry from its English major requirements, which leads to the obvious question of whether one can even be an English major if one hasn’t studied the source of literature. Perhaps Harvard will next remove the periodic table from its chemistry requirements.

Furthering the devolution of Harvard’s curriculum, one professor there commented, “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb. Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

While it would be unreasonable to expect too much from Harvard students, one should ask why literature should be anything other than the most difficult major at a university. The subject requires navigating labyrinthine abstractions. If much of STEM is a world of 0s and 1s, literature is the foggy infinity in between. Training one’s mind to comprehend — let alone master — such an infinity is the height of human achievement. But alas, the nineteenth century is a long time ago.

And then, as noted in the article, there’s this observation from a Harvard student explaining why one doesn’t major in English. “It’s a safeguard thing. There’s an emphasis on who is going to hire you.” One might wonder why anyone would want to employ a college graduate who can’t identify “the subject and the verb” in a nineteenth century sentence.

More importantly, one should wonder why literature skills (taught by legitimate English departments) should be constrained to the application of literature pursuits. The structure of modern universities is the accidental effect of Victorian taxonomic fetishes such that “literature” occurs in the “English department” to produce “literary” people. The label (“English department”) reveals the genetics that determine the range of all possible outcomes. A literature professor’s prima facie training and, at least implicitly, gene expression is to produce more literature professors. The observation that academic departmental structure is the result of accidental idiocy is not new; the “New College Plan” of the 1950s (and many others) proposed eliminating departments entirely.

And so, it takes a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., Sanjay Sarma, to connect the dots. “Imagine if you had a voice assistant that could write code for you, and you said, ‘Hey, Alexa, build me a Web site to sell shoes.’ That’s already happening.” Sarma’s analysis of the future of engineering — the production of robot students who lack “imagination, serendipity, and how to learn” — echoes the analysis of Japan’s problems. He concludes, “…the future belongs to the humanities.”

Act III. Radical Rediscovery of Thinking

As evidenced by the Bruce Gilley kerfuffle, the desertification of tools and skills in the academy is existentially alarming. Barren first, the humanities; then the social sciences. Now, political utility has begun to strip bare the sciences.[4] And yet, if Japan’s retreat is instructive, the lesson is that engineering curricula will seppuku if left to stand on their own.[5]

And yet, we have departments siloed into fiefdoms, taxonomic echo chambers, whose primary purpose is to self-replicate: literature professors teaching skills the apparent primary application of which is to create more literature professors. When one cannot even assume a Harvard student can locate a subject and a verb, one cannot expect English majors to be much useful beyond the ecosystem that created them. There is some kind of existential ouroboros — undoubtedly a self-preservation mechanism — wherein the tools and the application are inextricably tethered.

The airy perches of the humanities are the great poets who construct with abstraction upon abstraction machines that operate with intricate and seemingly infinite precision like some Swiss watch made from clouds. Those who create such infinite machines are able to navigate and manipulate vast fields of gray abstractions, and those who study and understand those machines have reached into the minds of those creators. There is no difference in the cognitive exercise of poetry and the abstracted but true pursuits of theoretical physics and math. These are all fields of the creative, dynamic, and brutal outer-reaches of human accomplishment. And of these three, poetry (and literature generally) is the most accessible and scalable.

And yet the objective is not the improbable and impossible — to produce poets. It is, rather, to train the mind in the tools of poetry, of literature, of the humanities, to apply these tools to the Japanese problem, to understand that the tools of the humanities are what’s missing in the application of engineering.

What if we taught students the skills to navigate the great poets, the vast depths of abstract nuance — or even nineteenth century sentence structure? What if we taught students to pierce the foreign and distant minds of Homer, Dante, Milton and Eliot? A year or two of such study would profoundly change the way those students think. And then, what if we untethered those tools from “English major” and applied them to engineering majors?

Shall we observe that so many of the modern tech billionaires do not hold CompSci (or any sort of engineering) degrees? That so many of them studied English, history, philosophy?[6]

And so, is the argument that the Japanese would have saved themselves untold trillions of dollars had they only studied Homer, Dante, Milton and Eliot? Had they only applied the tools of the humanities to the problems of engineering?[7]

The Japanese have described their education problem as 井の中の蛙大海を知らず — “the frog in the well doesn’t know the ocean.” There is no singular exegesis of this proverb, but, for the Japanese, the primary application is that the well is their engineering curriculum. The ocean is the humanities.

Any college that institutionally (not departmentally) develops an engineering program — CompSci, for example — whose terra firma is the humanities, creates a moat so that most hopelessly department’d colleges could not replicate the program. Such a program would establish habits of minds that traditional CompSci programs cannot replicate. Such a college’s frogs would escape the echoes of the well and know the ocean.

This is the third in a series on curriculum innovation. The first is on the New College Plan; the second is on the Bruce Gilley battle. The next one will be on the evidence and practical application of this essay’s general observations and analysis.

[1] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/japan/2016-10-31/japan-gets-schooled (non-paywall version: https://archive.is/20210216125847/https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/japan/2016-10-31/japan-gets-schooled#selection-1891.634-1891.705)

[2] Fun fact: Kumiko Aoki and William Hiroyuki Saito were both educated in the United States. (Saito was born in the U.S.)

[3] The focus here is on English literature, as that’s the focus of the New Yorker’s article. But philosophy, religion, history (as humanity not social science), and other subjects are equally (or nearly so) applicable.

[4] The phrase is a reference to Duchamp — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bride_Stripped_Bare_by_Her_Bachelors%2C_Even

The academy is in reference to the CDC, gender biologists, ‘math is racist,’ and other assorted ephemera.

[5] One Osaka university professor suggested in the Japan Times that Japanese university presidents commit “mass seppuku” in response to their inability to innovate their engineering curricula.

[6] Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Steve Jobs, Gabe Newell…

[7] The Bruce Gilley episode proved that one should not assume that many — perhaps most –literature professors possess such tools.