U.S., Japan, India and Education


by David Safier

The New York Times ran an article last month that caught my eye: Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools. The article begins:

Japan is suffering a crisis of confidence these days about its ability to compete with its emerging Asian rivals, China and India. But even in this fad-obsessed nation, one result was never expected: a growing craze for Indian education.

Despite an improved economy, many Japanese are feeling a sense of insecurity about the nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. That is no longer true, which is why many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country the Japanese see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.

A few decades ago when it looked like Japan was the world’s economic powerhouse, we wrote glowing stories about their schools. If only our schools were as good as Japan’s, we thought, we would have a chance to compete against them. Now that Japan’s economy is fading and India’s is on the rise, they’re looking at India’s schools as a model.

There’s a lesson here. While good schools are a prerequisite for a strong economy in today’s world, schools are not the engine that drive that economy. Other factors too complex for me to fathom are at work in all these economic shifts. Blaming schools for economic successes or failures is not only a vast oversimplification, it can create “educational solutions” that cheat our students out of the human component in education, the part that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Education may function as the oil that lubricates the engine of the economy. It can even be thought of as the parts factory that supplies new pistons, cogs and wheels to replace those that are wearing out. But it is not the reason one country is an economic powerhouse and another is stalled. And our children are more than lumps of coal to be fed into an economic furnace to keep it burning.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Japan’s schools were every bit as good as we thought they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The students graduating from those schools during those years should have raised Japan’s economy to higher heights if education was the key factor. But Japan began tanking as those students joined the workforce.

Let’s imagine, while we’re at it, that our schools were as bad in the 1980s and 1990s as reports said they were. The graduates from those schools spearheaded our high tech revolution. Where did all those amazing minds come from, able to imagine cyber-worlds that didn’t exist, then create those worlds from scratch? From failing schools?

We longed for schools as good as Japan’s, until their economy tanked and we stopped talking about the Japanese miracle. A few years ago, when the Japanese thought they weren’t creating enough entrepreneurs to breathe life into their economy, their educators began visiting our schools to see how we managed to encourage creativity and a sense of adventure in our youth. Now the Japanese are flocking to schools created on the Indian model.

We need to do what we can to create the best schools possible for the sake of our children, so they can grow as skilled, thinking, caring human beings. The closer we come to that ideal, the better for all of us. If we are successful, when those children become adults, they will be well rounded people who, in the process of living their lives, will help move our economy forward as far as it can go in this ever-more-competitive world.


  1. using the BARKLEY storyline , he sold millions of dollars in sportsware and stuff to kids who followed his “In Your Face” kind of sportsmanship!

    When kids see people like Paris Hilton and Barkley and Sports Hero’s like Clements “Cheating The System” with no one calling them down you see the very society today that does not know who any of there elected officials are or where India is on a map!

  2. I would like to see students be allowed to fail as well as exceed with-out the cheerleading, but show them how to assimilate into the “REAL WORLD!”

    Creating a false BUBBLE of achievement in schools acedemics classes for troubled students has implications of Student – workforce shock when it comes to success or failure!

  3. From Ben Carson -yes, I know about him- one kind of expects to say those things; but how about Barkley -of all people- (sorry Francine) who said just the same yesterday !?!!! I almost fell of my chair.

  4. This morning, on CSpan, I listened to Ben Carson, an amazing physician who has written a book, “Take a Risk” which I plan to get and read. In case he is not familiar to you, he is a pediatric neurosurgeon who successfully separated conjoined twins and is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. One thing he said that really, really spoke to both my head and my heart is that we need to get off the notion that the best way to make money is by going into sports – witness the salaries paid to leading sports players. I don’t know how you do that, but surely we need in our educational system to support models that equally lionize other professions. I’m not a sports fan so I don’t know the big names but I’ll wager that more kids know and want to emulate the big football players and basketball players than have even heard of Ben Carson!! The educational system could go a long way to giving the Ben Carsons of the world publicity and making their life story a model to be emulated!!

  5. Thanks for the comments, Francine. I couldn’t agree more. Some schools that are having great success with students who are usually unsuccessful use a combination of the orchestra and the cheerleading model. Everyone listens to one another (a lot of call and response), and everyone applauds others’ successes. When you win (that is, when you’re successful), I win. When I win, you win.

    I found the same thing in my classroom. When students felt they were striving to reach their own greatest potential, not to beat out other students, the atmosphere in the classroom improved and the achievement levels increased.

  6. I liked your comments very much. I would like to add just one or two thoughts. First, I would like to see us change the model we hold up to children of winning and loosing. I would like to see us give up the sports model and instead use the model of the orchestra or small musical group. Think about it. In the sports model, there are winners and loosers. In my model, the emphasis is on cooperation. There is an orchestra conductor who knows the entire score and signals various instruments on “when to come in”. In an orchestra, the contribution of each instrument supports the end result: beautiful music where the efforts of all are coordinated to achieve the end result. This is true of any musical combination – not only the large orchestra. Chamber music groups, jazz groups succeed because of the individual contribution of each member to the harmonious whole.

    Just my 2 cents!