The introduction of Morals as a special subject will provide an opportunity to consider various competing values

Morals was made an official subject in elementary schools from April 2018, but this was preceded by the objectives that were already announced in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (hereafter referred to as MEXT) partial revision of the government curriculum guidelines in 2015. These guidelines involve wording explaining the objectives as follows: “cultivating morality as the basis for better living, examining oneself closely, and thinking about things in a multifaceted, diverse way from a broad outlook, based on the understanding of various ethical values.” We should pay particular attention to the phrase “various ethical values”. The MEXT has used the words “ethical values” before, but this new addition of the word “various” is thought to be of great significance that is more than a superficial change of expression. It is thought that this certainly implies that rather than the children being fed a dogmatic solitary set of values, they will instead be provided with a place to encounter multiple values and practice discussing or self-analyzing them in moral education. The background to this included the influence of the OECD presenting in 2003 an international index of abilities that were required in this new age, known as “key competencies”, where the ability to “interact in heterogeneous groups” was counted among them. In addition, we can point out another factor in the historical circumstances. To begin with, post-war Japanese society has had an almost allergic avoidance in regards to strengthening moral education in general, as they are acutely aware of the fact that the uniform values that were drummed into the children under the moral education of the Meiji Constitution played a part in the cultivation of militant boys and girls. Many experts and teachers in schools expressed critical opinions from this point of view, when it was being made an official subject again this time. In a sense, however, it can surely be seen as a positive thing, that this emphasis on the importance of plurality in moral education is a result of multiple scrupulous discussions formed both inside and outside the MEXT while listening to various criticisms.

Incidentally, do you know the difference between the academic meaning of the two words, “justice” and “good”? The concept for the former one, “justice” includes the ideas of fairness and justness, and what is required is regarded as an absolute whatever the process may be. In other words, justice must be required in principle and unfairness must be avoided whatever the time or wherever the situation. However, there are various forms that are possible for “good.” For example, there are some people who think that being employed by a business, working hard at your job, and earning money so that your family can live comfortably is a good way of living, while some people think not being constrained by an organization, seeking a job that you want to do, and living a slow life in tune with nature is a good life for them. Both of these views of life are not compatible, but both of these are ways of living that you have to accept. In other words, the true nature of “good” is relative and multifaceted, and no single, absolute version exists. If lessons in moral education enable the establishment of a place where children can come across and recognize these various values of other people and the possibilities of the diversities of “good,” I think, it may lead to the cultivation of a very meaningful approach in modern society where the progress of globalization increases respect for diversity.

Moral education will depend greatly on the educational capabilities of the teacher in the classroom

On the other hand, there are also concerns. Above all, it is thought that for moral education to be effective it will depend greatly on the capabilities of each individual teacher in the classroom. Three particular requisites were set forth when Morals was made an official subject by the MEXT. The first was the adoption of authorized textbooks, which I would like to talk about later. The second was the introduction of evaluations. Usually, a subject’s evaluation results are expressed in an objective numerical value on a report card, but this shall not be applied for moral education, and instead there will be a recorded written assessment. That is hoped to be a more positive evaluation in the form of a continuous summation, and the MEXT has presented points for evaluation in a number of forms, but it is rather abstract and it has to be said that some parts don’t seem to be relevant. It is thought that this is causing confusion among teachers in schools, who are wondering in what way they should proceed with evaluating morals, or whether we can evaluate morals in the first place. In addition, the third point that has been stressed is that no special subject certificate has been prepared for Morals. Currently, the class teacher basically teaches one Morals class for one period a week. Students who are aiming to become elementary or junior high school teachers have been required to take lessons related to moral education, but I think for many teachers already in school they will have to take the opportunities provided through teacher training or the periodic renewal courses of teaching licenses to closely check once again what is additionally required of them. Originally it was thought that moral education should be taught in the everyday, general education activities of the school, such as homeroom, classes, school events and club activities. Integrating these together to teach it as a subject, will directly ask the teacher’s educational capabilities including an approach through trial and error.

Here, I’d like to touch upon the first point that I mentioned earlier, the adoption of authorized textbooks. Originally, after World War II a “time for ‘Moral education’” was first required to be a part of compulsory education in 1958, with the proviso that “it was not to be treated as a subject in the conventional sense.” At first, there was deep-seated criticism regarding its introduction, and the rate of implementation was less than sufficient. In 1965, the then Ministry of Education, Science and Culture put out a document of guidelines called “Reading materials for morals,” and from then on, the importance of supplementary reading teaching materials as resources to help emotional understanding was presented and highlighted. Although, as a matter of fact schools only ever really used the makeshift set of teaching materials that were traditionally called “Morals textbooks” as supplementary reading materials, and each school was able to use a variety of other teaching materials at their discretion. However, this time, due to Morals becoming an official subject, to begin with the use of the authorized textbooks has become extremely important. Whether lessons should involve a teacher simply conveying the items and contents of the “government curriculum guidelines” while taking into account the textbooks and teacher’s guides, or aiming for a lesson that stays at purely using the materials to raise questions and gets the children and students to think for themselves, will depend largely on the attitude of the teachers in the classroom. For example, as was recently shown on NHK’s “Close-up Gendai Plus” (broadcast on April 23, 2018), symbolic teaching materials such as the famous story “Hoshino’s two-base hit” (by Kinetaro Yoshida, published in 1947) that was noted in many authorized textbooks of moral education, have been the subject of a lot of attention. In a baseball match, a boy called Hoshino ignores his manager’s instruction to bunt and gets a two-base hit instead, which results in winning the match, but after the match he is admonished for not obeying his manager’s instructions and breaking the rules. This story suggests the importance of keeping rules, being a team player by not upsetting the team’s harmony, accepting criticism and reflecting deeply on your behavior, but it’s also apt to be interpreted as a student being dominated by an authoritarian coach’s instructions, and brings to mind a certain unhappy incident at a university’s American football team. Should the message of this story be conveyed to the children and students as important morally just as it is, or should the actions of Hoshino and the words of his manager be used as subjects to get the all the students to think, including about right and wrong, as the direction of the lesson will be totally different depending on which perspective is taken. By the way, the author of this story, Kinetaro Yoshida, was a liberal English literature scholar, who also taught at Meiji University as a professor of the department of literary criticism, and he was involved in founding the “Japanese Children Library (Nihon Shokokumin Bunko),” together with the renowned humanist, Yuzo Yamamoto and Genzaburo Yoshino. There is also research that points out that Yoshida’s own intention was always to think about “democratic attitudes” through the close examination of this work. In any case, when it comes to the interpretation of the contents of the teaching materials textbooks, there will surely be a need for teachers to think critically and rationally at all times about how closely it is adhering to the initial objective of moral education of “thinking about things in a multifaceted, diverse way from a broad outlook, based on the understanding of various ethical values”

Will moral education lead to the cultivation of patriotism?

Furthermore, there should also be room to investigate the possibility that there could be a hardening of the policies that the government has demonstrated. As has repeatedly been pointed out, it is true that the direct circumstances behind the move to make Morals an official subject involved the government’s sense of crisis in regards to the problem of bullying. In particular the incident that occurred in Otsu, Shiga prefecture in 2011, in combination with the vigorous coverage by the media, shocked society. The Abe Cabinet set up a Council for the Implementation of Education Reform within the Cabinet Secretariat in February 2013, and their first theme was indeed concerned with “dealing with the bullying problem.” The same council directly accepted the allusion that there was a need to make Morals an official subject, and within the same year the MEXT held ten conferences in total for people with knowledge and experience in education. The Central Council for Education officially set out a plan to make Morals a subject in the following year, 2014, but this decision was by no means made in haste, as the view within the cabinet had slowly solidified little by little along with public opinion. However, although the context for this was underpinned by the direct motive of dealing with the bullying problem, it’s also more than possible to acknowledge that there is a nostalgic yearning for conservative moral values in the current administration’s education policies. For example, this is symbolized by the fact that a “patriotism” clause was inserted in a revision of the Education Law (2006) by none other than the first Shinzo Abe Cabinet. We can also count Hakubun Shimomura and Hiroshi Hase, who have had their names put forward to be a part of the Diet Caucus investigating the Japanese Teachers’ Union problem, among the Diet members with a special interest in education who have served as the Minister of Education during the Abe administration.

Actuality, after Morals has been made a special subject, the study clause that was established regarding the teaching of an “attitude of love of country and respect for our country’s traditions and culture” has remained in the current “Government curriculum guidelines.” However, with the current rapid increase in globalization, practical problems may arise as it is reasonable to assume that there will be children in the classroom with various roots and there may be children among them who do not possess Japanese nationality. If a teacher finds themselves in this situation, they are faced with the extremely difficult problem of how to absorb the contents of the Government course guidelines items, and how to cultivate children with a multifaceted, diverse point of view/perspective. As the Supreme Court precedent stated, the Government curriculum guidelines are legally binding. Teachers in the classroom are obligated to touch upon the contents in the guidance plans at least once. However, as mentioned earlier when discussing dealing with evaluation and authorized textbooks, it can be said that it will all depend greatly on the teacher in the classroom’s capability and the balance of their approach.

Big possibilities are expected from Morals

This is just my personal opinion, but as someone who comes into contact with students aiming to be teachers on a daily basis, I’m impressed by how many are excellent students and are relatively serious. When I speak to them, I’m optimistic that any leanings towards the simplistic, standardized instruction of long ago will be practically non-existent, and my hopes swell up that from here on there will be satisfactory development of education “based on the understanding of various ethical values.” However, despite all this, I’m always thinking that I want educators to take to heart the need to be prepared to repeatedly and reflectively warn about the dangers of standardization in moral education to the students.

In my specialist field of Educational Ideology, there has long been a general point of view that educational practices always involve a type of arbitrary violence. In other words, education comes with pushing the enforcement of “given a priori norms” and the “common knowledge of society” for innocent children, and from one aspect it is understood to be an exceedingly violent social device. Although education is also simultaneously a thing that is indispensable for children to go on living. For example, memorization of multiplication tables is a compulsory activity, but that is probably knowledge that is better to have to live in society, also complex numerical operations derived from learning multiplication tables at times help refine the ability to think logically, and furthermore pleasure gained from advanced mathematical insights can also deepen learning. In this way, even though the social activity of education may be accompanied by a certain type of violence it can be seen as an integral “necessary evil” that is essential for becoming a member of society, and as I’ve mentioned in this column moral education can also be understood as something that is inherently extremely ambivalent. On the other hand, this new subject is also full of rich possibilities. In coordination with other subjects, it’s more than possible that it can deepen the meaning of educational practices, and perhaps it could even be hoped that there’s a possibility that it becomes a foundation of general education itself. And I think it might be one of the main keys to an approach to learning that cultivates an autonomous, interactive stance that touches upon multiple values.

* The information contained herein is current as of August 2018.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.

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