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Head vs Hands


My oldest daughter is only eleven years old, so it will be a few years yet before she is faced with the trials and tribulations attendant on selecting and entering a Japanese high school, but she already has a number of ideas about this, mostly gleaned from friends of hers who have elder siblings in high school. These mostly concern such things as school uniforms, rules about hair styles, and so on, so it is hard for me to take them seriously ... yet. But friends of mine with more experience warn me that this whole business of high school entrance in Japan, at least in an urban area like ours, is a veritable jungle of confusion. Indeed, huge fat books are published every year to help parents and kids get through the process.

When I compare all this to my own high school days, the two situations are so different as to seem like two completely different worlds. Although there was more than one high school in our community, the question of which one to attend never arose. The city was divided into areas, one for each school, and students simply went to the one that was closest, just as most students in this country do with elementary school. There was indeed, very little difference between each institution. Some were old buildings, some new, but all offered pretty much the same education. I have heard that nowadays, the situation has changed, with schools being known for different specialties (arts, sciences, etc.), and with students crossing those district boundaries to choose a school that suits their preferences, but in my time, there was none of that sort of thing.

There were choices involved though, when we entered high school in Grade 10. Inside each school, the students were 'streamed' into two groups. These were known as 'academic' and 'technical', and were made up respectively of students who intended to continue with university after graduation, and those who would finish their education after Grade 12 and enter the working world.

There were certain 'core' subjects that all students had to take - English, Social Studies, Physical Education, etc., and as both groups were mixed together in the homeroom classes, it was not as if the student body was divided into two 'camps', but just that some of us took different 'elective' courses. 'Academic' stream students selected from a menu that included things like Mathematics, Foreign Languages, Arts, as well as science courses such as Chemistry, Biology and Physics. (There was no unified 'Science' course, and thus most students ended up with pretty large holes in their science knowledge. For example, I took only Physics, and to this day still don't know much about Chemistry other than the fact that H2O represents water ...) 'Technical' stream students chose from what we called 'shop' classes: Automotive Mechanics, Electricity, Metalwork, Woodwork, etc. I should emphasize that none of this selection was done on the basis of test results, but was entirely at the discretion of each student (and their family). In addition to the 'core' subjects and the 'specialty' electives that I have just mentioned (which had to be completed in order to graduate), the final few spots in each person's schedule were filled with anything that was of interest. 'Academic' students (of which I was one) could take a 'shop' class for example, and vice versa. So in every homeroom, and in every classroom, academic and technical students mixed together. Indeed, in many cases, we didn't know who was who.

(I should also mention that I have been speaking about things as seen by a male student. What did the girls do? It seems to me that the 'academic' group girls took the same things as the boys, but the 'technical' group girls studied things like Typing, Stenography, Cooking, Home Economics, etc. Are things more 'integrated' in a modern school? I suppose so.)

One effect of all this choosing between elective subjects was that just about every student in the entire school had a different daily schedule. As soon as the morning homeroom period was over, the 25 or so of us in each class scattered around the school to the different specialty classrooms, only coming together again for the final homeroom period of the day. Five or six hundred people ... five or six hundred schedules ... And no computers to keep track of it all!

I mentioned above that I was in the 'academic' group. Why had I chosen this path? It is difficult for me to recall my motivation (it was a long time ago!), but I think it was because in my mind, 'academic' and 'technical' represented 'head' and 'hands'. Back at age 15, I had no idea whatsoever what I was going to do when I 'grew up', but I suppose that I must have assumed that whatever it would be, it would involve using my head rather than my hands. Probably my parents had a big influence on this, as they definitely intended that I go on to university. I do remember feeling somewhat 'superior' to the 'technical' students, those who worked with their hands (although my barely passable grades certainly gave no rational grounds for such an idea). In due course, I completed high school with my 'academic' specialty, and moved on to university (which at that time and place required no entrance examinations). I came to grief there though, not even completing the standard amount of credit for the first year, and I never went back ...

But look at me now, almost 30 years later! How do I make a living? Of course, with my hands, carving and printing woodblocks every day ... but also with my head, sitting at this word processor. And indeed, for all the intervening years since coming out of school, I have been on both sides of the fence - programming computers, making guitars, teaching music, playing flute, managing a business ... etc. and etc. In my life, there is obviously going to be no such clear division between 'academic' and 'technical' activities - between 'head' and 'hands'.

In retrospect then, had my selection of the 'academic' stream been a mistake? Wouldn't it have made more sense to take the practical courses of the 'technical' group? I think not. It seems to me that perhaps it was the division of students into groups at that young age (15 ~ 16), that was simply premature. Many of us probably ended up in the 'wrong' group, and I think that most of us also developed a feeling of disrespect for the 'other side'. I know I did. "Work with my hands? No thanks! I'm too smart for that ..." And so on ...

So if I was now designing a school curriculum, I think that rather than splitting the students into these two groups, I would ensure instead, that every student had plenty of experience with both areas, by expanding the 'core' curriculum to include compulsory courses from both 'academic' and 'technical' fields. There is the concern that doing this would bring down the standards of each group, but I think that modern methods of computer assisted teaching are moving us (slowly!) towards a system of more individually-paced learning anyway, and away from the traditional system of large classes all moving through a curriculum in step together. 'High achieving' students would still be able to move ahead, whatever their specialty.

Can we break down this artificial barrier between working with one's head, and with one's hands? Let's encourage our high school students to develop both sides of their character: to program computers and fix motorcycles, to study physics and learn silkscreen printing, to learn geometry and how to cook a meal. I think we would be building better citizens ...