Essays on English in Japan

Two and a half year colleges

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Two and a half year colleges

“I’m sorry I can’t come to class next week. I have a job fair.”
“Sensei, I have job hunting next Friday.”
“I missed class because I got a job interview.”
“Can I send my homework by email because I have to go to a company explanation meeting that day?”

Students start dishing out excuses like these fast and furious once they hit the second semester of their third year. Over the course of the third year, students change from being just students to becoming their own secretarial/organizational/managerial entourage. The shift is dramatic. They dress more conservatively, take out their extra pierces, get big calendar books, blacken back their hair, and sit with serious faces and faraway, worried minds.

 

Students totally succumb to this job-hunting insanity, converting themselves and their outlook on the world almost in unison during the couple months of the third year when the season begins. Of course, some students resist, and remain in full student mode, but the vast majority shake off their student skin and become ‘shakaijin-in-waiting.’ The confusion and pressure is overwhelming. Their studying declines rapidly. They quit being students and become jobseekers.
This corporate imposition is impressive and irritating. Instead of focusing on what students should be doing, studying hard at a crucial point in their development, they end up with anti-intellectual attitude. Listening to a company explanation becomes more important than learning a language, thinking critically, working with texts and developing themselves. They stop learning. Imposing such worldly demands on students stymies their growth. Just when their intellectual development is starting to come together, they are interrupted. It is a national tragedy.

Forcing students to leave their studies right when they are finally putting things together means they complete just over 50 percent of their education--the simplest 50 percent. For students in English departments, this means they never complete, or even really begin, higher-level English skills. They have the beginning classes in the first two years, of course. But when it is time to connect that English to more advanced concepts and start really using English to think about and respond to literature, film, or culture, or history, business or law, their attention is diverted by the pressure from companies, parents and the system to give it up and get a job.

The first and second year of study tends to be a time of experimentation and self-discovery, but the third year is when students enter into a more mature understanding of who they are as people and what they want to study. They should be working on individual understanding and advanced thinking. That next stage of development, though, is rarely reached for most students.

Instead, they give up after being called away to put on black suits with white shirts and sit with their knees together on carefully lined-up chairs under fluorescent lighting. They leave the playground of the first two years of college to enter the playground of the corporate worker without ever having really grown into their studies or their identities. Their identity as a lifelong learner never gets finalized. They become workers too soon.

For the students of English, this means they remain forever at a relatively low level of English. Instead of using English to enter more deeply into literature, film, culture, education or linguistics, they end up turning away from their studies. Torn apart by the inner conflicts and social demands on their time, they fail to become more comfortable and adept in English and the understanding of their subject area.

I am not sure if companies understand this or not. It seems they do not, or they do not care. I would love the chance to force some of those personnel people who organize explanation meetings and interviews during regular university hours to come attend a lecture on literature. I fantasize about forcing them to leave their jobs every afternoon and have to listen to one of my literature lectures. I do not think they would handle the simultaneous pressure of work and the study of American literature. It would be as disorienting and stressful for them as it is for university students try to juggle both studies and job-hunting.

Students’ university life is determined by how well they resist pressure. This might be the ultimate lesson of their last year and a half. The best speakers of English in Japan are the ones who resist these pressures and are able to focus on two things at once. A year and a half is an amazing amount of time to develop and learn, especially at the age of 21 or 22. It is a tragedy it is wasted. Students should be in the classroom, not listening to company introductions, filling in “entry sheets” and undergoing group interviews. Isn’t there time for that later?

Even more tragically, students are dragged away from what they usually deeply love. My students love English, but right when it starts to click with them, they are dragged away. Instead of launching students into new understandings and powerful syntheses of their past studies so they can obtain confidence and maturity, they end up jumping through a panicked series of job hunting hoops.

I am not an advocate of babying students or keeping them from seeing society. Just the opposite, part-time jobs, travel, friendships, family, circle activities and other engagements are very important to students in their developing understanding of the world. But without sufficient academic integration and advanced level study, they may never be able to enter society as thoughtful, sensitive, and reflective individuals capable of working with others and understanding the bigger picture.

Growing up and getting a job is an important and inevitable part of life. However, the massive disruption of the last two years of university study destroys not only those two years of focus, but it often destroys the time when they should be learning how to focus, think, relate, process ideas and become independent minded.

Instead, students learn fugitive skills: how to get by. This attitude of ‘just getting by’ often becomes a permanent approach to life, a bad habit learned at school, like smoking, but perhaps even worse for their health. They do not develop lifelong frameworks for serious thought and action, but end up ‘making do.’ Before they even graduate, English already becomes a memento of their youth, like an old unused baseball glove or a poster of some pop band left in their childhood room.

Sometimes after a student finally finds a job, he or she will catch me after class to tell me. I am always thrilled for them and give big congratulations. We celebrate a little by laughing in the hallway and wondering what the job will really be like. I sense their relaxation and pride in succeeding at one of the most difficult tasks in life. And I applaud students for their perseverance and directed energy. But I feel sad, defeated as a teacher, to think they lost out on getting to the next level.

Sometimes this shared moment of congratulations is not until late in their fourth year, and they say, “OK, now, I promise I will start coming to class and studying again!” “Great!” I always say, “There’s still time left!” And then, whether there really is enough time enough or not, I re-start the truly difficult life task of trying to get them to learn and understand what they should be hunting even more than a job--an understanding of language, literature and life.

February 24, 2013

 

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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.