Integration of Arts and Sciences

Visiting Fellow, RIETI

The Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI) is tackling two new major challenges: "evidence-based policy making (EBPM)" and "integration of arts and sciences." I have been involved in RIETI's project concerning the former as the director of the EBPM research committee, but I have no direct involvement in the project concerning the latter. However, in this column, I would like to offer my thoughts on the integration of arts and sciences. Discussion on the integration of arts and sciences tends to focus on industrial challenges, such as the development of products sensitive to people's tastes and potential needs, and questions like for which social issues may artificial intelligence (AI) be effective in providing solutions. However, like "cram-free education," the "integration of arts and sciences" could end up being nothing more than a slogan unless its admirable goal is accompanied by solid methodology. My main specialty is developing and applying statistical models for the purpose of examining social phenomenon, which is related to the integration of arts and sciences. However, talking about the specialty of a person like me who has an unusual background—I became a sociologist after studying mathematics—is unlikely to provide useful insights to most people. Therefore, I will discuss this matter from a broader perspective.

I will begin by talking about Nihongo No Horobiru Toki (When the Japanese Language Perishes) (2008), a book written by novelist Minae Mizumura, although this may appear to have little to do with the integration of arts and sciences. This book points out the existence of three categories of languages—"mother tongues," which are spoken languages that people learn to speak as they grow up, "universal languages," which are written languages used mainly for communication and mutual understanding with the outside world (in Japan's case, "Kanbun" (written Chinese) formerly served as the universal language but that has been replaced by English in the modern era (I also think that mathematical formulas constitute a universal language), and "national languages," which are state-promoted written "standard" languages with cultural inheritances from the mother tongues—and describes the interactions between and changes in those categories of languages. The book also sounds alarms over the gradual loss of the unique Japanese cultural elements in both the mother tongue and the national language amid the growing influence of "universal languages" due to globalization. I would also like to mention "The Animal Babel," a story included in Kentoshi (2016) (Note 1), a novel by Yoko Tawada (Note 2), the English translation of which received the National Book Award, a prestigious U.S. literary prize under the title The Emissary. It goes without saying that the Animal Babel alludes to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. In Tawada's story, although the animals speak the same language, they are unable to understand each other at all apparently because they express themselves based on their respective, different cultures and values. At last, a squirrel, acting as a "translator" who best understands and communicates what everyone says, is chosen as their leader.

The important point is that the animals' failure to understand each other despite speaking the same language is a problem that has something in common with the problem posed by the deepening specialization of academic study in the modern era. In individual fields of study, be they natural or social science fields, as specialization has deepened, the body of technical terms shared exclusively among experts has expanded, with the result that experts rely heavily on terminology when communicating among themselves. Most technical terms constitute a "universal language." The meanings of technical terms, whether used by Japanese or English speakers, are common worldwide. That is because technical terms have developed as a means for experts to facilitate accurate and efficient communication among themselves. There is no doubt that the accuracy and efficiency of communication based on technical terms has contributed to the development of specialized fields of study. However, once experts have become accustomed to the efficiency of terminology, it becomes difficult and painful for them to make themselves understood by laymen. To give an extreme example, it is all but impossible for mathematicians to explain mathematical theories without using formulas, which constitute their "universal language." Likewise, economists would find it very difficult to explain the accurate meanings of technical terms familiar in their own circles, such as "elasticity" and "fungibility," to people without knowledge of economics.

However, one challenge faced by modern society is the increasing number of problems that cannot be resolved without cooperation among experts from different fields and between experts and laymen. The University of California San Francisco, which is a well-known specialized medical school, decided to employ "interpreters" in light of the widespread discontent among patients with the doctors' use of technical terms in explanations about medical conditions and diagnosis results. The "interpreters" are experts responsible for facilitating doctor-patient communication by rendering medical terms used by doctors into plain language on behalf of patients. In the IT industry in Silicon Valley, "product director" has become an important position. Product directors are capable of communicating with people from different corporate divisions, including technology development, marketing, and sales divisions, and have a final say over new products. To engage in meaningful dialogue with the technology development division, product directors must have computer science knowledge, while meaningful dialogue with the marketing division requires statistics literacy. The ability to listen to and understand the "voices from the frontlines" is essential for meaningful dialogue with the sales division. Meeting all those qualifications is, in a sense, tantamount to acquiring multilingual and multicultural literacy. Let me cite an example in the Japanese business world. Kazuko Takamatsu, who became the first woman to rise to a senior executive position (vice president in charge of the environment) at Sony, created a unique career path as an expert on product manuals. Previously, manuals had been written by the engineers who developed the products. However, Takamatsu pointed out that the manuals written by the engineers were not consumer-friendly because they were full of technical terms, and she went on to create consumer-friendly manuals for the first time. As engineers wrote most of the manuals for Japanese companies in those days, Sony's "manuals reform" is said to have significantly increased sales of Sony products.

The common implication of those three examples is that fostering talent who can cultivate mutual understanding and trust among experts from diverse fields and between experts and laymen is an important factor in the integration of arts and sciences. In practice, how can such talent be fostered? I believe that the key is reforming education, particularly liberal arts education. In the United States, many universities have designated (1) foreign language study, (2) civilization, (3) statistics, and (4) computer science as mandatory subjects that students in this contemporary society must study regardless of whether they major in liberal arts or sciences. There is a great variety of course options that students are able to choose from in terms of level and substance depending on what they learned before they entered university. The "civilization" course typically provides education on the history of the development social philosophies and social thoughts such as democracy, human rights, and rationalism side by side with the history on the development of civilizations. Of the above topics, (1) and (2) are arts subjects, while (3) and (4) are science subjects. However, there is an explicit understanding that knowledge in all those fields should be shared by all students who receive a university education, and it may be said that this understanding forms the basis of the integration of arts and sciences.

When we think about groups of fields of study— as opposed to individual subjects—ranging from sciences to arts, including "mathematics and physical sciences," "life sciences," "social sciences" and "humanities," it is important to consider what elements they share. In my opinion, common elements include "the capacity to accurately describe using words and symbols," "conceptualization," "analysis," "critical thinking," and "professional ethics." Of particular importance is "analysis." Analysis itself has various elements, including "situational assessment," "generalization and classification," "functional understanding of concepts," "quantification," and "causality." For example, it is said that in Japan, the teaching of Japanese as a school subject tends to focus on the interpretation of the words of fictional characters and essay writers to understand their feelings and emotions, while the teaching of English at American schools concentrates mainly on "analysis." Let me illustrate what this difference means by assuming a case in which Mizumura's When the Japanese Language Perishes is discussed in a classroom. In a Japanese classroom, the main focus of discussion is likely to be something like "What is the author trying to convey through the book?" or "What feelings caused the author to choose this book title?" In contrast, from the viewpoint of "analysis," one focus of interest is likely to be something like "In which situations do differences between a country's 'mother tongue' and its 'national language' emerge (situation assessment)?" Situations such as when dialects are spoken, or when the native tongue is spoken by immigrants may come to mind first. What other situations are conceivable? What causes those situations? What are the differences between the functions of "mother tongues," "national languages," and "universal languages" (functional understanding of concepts) as explained in the book? From the viewpoint of "analysis," questions like those are more likely to be asked. From the viewpoint of "functional understanding," students may also be asked questions such as "Into which category should mathematical formulas and technical terms be classified?" and "What is the reason for the categorization?" (generalization and classification). They may also be asked to identify how much each of the mother tongue," "national language," and "universal language" are used (quantification). Next, let us assume a case in which Tawada's "Animal Babel" is the subject of classroom discussion. First, why the animals cannot understand each other despite speaking the same language (situation assessment) may become the focus of discussion, followed by the questions of what other situations may prevent communication despite the use of the same language and whether or not those situations have similarities (generalization and classification). The discussion may move on to the causes of declines of communication systems in general. To cite an example in the real world, a lack of common understanding on the ethics of accountability is causing parliamentary debate in Japan to continue without producing meaningful results.

The teaching of Japanese at Japanese school is different from analysis-focused national language teaching in its approach to literary works in that the former aims at fostering in-depth understanding of a work as a self-contained world, while the latter looks at a work in a broader context, namely in the context of the world of arts or society at large, and thus encourages proactive thinking by students. In particular, even though the emphasis placed on understanding the general gist of a passage and identifying the feelings and emotions of characters and authors in the teaching of Japanese at Japanese school may be important, it could stifle diversity by encouraging everyone to think and feel in the same way. Recently, controversy has arisen over unconscious prejudices associated with certain words. To cite a gender bias example, the tendency to associate the word "surgeon" with a man or the word "feminist" with a woman is a case in point. Since the early times of higher education, the essence of liberal arts education has not been to merely enrich knowledge, but to liberate people from the confines of social customs and prejudices by providing opportunities for exposure to a variety of thoughts on different matters. In addition to emphasis on an analytical viewpoint, rationalism, objectivism, and formalization of expression (use of a universal language), which are common elements of the sciences, significantly contribute to liberating people from social customs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the sciences have been relatively indifferent in matters like symbols used for human communication (languages), the subjective meaning of such symbols, and cultures, including "ethics of civilization." However, in modern society, the social implications of ethics in such technical fields as medicine, information processing, environmental preservation and social surveys have also become important. That is one of the reasons why it is significant to integrate arts and sciences. Moreover, the advanced development of technical terms that was mentioned earlier impedes communication among experts from different fields and between experts and laymen in a different way from the way in which a conventional Tower of Babel situation that is created by the presence of multiple languages undermines communication. At the same time, the prevalence of technical terms has created a situation in which trust among people who do not share the same "language" may be undermined due to miscommunications. The integration of arts and sciences has therefore a significant role to play in reducing the social cost of those negative effects of miscommunications. To achieve the objective of the integration of arts and sciences, it is important to carry out social reforms while considering ways of effectively achieving that, including the reform of liberal arts education at universities.

November 12, 2020
  1. ^ Kentoshi sounds like "遣唐使" which implies Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty China during 6th-to-10th centuries. However, Tawada used an original expression, " 献灯使," whose Chinese characters remind us of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel Lantern Bearers (1959). The physically-handicapped hero of Emissary, Mumei (which means nameless), indeed is both an emissary and a lantern bearer.
  2. ^ Tawada writes her works in Japanese and German. She finds the freedom of the human spirit in creating a unique "cross-border" language which transcends the confines of a particular mother tongue or national language and which is also different from a universal language and realizes that process in the world of fiction. However, I refrain from discussing the innovative significance of her works, which is not relevant to the theme of this column. "The Animal Babel" contains many analogical references to a fictional "post-March 11" Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident. Although the "interpretation of analogies" is an important analytical viewpoint in the domain of liberal arts, it was excluded from my discussion of the integration of arts and sciences because it is not a common element of these two domains.

February 9, 2021