Posted by: Michael Atkisson | June 18, 2011

“Crazy Like Us: Globalizing the American [Educational] Psyche”

On the way home from taking my father out for brunch, I heard part of the Anxiety episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge hosted by Jim Fleming. He was talking to Ethan Watters who wrote Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. In the part that I heard Watters was talking about the marketing that GlaxoSmithKline did in Japan for the antidepressant drug Paxil.

The challenge that GlaxoSmithKline had in Japan was that, culturally, the Japanese viewed depression in a very different way than Americans from the U.S. In the U.S., it was viewed as a common, pathologic, mental health disorder that could be treated with chemical intervention. In Japan, on the other hand, it was viewed as a rare, extreme disease and was hardly ever diagnosed. The threshold for what constituted depression as a pathology had a much higher threshold in Japan. More variety of melancholy was acceptable and even respected in the cultural and religious narrative than in the U.S.

So GlaxoSmithKline spent a ton of money to figure out how to convince the Japanese citizens that depression was a common and treatable disease. They came up with the line, “The cold of the soul,” which signified both of the marketable traits. The campaign took off. Antidepressants are now some of the most prescribed medications for mental health in Japan.

The author felt that there were both benefits and curses brought to Japan by this marketing effort. The pharma companies have argued that suicide rates are down significantly since the introduction of these types of drugs in Japan, but it has also homogenized the way depression is viewed and treated in a dramatic way. Though, the statistics I found from the WHO show the suicide rate per 100,000 going up in Japan.

Suicide Rates in Japan by Gender per 100,000 people

Suicide Rates in Japan by Gender per 100,000 people.


Will pharma marketing forever change what it means to be Japanese by changing the level at which people look to medications to change their state of minds?

To Watters’ point, great care needs to be taken in evaluating ethical and cultural implications of proselytizing scientific innovation.

Crazy Like Us: Globalizing the American [Educational] Psyche:

So what does this mean for innovations in education? The higher education system in the U.S. is arguably the most coveted in the world (not to say that there are not great places to study elsewhere in the world). At the same time, a great upheaval is taking place in the U.S., removing many of the foundations upon which higher education rests. In many cases, debt burdens for graduating undergrads are too high for the types of jobs that are available. Many employers require specialized degrees rather than liberal arts degrees. States are reducing funding under increased revenue pressures from the slow recovery from the “depression.” More people are going to college than ever before.  And more people are dropping out than ever before (gaining school debt without the benefit of the degree advancement). Undergraduate degrees are worth less now in many cases as advanced and professional degrees are required for career advancement. Take a look at the graph I made with Gapminder on “Education Expenditure per Student by Income per Person from 1991-2004: USA, Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, and Norway.” With the exception of Norway, they all go almost directly up. So income is staying about the same while student expenditure is going up significantly. All of these and other factors are converging to force innovation in how higher education is carried out in the U.S and elsewhere.

Education Expenditure per Student by Income per Person from 1991-2004: USA, Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, and Norway

Education Expenditure per Student by Income per Person from 1991-2004: USA, Japan, UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, and Norway

Many government and business leaders are looking to online and blended models of higher education as a way to match the growing demand and the rising cost. With this shift to virtual spaces has come the affordance of increased measurability at much less cost and in much less time than would be possible otherwise. With the explosion of data online, education is beginning to ride the wave.

Big Ethical and Evaluative Questions for Virtual Education:

  • So what will be the consequences of this great shift to virtual space for undergraduate education?
  • Will the ability to measure and incentivize diversify and enable, or will it ultimately homogenize and limit the type of “degree validated” learning available to the masses? Soon, mountains and worlds of data will be behind certain types of learning and instructional strategies to the extent that it will seem on the surface that there will be no question as to what “works” and what does not. But will we be just gathering enormous data sets on things that are easy to track or on things that make a difference?
  • Will virtual learning make the intended difference in the U.S. and in dissimilar cultures?
  • Will the cultures that are advancing online education and learning analytics stamp out diverse educational innovations from cultures with other educational values?
  • Will the funding structure for educational innovation be skewed to only innovations that play well with online components because it is the easiest environment to make it appear that return on investment has been achieved?
  • Will the virtual learning juggernauts be looking to other cultures to drop their historical practices and genres of education in order to step into the “modern economy,” forcing them to adopt “modern” measures of educational performance and achievement at the expense of what has been culturally valuable in the past?


I am not saying with the questions that I have asked that there will be negative outcomes across the board as we move toward greater incorporation of virtual learning environments. But given the great effect that technological, scientific, and educational advances have on cultures, especially as the world becomes smaller than it ever has before because of the Internet, it is important to do our best to anticipate cultural and ethical implications of the virtual learning methods we prescribe. It may not be possible to do no harm, but it is a worthy goal when it comes to educational advancements across the world.


  1. […] two most compelling cases for the impact of Learning Analytics in the LAK11 MOOC were those of UMBC and SunGard’s […]

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