Children who wish to succeed in academe - or whose parents wish them to do so – may need to start competing at a very young age for places in prestigious schools. To be accepted at a renowned university, one needs to have attended a prominent secondary school. To be accepted at that secondary school, one needs to have attended a good elementary school. To be accepted at that elementary school, one needs to have attended a kindergarten, or even a pre-school, that adequately prepares children for rigorous study. In a society in which the highest paid and most prestigious jobs almost always go to graduates of certain universities, the position one holds at age 60 may have less to do with one's performance when 40 or 50 years old than it does with one's ability to pass examinations at 4 or 5 years old.
With the future of their children at stake, parents push their children young as two or three to achieve high results. Schools develop curricula to meet these demands. Textbook publishers take advantage of these favourable market conditions. Both schools and business encourage competition as selection criteria. All this results in an increased level of stress for children from preschool age through university. Many children end up with "burnout", as young as age 10, and permanent psychological scars. While parents usually recognize the negative effects of academic stress, many claim it is not a terrible as the potential for academic inadequacy and the resulting lack of career and social success.
Japanese students attend school 240 days a year, or over 75% of all days in the year, excluding Sundays. They usually have 34 hours of lessons a week. Many students also attend private cram schools evenings and weekends in order to be prepared for college and high-school entrance examinations. In some cases – one survey says in half of all cases – children as young as 1 or 2 years old are sent to special cram schools in order that they be able to pass the entrance examination of a prestigious kindergarten.
There is no evidence that intensive academic instruction at any age will produce long-term gains in academic achievement. In fact, excessive educational demands may end up turning children into mechanical thinkers, trained to give the expected answers rather than to think creatively for themselves. An over-emphasis on schooling deprives children of the joys of youth. They are expected to behave like motivated and disciplined adults, rather than like the spontaneous and playful children they are. Competition, especially at a young age, can do lasting damage: children may become chronic underachievers and end up displaying delinquent behaviour; they may suffer from mental disturbance or emotional disorders. They may acquire many skills and much knowledge, but incessant competition, in which every one else is a rival and the failure of others is success for oneself, does not teach compassion.
Good schools make a difference. A good education is never a waste of time, and is never misplaced. Young children who are taught to acquire the discipline of study will benefit from it all their lives.