Welcome to college

At a time when humanities studies are on the decline, the Shalem Center has opened an educational institution focused on the liberal arts.

By SETH FRANTZMAN
November 9, 2013 02:34
THE SHALEM CENTER in Jerusalem

THE SHALEM CENTER in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: Courtesy The Shalem Center)

When Tamar Steinberg decided she was going to study liberal arts, the first question her family asked was, “And then what are you going to do with it?” At 23 years old, the native Jerusalemite is entering university much later in life than her counterparts in America or Europe, who start their studies right out of high school or after taking a gap year.

She is one of 50 students who are part of the inaugural class of Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, offering two degrees and only in the humanities.

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According to Sharon Achdut, a spokesman for the Council of Higher Education, this is the first institution of its kind to model itself on a Liberal Arts program focusing on the humanities.

The process for Shalem College to receive approval to grant bachelor’s degrees came after a long application process with the CHE. Achdut explained that the college met the requirements of the committee and that it is based on a well-known institution.

The CHE doesn’t take into account whether the issue of the decline in the number of students studying these subjects would affect the college; “If they meet the parameters, such as having a certain number of qualified lecturers from known institutions, we cannot say no. It is like a student who chooses law – he can now choose university or Shalem.

We don’t choose for the students where to study.”

Eleven percent of first-year university students in the 2011/12 school year chose to study humanities, making it the third most popular faculty, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Social science and engineering were the most popular fields at 28.4 percent and 15.6% respectively.

Despite the humanities garnering criticism as a dying discipline, Achdut noted, “We see the importance of this institution working in this area. We did a very strict check before it received its permission.”

SHALEM COLLEGE received accreditation in January of this year, opening its doors in the fall. It first began as a research institute promoting academics that included philosophy, political theory and religion as it relates to a Jewish and Zionist history and the history of the Middle East.

Over the years The Shalem Center, of which Shalem College is part, was criticized for being, as Haaretz called it, a “neo-conservative think tank.” It was accused of being led by academics allied to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and critics pointed out that its fellows, such as Moshe Ya’alon, Natan Sharansky and Michael Oren, all went to work in government when Netanyahu was elected in 2009.

The CHE will follow up with the college in its first years to examine how it is following through on its requirements.

Abraham Yogev, a professor emeritus with 37 years of experience in the school of education and department of sociology at Tel Aviv University, has written on the subject of developments in Israeli higher education, which is his expertise. He is enthusiastic about the direction Shalem is pursuing.

“I think it is a good idea, an experiment, [but] a nice idea.”

He notes that they are taking a very small number of students each year and have very high admission standards.

“With backgrounds like that you could get into any prestigious program in the universities. Who wants to go to a private college paying NIS 36,000 a year, into humanities, with such an excellent academic record? I don’t know.”

The college is privately funded and every student this year received financial aid, paying only NIS 6,000 of the total NIS 36,000 tuition. Students are expected to be fully immersed in the program and receive a NIS 2,000 per month stipend to help with living expenses.

The funding for the financial aid comes from private donors. The college does not receive money from the state.

“We give general financial assistance because we have the expectation they will be full time in their studies,” says vice president Seth Goldstein. “Our donors are complete partners in this endeavor and completely aligned with the vision.”

According to senior management, the college is committed to providing financial aid on a needs basis but they can not say with certainty that in the future every student will receive as generous a package as the first class. The issue of financial aid will be revisited on a yearly basis with the goal of providing the highest aid package to the largest number of students.

While the financial benefits of the college are attractive, students are put through a rigorous multi-day application process. The goal is to vet each student on their creativity and participation in addition to a baseline academic performance and previous life experience either in the military, national service, volunteer programs and travel.

Yogev hopes the institution will succeed and sees it as a positive development.

When it comes to accusations that the program is politicized, he responds: “I don’t know. It is Zionist, that is for sure, whatever that means.”

SHALEM COLLEGE does not downplay its commitment to a Zionist vision. Daniel Gordis, the head of the core curriculum department, has written that Shalem will be the college “to save Israel’s soul” and its goal is to produce graduates who can speak out for Israel in what it means to be a Jewish state.

“Shalem College will restore the discourse that was at the heart of rabbinic Judaism,” he writes in a mission statement. “If our young people cannot articulate a complex worldview with Judaism and Zionism at its core, how will they withstand the forces that are deeply rooted in ideological fervor?” Prof. Menachem Kellner, an expert in medieval Jewish philosophy and modern Jewish thought at Shalem College, says that the institution doesn’t have an ideology but they do feel part of a “Zionist project.”

“There is no sign saying ‘no non-Zionist need apply, no Arabs need apply,’” he says. “We’re trying to be a college which is open to all ideas. Its true that all of us who are working there are Zionists... that is the ethos of the place and not something we’re trying to sell.”

Kellner’s field of study is one of two majors that students can choose from, the other being Middle East and Islamic studies. In regard to maintaining objectivity in studying the Middle East and Islam in a Zionist framework, Kellner says this shouldn’t be a problem.

Amnon Portugaly, a researcher in neoliberalism at Hazal Center at the Van Leer Institute, has been critical of this issue.

“Shalem Center and College are nice [institutions], but they are not really academic, in terms of researchers who look for the truth of the matter. They start with a preconceived idea and they will... I wouldn’t say they would bend the facts, but they will interpret the facts to fit their ideas.”

He notes that Shalem isn’t the only place guilty of this, arguing that there are also left-wing think tanks and radical left-wing academics.

However “a proper college,” he says, “although it does not deal with research, they are supposed to give only the first degree, the university creates knowledge, the college transmits knowledge, this is the main difference; a college with an agenda will pass on only the philosophy that fits its agenda. This sums up the issue.”

He says those interested should read Yoram Hazony’s book The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul or papers written by Daniel Polisar, the president of the Shalem Center. Portugaly’s main critique is that the ideas imparted by Shalem Center may influence Shalem College.

“I am not against it [the Center]. I don’t support their ideas but I think it is fairly legitimate and good they [have] a center or think tank according to this line of thinking. Once they want to use it indoctrinate people, with the view that they will be in government and influence government, that becomes dangerous.

“We have seen it in the US. There was something called the Project of the New American Century conceived in the mid 1990s and you can see how false it was, but it was worse than that: these people were responsible for the entry into Iraq; that was the idea to use force to establish the supremacy of the US in the new century.”

Portugaly supports the idea of expanding the liberal arts in Israeli higher education.

“I would love to have more liberal arts in Israel. The general idea of a college is fine. Once they do it and they teach people one side, that is a problem... to have an aim to send these people to go to government and work over their according to their indoctrination.”

THE INNOVATION of private colleges was already a trend in Israel, says Yogev. “First of all you have to realize that public universities have become somewhat privatized, they have private programs within the institutions. That is a problem in itself.”

He notes that numerous private programs have been developed at universities in the past decade and a half. However, two or three years ago the CHE decided to prohibit new types of these programs at public universities, such as Tel Aviv University.

An important mission of Shalem is in how it educates its students.

The college is modeled on North American institutions, with a strong emphasis on a core curriculum, critical thinking and writing.

College president Martin Kramer says helping students develop tools to express themselves is not a priority in Israeli universities, at least at the undergraduate level. Kramer says the system of higher education in Israel was established by academics in the tradition of Weimar Germany. The founders all received a broad education in high school at a high level, allowing them to enter directly into an area of specialization upon entrance to university.

“It very narrowly educates young people,” he says, but adds it had its advantages when the state was founded.

Kellner, after teaching for over three decades at the University of Haifa, says his main critique of students entering university is that they would come in with a narrow view and leave with an even more narrow education.

“It was amazing to me how students in the philosophy department in Haifa were convinced that the name ‘Rambam’ referred only to a hospital,” Kellner says. With a tinge of humor he adds, “I’m exaggerating a little, but not a lot – and the students in my own department in Jewish thought had heard of Aristotle but had never read a word of his.”

Kellner says that the benefits of the American model of education are creating citizens of a democracy. “To do that you can’t just be a specialist in a narrow field, you need to be a generalist.”

Kellner says there is an advantage to using an American approach with students who are coming to study at a later age, with life experience. “We can rely on them,” Kellner says, adding that this is true of any Israeli university, namely that responsibility for important issues can be relegated to the student.

“The system in Israeli universities today, you basically decide what you want to study before you set foot on the campus. You’re admitted not by the institution but by the department and each department has its own admissions and standards,” he says. “Most undergraduate degrees in all the fields are three-year degrees in which from the very first day you take courses only in the area of your specialization.”

There is a feeling among the students that they are active participants in the shaping of what they want their education to look like.

JACOB ROBINSON, 24, says one of the most attractive aspects of Shalem was its application process.

“I enjoyed it a lot, I dealt with a lot of bureaucracy in the navy, and every stage you get to you have to fight your way forward, whereas here they are forthcoming and explain... it was a much more approachable decision to deal with,” says Robinson, who made aliya from Cape Town when he was 11 and grew up in Jerusalem.

Steinberg agrees, saying she feels she was accepted as a person first and a test score second. After high school, Steinberg participated in mechina, a year of academic study meant as preparation for her two years of army service. After her service, in which she worked with soldiers from all over the world, Steinberg says she didn’t know much about her own identity.

“I felt there is so much to learn about [the Jewish community] and Jewish philosophy. I felt it’s who I am and I don’t know much about it.”

Fifty-seven percent of the students come from a background of an educational or volunteer program before the army, with only two students in the class who didn’t participate in national or military service. The average age of the students is 24 and a little over half participated in further education post-service.

The college boasts of the uniqueness of its students, highlighting their achievements as entrepreneurs or volunteers. There is a sense among the students that they are active participants in shaping their education.

“I was just looking for a good program that combined several studies together,” Steinberg says. “I do know it opens different options and it’s going to give me a lot more to study than one subject and to get one job right after.” •


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