Education system to bone up on civics

One of the key elements of Education Minister Yuli Tamir's new vision for the education system, which she presented Monday to the Knesset's Education Committee, is a new emphasis on civics studies. During her presentation, Tamir spoke of Israel as a multicultural society, which required the development of a shared civic identity. She also spoke about the importance of preparing students "to understand the democratic reality in which they live in order to enable them to operate within its framework, to understand its importance, to criticize it and to know their rights and obligations." Last year, the average grade on the civics matriculation exam, which is obligatory for all Israeli high school students, fell to 69.9 (out of 100) - the lowest exam grade average among obligatory exams. In recent weeks, both Tamir and Education Ministry director Shmuel Abuav stressed the importance of civics studies as a cornerstone of Israeli democracy. The ministry is examining two experimental programs in which students matriculate in two (rather than the obligatory one) or five units of civics studies. In a related new study, Sigal Ben-Porath - a former doctoral student of Tamir's at Tel Aviv University - offers her own vision of what it means to teach civics today in both Israel and the US, two societies living in a state of protracted conflict. "This is a state that Israel has been in for many years, and one that a growing number of Western countries are entering," said Ben-Porath, who is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. In her new book Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict, Ben-Porath examines the relationship among civics education, war and a quest for peace. She draws on examples from Israel and the US to understand how ideas about citizenship change when a country is at war, and what educators can do to prevent some of what she regards as the more harmful of these changes. Her focus is on the formation of a collective state of mind according to which life under conflict is the norm, and on the ways this state of mind shapes social and political consciousness. Ben-Porath arrived in the US to pursue post-doctoral research at Princeton University a month before the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. "I was working on these issues earlier, and it was very interesting to see the dramatic change in the public atmosphere in the US," she told The Jerusalem Post during a visit to Israel last week. Ben-Porath said she found strong similarities between the social responses to conflict in the US and in Israel, which she defined as "belligerent citizenship." Among the characteristics of belligerent citizenship, she said, was what she saw in the course of her study as a growing emphasis in schools on social conformity and on drawing stark distinctions between "us" and "them." When patriotic commitment takes this particular form, she argues in her book, it narrows the range of questions that are considered legitimate in the public sphere. "People in both Israel and the US want to express patriotism and feel unity," she said. "These are authentic feelings because their nations really are being attacked and attacking others, and they feel vulnerable." Nevertheless, Ben-Porath said, "We need to examine what our democratic principles are and to see how we can preserve them, while taking into consideration the needs of a society in a state of war." According to Ben-Porath, Tamir is someone who "finds a way to combine a democratic approach that is committed to liberal principles with a sense of national commitment." The most meaningful arena in which such a balance must be sought, Ben-Porath said, was the public school system. "Civic education is what I see as the basic justification for a public school system - educating citizens who can preserve the basic tenets of their society," she said. In Israel, as Ben-Porath noted, there is no teachers' training program or diploma in civics studies, a subject usually taught by history teachers. Ideally, she said, civics should be taught according to an interdisciplinary approach according to which it would be part of every subject on the school curriculum - from history to biology and ecology. "Education is supposed to expand our way of thinking and the ways in which we want to fulfill our civic existence," she said.