My interrupted Greek lesson

The strike at Israeli universities is unreasonable and counterproductive.

Students zion sq 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Students zion sq 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The continuing student strike at our universities, now entering its second month, makes it painfully clear that something is terribly wrong in Israeli higher education. I'm not talking merely about the appropriateness of a tuition increase - a subject upon which reasonable people may disagree. I happen to think that the evidence in favor of a gradual increase in tuition, along the lines recommended by the Shochat Report, is convincing. Spend time at an Israeli university and you can't help but notice money is a problem. The signs are everywhere - astronomical class sizes, paltry opportunities for undergraduates to partake in independent research and few classroom tutorials. And forget about asking graduate students to lead tutorials; there is barely enough of a budget to hire them to do grading. In the introductory class in international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem this semester, a single teaching assistant is responsible for advising and grading the work of over 150 students. As someone who as an undergraduate benefited from an inspiring tutorial in international politics, I can attest to how much is lost. Plainly, the state must do its part. But it is just as certain that the students themselves, who stand to most directly benefit from a better funding situation, should bear these costs as well. As to the understandable fear expressed by many students that tuition hikes will simply make it impossible for them to pay for school, the Shochat Report proposes the creation of a new system of national student loans at low interest, to be paid back upon graduation and gainful employment. I was a beneficiary of a similar loan scheme in Canada, and can again attest that this is a reasonable way of reconciling the tension between the need to improve the academy and ensuring that students will be able to pay. THE REASON for the continued strike, however, is not that a majority of students do not agree with these arguments. It is rather that the student strike leaders have willfully shut themselves off from reasonable argument altogether. Fuelled by a toxic blend of ambition and ideology, the ring-leaders have been willing to sacrifice what actually matters in a university, namely, learning. This year, for example, I participated in an intensive seminar in classical Greek at Hebrew University. Greek is a very, very difficult language to learn. The syntactic structures are so complex, the morphology of the verbs and nouns is often so unapparent and even counterintuitive that those who do not review in continual fashion risk forgetting all they have previously learned. In consideration of this, the lecturer, though harboring some sympathy for the fight to keep tuition low, decided last week to resume teaching students who were interested, while at the same time promising those still committed to the strike that he would help them make up the material when the strike ends. BUT THE student protesters had other ideas. Whether we met in our regular classroom or some other location, our learning would inevitably be interrupted by strikers bursting into the room and interrupting the teacher in mid-sentence, demanding the cessation of all learning. The students, as if possessed of infallible moral authority, then began to chastise us because we were "a class that was constantly giving them trouble" by agreeing to meet. They charged that we were damaging the cause, damaging solidarity, damaging Israel because of our selfishness. We had not bothered, we were later told in a haughty email, to lift our eyes from our books and look at what was happening around us. Noticing that we were learning Greek, the ring-leader of the student-disrupters told us sanctimoniously as we were packing up our books: "How it breaks my heart to see the kinds of classes we must break up!" As if he hadn't, a minute before, been chastising us. MY GREEK lesson is by no means unique. Everywhere on campus you hear shocking things about the kinds of tactics engaged in by striking students. Snitching on "strikebreakers"; lectures disrupted by shrieking students; open and often vicious taunting of students who wish to go class and teachers who wish to teach. One almost has to stand back to observe whether we are in modern Israel or Maoist China. In any case, these activities certainly bespeak a mentality which has moved beyond the realm of reasonable discussion on the relative merits of a tuition increase. How, then, to respond to this immoderate passion and anger? Faculty and university administrators cannot simply call for more moderation and more dialogue. That ship has sailed. In my view, they must call in an unequivocal voice for the students to immediately return to their classrooms - no excuses accepted. Behavior of the kind on display at my Greek class should be dealt with for what is - pure hooliganism which has no place in a university setting. I am confident, or at least hopeful, that a good majority of my fellow students would see the sense in this approach. But I am equally sure that if the university continues to capitulate to the diehard few, Israeli education as a whole will be the real loser. The writer is a graduate student of politics and classics at the Hebrew University.