When learning is no longer important

The value of scholarship has been discredited precisely by the two segments of Israeli society that still claim to prize it above all: the haredim and academics.

Haredi children studying 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredi children studying 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In my column last week, I discussed one widely ignored challenge facing Israel’s education system. But there’s another, even greater challenge that is also frequently overlooked by those waxing nostalgic for Israel’s educational achievements of days gone by: the fact that learning is no longer a key Israeli value.
RELATED: Gas fields in contested seas (Premium)Can Israel's democracy be saved? (Premium)Been there, done that (Premium) The right to democratic "McCarthyism" (Premium)Is Sarah Palin the victim of a blood libel?(Premium)
During the first decades of the state’s existence, most Israelis were products of a Diaspora Jewish society that viewed scholarship as the height of achievement: The religious half of this society revered great rabbis because they were scholars and teachers, and the secular half simply transferred this reverence for scholarship to secular subjects. Hence the new, impoverished country, facing critical security challenges, nevertheless prized education and invested massively in it: The number of senior university faculty per capita, for instance, rose twelve-fold from 1950-1973. And thanks to this attitude, teachers could count on respect from students and parents alike, even if they were poorly paid or taught in classrooms short of equipment.
Today, however, that is no longer the case. In fact, learning has become so devalued by Israeli society that even many education professionals no longer view imparting knowledge as their primary goal. In one 2008 poll, for instance, only one-fifth of principals said their main goal was raising students’ academic achievements. The rest preferred goals like "inculcating a feeling of belonging and significance among all those who come to school," or even more distressingly, “reducing violence.” Similarly, when the Education Ministry published a list of goals in 2009, “advancing educational achievement” - i.e., increasing students’ knowledge - ranked only twelfth.
This contempt for the value of learning leads almost inevitably to one of the Israeli education system’s most well-known problems: classroom environments that make learning almost impossible, thanks to disruptive students and parents who refuse to back teachers’ efforts to impose discipline. For if neither students nor parents value learning, they have no reason to respect a teacher qua teacher, as a disseminator of knowledge.
Why has Israeli society failed to maintain its founders’ respect for education? One possible answer is that the secular Jewish reverence for scholarship was born of a religious tradition from which Israel’s early residents were generally at most one generation removed. But with time, as Israelis grew more distant from the religious roots of the traditional Jewish love of learning, this love grew harder to sustain.
But there is also another factor that’s impossible to ignore. And that is the degree to which the value of scholarship has been discredited precisely by the two segments of Israeli society that still claim to prize it above all: the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and academics.
For haredim, learning is beyond doubt the supreme value. This is a society that encourages most of its male members to study in yeshiva all their lives, or at least for as many years as possible, and where the best scholars are the community’s most respected members.
But it is also a society where most men shirk army duty, leaving the burden of the state’s defense to non-haredim, and where most men don’t work, relying for their sustenance on state-funded stipends and subsidies financed by the taxes of non-haredim. If everyone adopted the haredi lifestyle, Israel would be unable either to defend itself militarily or support itself economically - and given its many enemies, its demise would follow swiftly. This inevitably leads other Israelis to look at haredi society and say, “if elevating scholarship to a supreme value means creating a society incapable of surviving, we want no part of this value.”
The situation in academia is a bit more complicated, because while there are academics who actively work to undermine the state - whether by roaming the world urging anti-Israel boycotts or by publishing virulently anti-Israel slanders - they constitute only a small, albeit vocal, minority. Yet in the name of promoting “excellence in scholarship,” their colleagues grant them sweeping support.
The boycott issue is a particularly salient example. Few academics actively promote anti-Israel boycotts, and many actively work against them. Yet almost without exception, the academic world has lined up to insist that because excellence in scholarship is impossible without academic freedom, academics must even have the freedom to urge a boycott of the very state that pays their salaries (since most Israeli universities are state-funded) without fearing for their jobs.
In short, though any business would instantly fire an employee who publicly called for boycotting it, the supreme value of scholarship means the state has no such privilege: It must continue financing even academics who actively seek to bring it to its knees via international boycotts. And that inevitably leads other Israelis to look at academic society and say, “if elevating scholarship to a supreme value requires the state not merely to tolerate, but to actually finance campaigns for its own destruction, we want no part of this value.
There are no easy answers to how to reinstate learning as a value in a society that has come to associate this value with self-destructive behavior. But without addressing this fundamental problem, even the soundest educational reforms may well prove insufficient.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.