Borderline Views: Bringing the humanities back

Original universities were founded around 3 main areas: theology, law and philosophy. Without these, an institution can never be a full-fledged university.

Ben Gurion UNiversity 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben Gurion UNiversity 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The academic year starts this week. Hundreds of thousands of students will return to their studies at the country’s universities and colleges. For tens of thousands, this will be their first week of studies, following years of service in the army. It will take time for them to open their minds to the diversity of ideas and opinions.
Their education will not only be the formal lectures and examinations, but also, perhaps more importantly, the way they will become part of an opinionated civil society, and the way in which they will learn to become involved and concerned citizens, taking part in debates, discussions, social activities and even demonstrations.
Israel’s institutes of higher education are of a high quality. But, unfortunately, they are falling behind and do not have the same international status that they enjoyed 10 and 20 years ago.
The recent publication of the international gradings of the world’s universities show that not a single local institution remains in the top 200, as compared to a few years ago when three – the Hebrew University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute – were part of this elite club, while another two, Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv universities, were not that far off.
True, the way that these tables are composed, the criterion used, are often questionable, but this is no different for our universities than it is for similar institutions elsewhere.
A Nobel Prize here and there cannot hide the fact that the reputation and status of our foremost institutes of learning and research are slipping behind, and we need to do our utmost to ensure that they return to their former glory, and even improve upon it.
A LOT of it has to do with money. Universities here are not funded today as generously as in the past. The opening of the regional colleges has made the demands on the public purse much greater, while over the years successive governments have gradually reduced the percentage of resources they provide for universities.
The missing parts of the budgets are meant to be made up through tuition fees and private donations. But while student numbers have increased, tuition has remained at its previous level, with student representatives vehemently opposing any rise. Whenever such a move is suggested, there are always politicians who immediately curry favor with the angry students to ensure that the fees remain the same.
As for donations, universities here compete strongly with each other, and with a host of other Israeli and Jewish institutions, for foreign donations.
But as the number of institutions – hospitals, yeshivot and others – increases, the global economic recession has made it even more difficult to attract the large donors. Given a greater demand, decreasing supply, and a younger generation of potential donors who are less interested in Israeli and Jewish causes, the budget becomes tighter and tighter.
AND HEREIN lies the structural problem facing our universities today. As money becomes tighter, so does the way in which universities are managed and the way in which they determine their priorities. To a great extent, universities here have been taken over by administrators and managers for whom a balanced budget is far more important than academic standards or excellence in research.
Where research projects, especially in the hard sciences, can bring in major international funding, this is seen as positive, especially given the percentage of overhead which the university can take for itself to help in daily administration costs. But where research is only measured in terms of ideas, where the researcher requires a good library, a place for reflection and silence, this is no longer seen as contributing to the status of the institution and is often pushed aside in the constant checking of the balance sheet.
In recent years this approach has become institutionalized with the adoption of a national budgeting system known as the Vatat Model (Vatat being the Hebrew acronym for the committee that funds the country’s universities).
The ability to raise major research funding is a key factor, while insufficient attention is paid to the ability to publish in top journals or to attain international recognition for ideas and inventions if there isn’t money attached.
This is particularly harmful to the humanities and much of the social sciences, whose models of research and publication differ greatly from their colleagues in the hard sciences.
The original universities were founded around three main areas: theology, law and philosophy. Without these basic components, an institution can have the best medical school or nanotechnology laboratory in the world, but it can never be a full-fledged university.
Times change, and new disciplines appear on the scene. Schools of administration and business schools have been the rage for the past decade, often taking the place of some of the more traditional disciplines, some of which are in danger of disappearing altogether.
A GOOD indication of these trends is the fact that in my son’s class year in the Law Faculty at the Hebrew University, only three out of 120 have chosen to combine their law studies with philosophy, while almost 30 have combined law with business administration.
This says a great deal about the career orientations of students (which is absolutely fine) as compared with those who understand the need to develop ideas and contribute to the way that we, as a society, think, and the way in which we express our collective and individual values – even if, and precisely because, there is no profit margin at the end of the day.
That said, there is a belated recognition that the humanities are facing a crisis – not just here, but globally. To that effect, the country’s (overly) centralized higher education authorities have began to investigate ways of strengthening them, not only as a means of increasing student numbers, but also to reinvigorate high-level scholarship among the next generation of researchers and teachers.
One important new initiative has been the jointly funded project of Malag (an acronym for the Council of Higher Education) and Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) to encourage inter-university cooperation through joint teaching projects in specific areas of the humanities. The pilot project, which will be starting this week, involves the cooperation of four of the country’s universities in the joint teaching of African studies.
The renewed concern about the state of the humanities is part of a realization that profit should not only be measured in monetary terms, but that society as a whole profits from the development of ideas, moral thinking and the general diffusion of knowledge, even within the realms of abstract thinking.
It is to be hoped that the Malag will succeed in creating the infrastructure for the next generation of philosophers, literary scholars and thinkers who will achieve the international status and global recognition enjoyed by so many of their illustrious predecessors.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.