Savir's Corner: On the importance of education

One can judge by the quality of education the state of a society with respect to its development, values and future.

education 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
education 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last week, I visited Hayovel Elementary School, which my grandchildren, Miki (to whose class I gave a talk on peace), Alon, Anouk and Lenny attend. Witnessing the dialogue between teachers and pupils, I was reminded of the prime importance of education. One can judge by the quality of education the state of a society and a country with respect to its development, values and future.
Take the era of the American revolution: the American colonies, due to good education, had a tremendously high literacy rate, far higher than in the then-dominating colonial power of England (more than 70 percent among American colonies, and roughly 50% in England). It was therefore no wonder that the most important manifesto of the revolution, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense became, in relation to the population of the colonies at the time, the most widely circulated book in American history. Some 500,000 copies were sold in 1776!
Common Sense
, which became the sense of the common, is a flamboyant and brilliant revolutionary rhetorical document. It reflected the deep belief in the force of values. In the words of Paine himself: “An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”
Almost 250 years later, the United States that was born out of that revolution has perhaps the most advanced level of education in the world, throughout its public and private school system, and more so in institutes of higher education, or centers of research and development. This is the secret to American success and power.
In the index of universities with the highest scientific activity on the web, among the 50 leading universities in the world, 45 are American. Led by the Ivy League universities, such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton, the level of sophistication of the US economy and technology are a function of the country’s academic standards. There is no Silicon Valley without Cornell and Carnegie Mellon. Yet most importantly, the fundamental values of America – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the very essence of American democracy – are also functions of a good education on all levels, although unfortunately not for all.
Education is more than what one studies at school. It starts at home, with one’s family; it transcends society in its ongoing discourse; it stems from media consumption, from political leaders’ dialogue with the people, and lately very much so from the Internet – from encyclopedic information (Wikipedia) through media outlets online and social networks (primarily Facebook) to distance learning.
Education is what one is taught. It is important to learn mathematics, literature, history, physics, chemistry, languages, etc.
It is also the civic education within one’s society - the teaching of values related to equality, social justice, gender equality, freedom of speech and human rights; it is also about negating the dangers of violence, racism, xenophobia, discrimination and war.
The result is a combination of the level of the skills acquired through education, and the values one adopts regarding life, society and the relations between peoples and countries, as well as the individual character that develops, through years of learning.
Totalitarian regimes such as the former Soviet Union knew perhaps how to teach physics and Tolstoy, but they also taught and dictated total obedience to the regime system – and society deteriorated until the collapse of that system, as a result.
As for the Middle East, the formal education system in the Arab World has not been advanced enough. Illiteracy is relatively high, especially in agrarian areas; Universities educate, but do not sufficiently develop skills that prepare for employment (resulting in a large amount of unemployed university graduates, an always volatile social group).
Tunisia, with a high level of education, including for young women, is the exception. To a large degree, so are Palestine and Jordan with their numerous universities. The outcome of these lacunas is reflected in slow economies, and a rebellious youth, acquiring information, education, and the ability to be empowered and critical of the ruling regime, from the Internet, demonstrating in the squares and toppling dictators. Their gravest need today is good higher education, which will also enable them to provide for themselves.
As for Israel, our successful and dramatic nation building process was closely linked to the pivotal importance that Israel’s founders attributed to education. We had universities before we had a state – the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded in 1925, the Technion even prior to that. The most important common binding point for the immigrant population was the learning of modern Hebrew.
The rebirth of the Hebrew language is one of the great marvels of Zionism – the only ancient language (unlike ancient Greek or Latin) to be revived and renewed. It produced a rich and masterful body of Hebrew literature, from Bialik to Alterman, as well as a Hebrew press, including newspapers such as Davar and Haaretz, Hebrew theater, etc. With time, education helped to create a relatively sophisticated and advanced society that led to great achievements in economic growth, a flourishing culture and the absorption of immigrants, and in the process, produced numerous Nobel Prize awards for literature, peace and the sciences.
Today we look at the nation-building years with nostalgia, as the education system in Israel faces a multitude of problems. Our high school students score mediocre results in international tests, and our system suffers from a grave lack of equality. Educational standards in metropolitan Israel are far superior to those in its geographical and social periphery. The Arab population especially is discriminated against when it comes to state-financed education. The haredi population’s education is funded, but only for religious studies, and exempted from core educational subjects, such as mathematics and English. Universities that are not sufficiently financed and are heavily dependent on funding by American Jewry are thus required to limit the scale of important departments, which gradually leads to a dangerous brain drain.
Most importantly, we witness under Likud rule a dangerous erosion in the education of universal humanitarian values, and an emphasis on nationalistic ones, as reflected in government-initiated tours to Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. This goes hand in hand with the moral corruption which is the result of four decades of occupation.
And yet, the Middle East as a whole, including Israel, has a new and great opportunity in education that is not state-sponsored – education through the Internet, whether this is in distance learning derived from international academia, in research in all walks of life, and in a regional and global dialogue that opens up society for globalization, creating an affinity to universal values.
It is in this vein that I have begun to create an Online Middle Eastern & North African University, the YaLa Young Leaders Academy, in cooperation with the leading academic institutes in the world.
Thousands of young Arabs and Israelis will be able to learn together, in a variety of fields, and espouse with time the values of democracy and peace. Indeed, good education on the basis of humanitarian and democratic values provides a better future. Again, in the words of Thomas Paine: “One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.”
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.