Think About It: Teaching of civics in our schools

The public debate on the content of the curriculum for the teaching of civic studies in Israel is serious and impressive in its depth and openness.

empty classroom school_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
empty classroom school_311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Ever since the publication of the textbook Being Citizens in Israel – in a Jewish and Democratic State by the Education Ministry in 2000, the teaching of civic studies (ezrahut) in Israeli secondary schools has turned into a contentious issue.
In recent months the debate has turned personal and ugly, with the demand from right-wing circles that the supervisor of civic studies at the Education Ministry, Adar Cohen, be fired. The basis for this demand, as explained in a Makor Rishon article by Gil Bringer published on December 9, 2011, was “that the Zionist education of our children, who live in a state whose whole existence rests on Zionism, has been placed in the hands of a post-Zionist person.”
Post-Zionist? Adar Cohen, whose supporters include many civic studies teachers from across the political spectrum, might have left-wing inclinations, but it was during his tenure as supervisor that changes were introduced to the curriculum of civic studies for high schools that took into consideration the comments of more nationalist-inclined critics, especially with regard to the balance between historical facts and principles, and between the definition of Israel as Jewish and democratic. It should also be noted that Cohen is an active reserve major in the IDF – hardly part of the CV of a post-Zionist.
Cohen was fired on August 5, 2012.
According to the ministry, the reasons for the decision were purely professional, not ideological. No details were published, so we do not know the exact reasons, though it is not unreasonable to assume that the recent delegitimization campaign did not go unnoticed.
It is also quite possible that Cohen’s approval in 2010 (in consultation with others) of a textbook called Going out to a Civilian Life: Israel – Society, State and its Citizens, which was then rejected by the ministry the following year after it was found to contain some embarrassing factual mistakes and inaccuracies, and his alleged reservations about another textbook – Government and Politics in Israel – the Foundations of Citizenship, written by Professor Avraham Diskin – also affected the decision.
Incidentally, Diskin, who defines himself as a social democrat and Zionist, and favors the two-state solution in principle, is the victim of a delegitimization campaign from left-wing circles, who accuse him of becoming a right-wing spokesman because he was among the founders of “The Third Way” in 1996, and is actively involved in the work of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. How easily we stick false labels to people! However, the real issue here is not personal, but rather how civic studies should be taught in our secondary schools, in an era where the adult population frequently disagrees not only about principles, but also about the facts and goals. I believe that everything should be done to avoid a situation in which there are as many textbooks as there are ideological points of view. Ideally there should be a single textbook, which has been thoroughly proofread to avoid factual errors, and presents all the dilemmas and interpretations, but without tilting the narrative in any particular direction.
That is, of course, easier said than done, especially when there are those who argue, for example, that the mere raising of the question whether there is a clash between Israel’s being a democratic state and a Jewish state is not legitimate, since it constitutes criticism of the foundations of the state, while others argue that not only is this question legitimate, but so is the inclusion of the “Nakba” (the Arab view of the establishment of the State of Israel as their own national catastrophe) in the curriculum, which is taught not only in the Jewish schools, but in the Arab sector schools as well.
Most of the time, when it does not deteriorate to cheap demagoguery the public debate on the content of the curriculum and books for the teaching of civic studies in Israel is serious and impressive in its depth and openness. I would highly recommend skeptics take a look at two debates that took place on the issue in the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee, on November 25, 2009, and April 17, 2012, (the full minutes can be found on the Knesset website).
Nevertheless, what worries me is the fact that there is an abyss between the level of the debate and what actually goes on in the schools. The general impression one gets, and which was strengthened in my own mind after I taught an academic course about the Knesset in the Israeli democratic system, is that most of the graduates of our high school system are completely ignorant about the meaning of democracy, and the principles and facts behind our system of government.
The fault is not in the curriculum or the books, but to a large extent in the teachers who are responsible for teaching civic studies.
At the same time, one cannot absolve from blame our youth, whose main concern is to pass their matriculation examinations, rather than to acquire knowledge and the analytical tools to process it. For most of them what really matters is who will win the next song contest or reality program, rather than the future of our “Jewish and democratic state.”
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.