Lost Generation

By David Hazony

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f you were to ask an average Jew, say, fifty or a hundred years ago, what made Jews different from others, you would almost certainly get an answer that had something to do with education. Throughout history, the conventional wisdom has always gone, Jews have placed a greater emphasis on literacy and intellectual mastery than any other people—and as a result have had a vastly disproportionate impact on a great many fields, from physics to economics to psychology. Education, which had always been a priority in classical Jewish life—Jewish children were trained in analyzing texts in even the poorest of Jewish communities over a period of many centuries—continued to be a mainstay of a Jewish upbringing even in the modern period, after most Jews abandoned their connection to other classical modes of Jewish life. The People of the Book was in fact a people of many books, and of the mind more generally.
How odd, then, that the Jewish state should have fashioned for itself so unimpressive an educational system. In recent years, a number of studies have confirmed what many Israeli parents have long suspected: That Israeli schools, which used to be among the finest in the world, today have fallen well behind those of most developed countries. According to a study published in 2004 by Beracha Karmarski and Zemira Mevarech of Bar-Ilan University, in a comparison of 42 leading nations, Israeli high-schoolers came in 30th in reading, 31st in math, and 33rd in science. Israeli tenth-graders, moreover, rank among the lowest in the Western world in terms of the demands placed on them by teachers: When students were asked questions such as “How often do your teachers make you work hard?” and “How often do your teachers refuse to accept sub-par work?” Israelis fell far short of other Western countries, scoring a 3.3 on a scale of 1 to 10–well behind Great Britain (7.3), Russia (6.5), the United States (6.4), and Italy (5.7). “The Israeli schoolteacher spoon-feeds his students,” Mevarech told the daily Ha’aretz. “He pre-digests the material for them and demands little from the students themselves. The data suggest that Israeli teachers are willing to accept substandard work from their students.”
Things are not much better at the university level, where an enervated learning culture serves to discourage exertion and achievement. In one study comparing Israeli university students’ knowledge of world geography with that of students in other developed countries, Israelis scored an abysmal 44 out of 100—compared with an average score of 65. And when individual professors attempt to raise standards on their own, they are often met with a wall of opposition from students and university administrations alike. Such was the fate of a professor at one of Israel’s most prestigious colleges who attempted to impose a higher standard of study on his students: In addition to readings, attendance, and a final exam, he required three five-page papers to be written during the semester. The response was something close to a riot. “Students started shouting me down in class, in order to keep me from teaching,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “When I asked for support from the department, I was told to give the kids a break. The students just aren’t used to having to work that hard.” To make matters worse, Israeli universities today find themselves in the thick of a fiscal crisis that has resulted in the closing of departments and the reduction of educational quality. “The universities are cutting back on doctoral students, failing to pay stipends, and professors are being made to teach classes of three hundred students instead of thirty…,” said Sergio Hart of the Hebrew University’s school of economics in an interview with the news website ynet.com. “It reduces the incentive to stay in Israel.”
True, the news is not all bad. In the last few years, for example, the proliferation of colleges has opened up the market of higher education to greater competition, and the direct result has been a far higher level of enrollment in B.A. programs than ever before. Israel is a world leader in public spending on education as a percentage of GDP, and in certain fields—such as economics, architecture, high-tech, and archaeology—Israeli scholarship and achievement continue to resonate worldwide. Yet these positive notes do little to mitigate the fact that in the key measures of academic achievement, Israeli schools have fallen far short of what Jews and Israelis had once come to expect....

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