Education’s Forsaken Vision

By Avner Molcho

Once upon a time, Israeli teachers aimed for the loftiest of goals: building moral character.

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For years now, the Israeli public has expressed deep dissatisfaction with the state’s education system. Media reports of disastrously poor test scores have become routine—as have the public outcries that inevitably follow. Indeed, according to international assessments in science and mathematics, for example, the average Israeli eighth-grader can only envy the achievements of his Malaysian or Slovenian counterpart (to mention just two of the countries that surpass Israel in these fields).1
There are also, of course, those who decry the loss of values among today’s youth. Such complaints range from the perennial grumblings of the older generation about the failings of “children today” to the more serious concerns about the consequences of pedagogic liberalism, which grants excessive precedence to student rights.2 Yet by far the most common criticism leveled at the Israeli education system deals with a specific failing, which seemingly outweighs all other problems: inequality.3
That education is a main determinant of upward social mobility, allowing the graduate to rise to positions of power and affluence, is a universally recognized fact. The demand for equal opportunity in education, then, goes hand in hand with the demand for equal opportunity in the economic sphere. The problem, so critics claim, is that the Israeli education system does not currently ensure that students from all socioeconomic strata of society enter the job market from the same starting gate. As a result, children from underprivileged backgrounds have less of a chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
This critique cuts across political lines. Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, announced prior to his second election as prime minister that “We are caught in a crisis that can be overcome. Social gaps are widening, because of the failure of the education system. If there is anything that can close these gaps—it is a good education system.”4 Former Minister of Education Yael (Yuli) Tamir, who hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum similarly stated that “inequality of opportunity” was the main problem she faced upon assuming office.5 This view has become a rare point of consensus in Israel’s famously factious public discourse; the same arguments are presented even by academics and journalists who advocate radical socialist agendas.6 It is hardly surprising, then, that the issue of equality figures prominently in setting educational policy. The clearest example is the Dovrat Commission, appointed by the Israeli government in 2003 with the goal of conducting “a comprehensive examination of the Israeli education system and recommending an inclusive plan for change—pedagogical, structural, and organizational—as well as outlining a means of implementing it.” Entitled Because Every Child Deserves More, the commission’s official report asserted that the purpose of the education system is to create a “shared foundation” for Israel’s diverse populations and sectors, thereby “provid[ing] an equal opportunity through education, which is required for realizing each individual’s potential and earning a respectable living in the modern economy.”7
The approach that views education as an instrument whose main purpose is the implementation of a certain kind of social justice has become, it would seem, beyond reproach. Its dominance makes it difficult to entertain any alternative purpose for the country’s failing school system; it also creates the impression that this has always been the alpha and omega of Israeli education. According to Shlomo Swirski, one of Israel’s prominent “critical” sociologists, for more than a century the school has been perceived “as an institution operating, as it were, outside the boundaries of society in order to increase equality between social classes, by way of offering every student an equal opportunity to succeed in his or her studies and ascend the social ladder.”8
In truth, however, up until a few decades ago, the Israeli education system had a very different goal in mind. Its main aim was not the advancement of social equality per se, but rather the cultivation of the student’s moral fiber. Not surprisingly, this pedagogic position has been shunted aside over time: It hardly meshes with the liberal view that reigns supreme in the Israeli academy. Unfortunately, public discourse in Israel has been made all the poorer for it. If we truly seek more effective methods of addressing the challenges that confront Israel’s education system, we would do well to take a second look at the principles that guided it in the past. They may yet afford us some good ideas on how to contend with the current predicament.
Until at least the 1960s, Israeli educators took it for granted that their primary role was to mold students’ character. This approach is stated in the first-ever work to be published in Mandatory Palestine on the subject of secondary education.9 The authors of the essays featured in the 1939 compendium all concurred that the goal of high school is the “education of the mind” and the “cultivation of virtues” (to use the terms coined by the volume’s editor, philosophy professor Leon Roth). If “education of the mind” refers to those studies aimed at developing students’ intellectual capacities, such as mathematics, then the “cultivation of virtues” denotes the shaping of those same students into civically and morally conscientious individuals. Alexander Dushkin, a professor of education and founder of The Hebrew University Secondary School, begins his essay by stating, “All agree that the principal task [of education] is to develop the student’s character.”10 To the question “Who is our virtuous person?” he answers that such a person exhibits “all five of our classic character types” or paragons, i.e., the maskil (man of Enlightenment), the Hasid (pious man), the talmid chacham (student of Torah), the Zionist, and the pioneer.11
Another strong advocate of the “cultivation of virtues” was the historian Jacob Katz, who ran a seminary for teachers until 1950. In a 1954 lecture at a conference of the Association of High Schools in Israel, Katz explained, “At the end of the day, civic education cannot succeed unless there may be found individuals of worthy qualities, who are prepared to uphold the ideal they were taught to emulate.” Cultivation of virtues, he added, “means that the moral demands made of society as a whole are transformed through moral teaching into personal qualities, inculcated in those individuals whose education has succeeded.”12 The ultimate goal, Katz stressed, is not simply to produce law-abiding citizens, but to mold highly moral individuals, men and women who are deeply committed to contributing to the betterment of their society. Education, he wrote, aims to “bring the student to act above and beyond the call of duty, as society can set only the most minimal of requirements for the masses, whereas from those unique individuals—whom we esteem as particularly virtuous—we demand more. We expect them to go above and beyond the call of duty, and they expect it of themselves. Increasing the number of such worthy individuals is the purpose of moral education.”13
The specific content of moral and civic education, revered as it was by Israel’s pioneering teachers, was a much debated question. One prevalent opinion held that education should inculcate in the student those civic virtues required for citizenship in a free society. In the introduction to the compilation of essays he edited on the subject, Leon Roth argued that the upright citizen must treat his fellow man with respect, aspire to world peace, and, above all, “know the political system and assume an active part in it. After all, the guiding principle of democracy is: There is no government but self-government.”14 In a similar vein, renowned educator Ernst Akiba Simon pointed out that “the most dependable means of realizing those qualities that endow one with self-restraint and self-government is education.”15
Many educators and public officials who took part in that discussion championed “classical” or “humanist” education as an essential means of raising the moral and cultural standards of the country’s youth. Addressing a group of high-school principals in 1952, historian Ben-Zion Dinor, then minister of education, said that “we [Jews] are a classical nation, that is, a nation whose scholarship, philosophy, individual and collective thought has achieved perfect linguistic and literary form. That form has for centuries embodied an ideal, a model, a paradigm to be emulated. We are a classical nation in another sense as well: We—that is, our historically conscientious nation—have managed to create our own lifestyle and human image.”16 Roth advocated a more universalist approach when he explained that a humanist education is the study of the “unique quality” of man as reflected in the classics—the masterpieces of humanity.17 Indeed, the decisive power that the study of the classics of both Jewish and other great civilizations holds for shaping students’ moral dispositions was at that time universally acknowledged.
The importance of a humanist education was at the time widely recognized in Israeli political circles as well. In 1963, the governing Labor Party’s Committee on Education produced a report welcoming any technological innovation that might liberate workers from unnecessary physical toil. Nevertheless, it said,
The Labor Party cannot submit to the idea that the future of humanity depends solely on the race for technological advancement. The future of democracy, man’s free will, freedom of thought and inquiry—all depend on the concept of liberty, the capacity for free thinking and the ability to tell right from wrong—in other words, on humanist values. Only humanism can conserve man’s spiritual freedom and personal individuality. Through humanist education—not necessarily Latin, but history, literature, art, Bible—students are inculcated with aesthetic and moral values, taught to develop their cognitive skills, liberated from superstitions, and brought to recognize their minuteness in the face of the cosmos.18
Of course, moral instruction was not intended to replace the provision of professional training. The elusive balance between an education that enables students to obtain personal and professional success and an education intended to fashion them into “better” people was a subject addressed by, among others, then principal of Haifa’s Hebrew Reali School, accomplished educator Joseph Bentwich. In his book Education in the State of Israel (1960), Bentwich claims that the principal goal of post-primary education is “edifying the individual.” Naturally, he wrote, this objective is today accompanied by the need for vocational training, since “every able young person desires to achieve financial independence.” However, “the term ‘vocational training’ must be understood in its broad sense, encompassing general studies of subjects such as mathematics and foreign languages.”19 Since students have not yet fixed their life’s course, it is incumbent upon educators to equip them with the tools necessary to choose between various professional alternatives. And yet, while this aspect is certainly important, he continued, “the danger of overemphasizing [it] cannot be ignored,” especially when it threatens to overtake the goal of creating virtuous human beings. Recalling a similar statement made by David Ben-Gurion in this context, Bentwich concluded that young people must “beware of the tendency to view ‘success’ in life as their ultimate purpose.”20
The current state of Israeli education would appear to justify Ben-Gurion’s and Bentwich’s concern—although it is doubtful even they could have anticipated just how dramatic a shift would occur not only in the value system of the students, but also in the priorities of their educators.
Perhaps surprisingly, the issue of equality did not seem to trouble the pedagogues of the 1950s. Early educational theory did not advocate lifting all of Israel’s students up to the same level. On the contrary, it acknowledged the differences between their natural dispositions, and, instead of striving to eliminate these differences at all costs, attempted to create a system that would make the best of them.
At the time, the commonly held view was that only a minority of school-age boys and girls—30 percent, according to some estimates—was capable of higher education.21 It was thus imperative to establish a threshold for admission to high school. The sort of education it offered was simply not suitable for everyone.
Calls for restricting acceptance to high school were generally justified by the claim that admitting students who were ill-suited to the institution invariably caused two problems. The first was a high dropout rate: Many of those who had begun their high-school education were unable to complete it. This phenomenon was a source of great concern for professionals in the field. Aaron Kleinberger, a professor of education, spoke out against “the dissemination of an egalitarian, democratic ideology,” maintaining that the percentage of students who were being accepted to secondary schooling was too high. This, he claimed, was the reason for the dropout rate, citing research that showed that the problem was caused by failure in school, rather than by financial difficulties at home. “Hence,” he wrote, “we must come to the conclusion that only the right students will be selected. No good will come of accepting those youths who are unsuitable for academic studies.”22 Meanwhile, noted historian Joshua Prawer, who was deeply involved in the organization of the Israeli education system, praised the “healthy and commendable aspiration of youths and their parents not to be content with elementary schooling, but to continue their education in high school.” Unfortunately, he conceded, “only a minority will choose of their own accord to attend a vocational high school.” The result was invariably a high dropout rate, which in turn meant “misused teaching resources… wasted money, and a loss in labor power for the national economy”23—to say nothing of the social threat posed by a large group of young adults who were effectively on the street until drafted into the army.
The second problematic consequence of lax high-school admission requirements, according to Israel’s early education theorists, was the decline in academic standards. This sensitive issue was raised in a briefing presented to the Labor Party Committee on Education by Michael Ziv, then director of secondary studies in the Ministry of Education. Ziv argued that in order to maintain the level and quality of theoretical studies, a more rigorous high-school admission process must be implemented. “If the goal is to ensure the quality of secondary education, one that is on a par with the overall level of high schools—particularly in Europe—we cannot at the same time maintain that it is possible and preferable for the youth and general public that anyone who wishes to attend high school should be able to do so.”24 Likewise, Zalman Aran, who served as minister of education in 1955-1960 and again in 1963-1969, often spoke of the need for governmental direction of students toward different types of post-elementary education. While every parent wants his or her child to attend high school, he insisted, “some are cut out for theoretical-academic studies, while others—who may be excellent young people—are nonetheless suited for other things.”25
In today’s politically correct climate, such statements would undoubtedly be slammed as blatant elitism. But half a century ago, conventional wisdom held that students naturally varied in their abilities—even if the social ramifications of this variance were not explicitly voiced. One noteworthy exception was a lecture given by Ernst Akiba Simon in 1953 at a conference on “The Problems of High School.” Simon, who had once been a member of Brit Shalom the peace group, knew all too well that the very discussion of the need to create an “elite” would make his audience uncomfortable. “I approach this talk with a sincere feeling of trepidation,” he said, and proceeded to recount the critical response elicited by a seminar he had given on the subject. “It was as if these excellent students no longer knew their teacher. They had considered him, whether justly or not, a progressive individual, someone on the left side of the spectrum, and there he was, talking about an elite.”26 But this highly charged concept, Simon insisted, had been abused, since “There is no country in the world that could exist without [it].”27 In the Israeli case, he continued, the need was particularly acute: Prior to the Holocaust, the Jewish people enjoyed an excess of intellectual resources. However, in face of “the slaughter in Europe and the particular nature of the mass immigration to Israel today, we are a people suffering a severe intellectual and professional deficiency. The role of secondary schooling today is to educate a new elite…. No other institution will fulfill this role.”28
Apologetic tone aside, Simon was merely expressing what had been common wisdom among leading pedagogues during the early years of the state. And while some of the terms he uses might offend our egalitarian sensibilities, politicians and educators in the state’s formative years saw nothing wrong with the idea of promoting an intellectual elite. As far as they were concerned, such a goal did not contradict the principles of justice and equality; for the education system to be just, they believed, it simply had to predicate admission to school on the student’s academic qualifications, rather than his or her family’s financial standing. Indeed, the Fraenkel Committee, appointed by the Ministry of Education in the early 1950s, cautioned that the high tuition rates meant that students were “mostly judged by their parents’ pocketbooks and not their own ability or aptitude.”29
This view of justice rested on a concept of equality that fundamentally differs from that which is widely accepted today. The founders of Israel’s school system did not believe that an elitist education was incongruent with a policy of equality. During a 1962 discussion on the subject, Michael Ziv stated that “the principle of equal opportunity for all is universally accepted. [Public] education must offer each and every student the full possibility to develop all of his skills.” On the basis of this axiom, however, Ziv reached conclusions that appear quite antithetical to the educational paradigm prevalent today: “It is my opinion that beginning in the seventh year of schooling, we must not allow those children who are gifted and capable of receiving broader, larger, and deeper spiritual nourishment to be deprived because there are other children of the same age, in the same class, who cannot digest such a rich diet.” Hence, he continued, the design of the post-elementary school system “should not deprive those who are less capable of spiritual digestion, nor should it impede the development of those who are capable of digesting more.”30
Put simply, for the founders and shapers of the Israeli education system, ensuring equality of education in secondary schooling was not a goal in and of itself. As they saw it, post-elementary education had other purposes, such as molding students’ characters, creating a breeding ground for future leadership, and inculcating an appreciation for high culture. In all these areas, they believed, students should indeed be treated equally: No one student was to be favored over another on the basis of national or ethnic origin, for example, or his family’s financial status. Moreover, whenever a gifted student lacked financial resources, he or she should be given a helping hand. Yet school enrollment should most certainly not be open to everyone merely for the purpose of improving the chances of social mobility among youths from underprivileged backgrounds. In other words, equality was a condition that had to be ensured in order to achieve the ultimate goal, but was not to be seen as an end in itself.
The following example effectively illustrates the difference between these two approaches to education. In 1961, Nathan André Chouraqui, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s adviser on the integration of Jews from Muslim countries into Israeli society, warned in a report that “a yawning gap separates the income levels of Israelis from different national and cultural backgrounds.” He went on to make several recommendations for tackling the problem, including the provision of assistance to large families and improving the living conditions of the underprivileged. The bulk of his recommendations, however, focused on education. Among them were proposals for increasing the number of scholarships offered to university students, instituting a longer school day, and providing educational programs for preschoolers. By far the most pressing need, he insisted, was the establishment of a scholarship fund to encourage youths from low-income families to attend secondary school and obtain a higher education.31
Ben-Gurion’s response to Chouraqui’s recommendations is enlightening. “I view [our] educational mission in the near future as [being as] important as our security needs,” Ben-Gurion stated, concurring that “it is necessary to ensure a post-elementary education for every boy and girl in Israel at the expense of the state,” and perhaps even to guarantee, in the long term, that every able young adult will receive a higher education. Insisting that “I do not consider this to be a utopian ambition—rather, I see it as a very real, crucial, and necessary need,” he emphasized that this was “the only effective means for integrating various immigrant communities [into Israeli society].” At the same time, however, he said, “my concern is not only for the integration of immigrants…. We are required to elevate our nation to the highest level of our times, not only intellectually but also morally.”32
Clearly, Ben-Gurion’s vision of Israeli education was very different from that of his adviser Chouraqui. The prime minister assigned the utmost importance to the cultural and ethical advancement of Israeli society; using the education system as a means of obtaining equal opportunity is not even mentioned in his response. In this, Ben-Gurion was guided by the same principles espoused by the prominent educators of his time. Over the years, however, these principles gradually dissipated, while Chouraqui’s view became the governing paradigm of Israel’s educational policy.
How are we to understand this profound paradigm shift in Israel’s education system? How was the goal of moral improvement—the paramount concern for 1960s educators—replaced with that of equality?
In order to answer this question, it must first be noted that Israel is hardly a unique case in this regard. Similar paradigm shifts have occurred in many other Western countries. American pedagogical theory, for example, was originally not so different from its Israeli counterpart, as evidenced by a 1950 report issued by a special Harvard committee on secondary education in the United States. Comprising a broad spectrum of intellectuals and experts, the committee concluded that general education in the United States is intended to develop those “characteristics (traits of mind and character) [that] are necessary for anything like a full and responsible life in our society.” To this end, it must be concerned with “truths which none can be free to ignore, if one is to have that wisdom through which life can become useful. These are the truths concerning the structure of the good life and concerning the factual conditions by which it may be achieved, truths comprising the goals of the free society.”33 Nevertheless, the report went on to say, because people differ from one another in their skills and talents, secondary-school curricula should also not be all of one mold; rather, they should be designed so that even those with lesser capacities for ideas will be able to acquire the knowledge they need, as well as the proper moral qualities.34
The Harvard committee members did not try to solve the problem of social inequality. On the contrary, they saw it as a given. The position they articulated was akin to the one embraced by their Israeli counterparts: Though one certainly hopes that all talented students will have access to higher education, the focus of a country’s education system must be elsewhere—primarily, on the development of those virtues essential to a functioning citizenry in a democratic society.
This educational philosophy largely reflects the republican sentiment that characterized American political discourse in the 1950s. Republicanism encourages civic participation in public matters and assigns the government an indispensable role in its advancement. By definition, a republican political system cannot remain indifferent to the values imparted by its education system; rather, it must encourage the moral and civic virtues that make enlightened self-government possible, and align itself with a particular conception of the “good life” and the “general good.”35
The republican vision has today fallen out of favor in both the United States and Israel. No longer the hegemonic ideology in the corridors of power, it has been replaced with a liberal doctrine whose understanding of the role of politics and government is altogether different. The liberal approach maintains that every citizen should be free to choose his own values and conception of the “good life,” so as long as he does no harm to others. The role of government, according to this view, is strictly to secure those rights that citizens require in order to realize their chosen objectives. As to the question of what makes this or that objective morally acceptable—that is a matter for the citizens to decide for themselves.36
There are, of course, important differences between Israeli pedagogical discourse of the 1950s and the American republican ideal.37 Yet the comparison between them serves to highlight the principles shared by educators in both places at the time. Today, too, Israeli and American educational philosophies share a common foundation—although this time, they are based on an ideology of pronounced liberalism.38
Some of the most vocal participants in today’s debate over education would likely reject the label “liberal,” preferring instead to attach it (along with the derogatory “neo-liberal”) to their opponents. And yet, although they support different—and sometimes even opposing—political agendas, most of them, including those of a radical or critical persuasion, adhere to precisely the same liberal assumptions. They tend, for example, to turn a blind eye to questions of virtue and moral conduct. More important, they all share the belief that the chief objective of an education system—and thus the criterion by which its performance should be evaluated—is the advancement of equal economic opportunity.
Contrary to appearances, advocacy of economic equality does not necessarily stem from a socialist or neo-Marxist ideology. It is, in fact, characteristic of a liberal-capitalist worldview. While the latter does not consider inequality that results from free-market forces to be morally problematic, it strongly opposes inherited inequality. From the liberal perspective, people differ from one another in their skills and inclinations, and consequently in their accomplishments. But parental indigence should not by rights harm a child’s chances for success. The state must therefore ensure that all children enjoy equal opportunity at the outset—and where better to level the playing field than in a country’s public education system?
This moral outlook is buttressed by important economic justifications: According to the “human-capital investment” theory, which emerged in the late 1950s, the number of years one spends in school affects his future income level. Indeed, today, education is considered the single most worthwhile long-term investment. There is no better way, then, of securing upward mobility than by providing children from poor homes with good schooling. Yet this argument—uncontested in both the United States39 and Israel40—is relevant only to developed economies that maintain a free-wage market. It is not by chance that the argument was formulated in post-World War II America41; such a theory simply could not have gained prominence in an agricultural society, or in countries where wages are regulated by the government. Under such conditions, education is not a particularly effective means of ensuring high levels of income. It is not surprising, then, that up until the 1960s, European socialists showed little interest in secondary education, and certainly did not view it as a way to promote economic equality. Their attention was directed toward equality of rewards, in the framework of the welfare state, rather than equality of opportunity. Only since the 1970s or so, after recognizing the connection between increased education and social mobility, has European policy grown closer to the American one, focusing more on providing equal opportunity through education.42
While the economic rationale has only strengthened the contemporary liberal approach to education, its potency owes a great deal to a moral sentiment that rejects the notion of an unbreakable bond between a person and the race, ethnicity, class, or gender into which he was born.43 This individualistic disposition, which has become something of a dogma in the West, balks at attributing any collective traits to groups defined by nonvoluntary factors. Consequently, the claim that some people are simply less capable than others evokes unease, even though it is a statement about individuals, not groups. Remarking that “certain students are more talented than their peers”—a common observation among educators in the 1950s—would today be unacceptable. No one would dare to express such a blatantly elitist—and, some would add, racist—opinion publicly.
Under the influence of these conventions, pedagogical discourse has been defined by the belief that it is not enough for the education system to be administered in a just manner; instead, it must also serve as a means of administering justice (at least in the contemporary liberal sense). Some would even go as far as to say that this is the primary role of education. It follows that schools can no longer simply treat their students equally. It is now their duty to direct their efforts toward achieving equality among students. This belief has caused its devout adherents to launch scathing criticisms against educational programs they see as challenging the egalitarian ideal, such as schools for the gifted. Even the education children receive at home is not above criticism, since it, too, perpetuates unfair advantages from one generation to the next. Na’ama Shefi, head of the School of Communications at Sapir Academic College and an outspoken advocate of egalitarian education, has stated in this context, “The familiar, inequitable pattern in which the educated beget educated children and the uneducated replicate themselves must be broken.”44
Thus has the identification between education and the advancement of economic equality become an indisputable principle in public discourse. Some of the most significant charges currently brought against the performance of Israel’s school system cite the documented correlation between academic success and group-identity factors (such as one’s country of origin, sex, or place of residence) as proof of the system’s colossal failure.45 The moral fervor of these charges, along with the fact that the country’s politicians and policymakers largely share their underlying premises, have effectively overshadowed the fact that there are alternative ways to understand the role of education and put it into practice.
To be sure, liberal education has recently come under fire, primarily because its tendency “to place the child at the center” has been blamed for giving rise to a deeply narcissistic generation.46 Yet the consensus surrounding the goals of liberal education has remained unchallenged. Even as some of the old pedagogical ideals, such as the cultivation of virtues, have resurfaced in popular discourse, they are almost always mentioned in the same breath as egalitarianism, despite the fact that the two paradigms are different—and to a large degree contradictory.47
The main objectives celebrated by Israeli educators of the 1950s have all but disappeared from the national discourse on education, leaving behind but a few superficial traces. All that remains of the lofty ideal of moral edification, for instance, is a general recognition of the need to “teach values,” a term used primarily to signify the encouragement of vague patriotic feelings. The call for providing our youth with a broad education has likewise faded away, replaced by all manner of clichés about the cultivation of “excellence”—a term now mainly associated with financial success. Today’s “outstanding” students are expected to enter the business world or the high-tech industry, and not the realms of politics, culture, the arts, or the social sciences.
In the United States and Europe, there are time-honored, venerable educational traditions that stand apart from the liberal model, and that still hold ground in elite schools and colleges. This is not the case in Israel, however. Leaving aside the system of religious schools, the only real alternative to the prevalent pedagogical model is that of “democratic schools,” in which students are treated as full, equal partners in the learning process, thereby exacerbating the liberal drift.48
The pedagogic theories of the 1950s invite us to extend our horizons beyond the liberal paradigm. After all, the improvement of children’s character is still considered by many to be a worthy cause, certainly one which they uphold in their personal lives. True, moral edification alone will not ensure a just society, nor is it an easy task in today’s multicultural reality to determine which qualities should be nurtured. Such difficulties, however, are no reason to dismiss this ideal altogether. Unfortunately, today’s public discourse on the topic has become so shallow and superficial that it severely undermines our ability to outline educational objectives and methods for their attainment. The educators of previous generations can remind us of the importance of the task before us, but adapting their ideals to today’s society will require work of our own.
Unfortunately, the example set for us by old-fashioned pedagogy highlights yet another fundamental flaw in the present situation: the severe decline in the quality of education offered by Israel’s public school system. It is difficult to determine the exact degree to which the academic level has deteriorated in comparison with previous years; the social sciences have developed sophisticated measures for gauging inequality, but not quality of education. Nonetheless, it is almost a commonplace today that Israeli high-school graduates are not held to the same standards as their peers in past generations, let alone their peers in other countries.
If we were to judge by the general sentiment governing the debate over schooling today, none of this should come as a surprise. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find any justification for a general liberal-arts education at all. Whereas in the past, education of this sort was associated with intellectual depth, the ability to appreciate high culture, and above all the refinement of moral judgment, today it connotes an indulgence we can ill afford: Why should anyone take the trouble to acquire an education that does not produce immediate, measurable results?
Concern for broadening students’ horizons has been replaced with concern for equality. But educational egalitarianism bears a price tag. There is a strong and clear link—though not an inevitable one—between the demand for equality and the deterioration of academic standards in Israeli schools.49 As Alexis de Tocqueville understood, egalitarian aspirations often go hand in hand with leveling tendencies—and the Israeli education system certainly seems to bear this observation out. Perhaps, then, it is time we paid more attention to the educational principles of the system’s founding fathers; their notion of equality did not negate elitism, but aimed rather to create an intellectual class whose members came from all economic levels, social groups, and ethnic backgrounds.50
Those times, it should be noted, were no different from our own with regard to the mistrust of the term “elite,” and often with good reason. For one, the concept can easily be used as a façade to mask special privileges reserved for a certain class or social group—a situation that any enlightened, democratic society must take every step to avoid. The Israeli education system, however, has swung to the opposite extreme. Certainly we have no need for a localized version of snobbish preparatory schools such as Eton, which cater primarily to children of privileged families. But is there truly no value to academic institutions that maintain rigorous admission standards? Is it really so improbable that the insistence on placing gifted students together with weaker ones ultimately harms the quality of the learning process? To make a proposition of this kind today is perceived as defending an evil, corrupt social structure. When Professor Menahem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke in favor of “a separation between an elite education system for the encouragement of academic excellence and an education system for the masses,” he was severely criticized by Yossi Dahan, a philosophy lecturer and social activist, who accused him of striving to create “a caste society, [an] educational feudalism of sorts.”51
In any case, the question remains: Are the objectives defined by the Israeli education system even attainable? The system’s ultimate goal—equal opportunity—is intended to neutralize or even undo the effects of extracurricular factors on students’ success, and yet sociological research has shown time and again that a child’s home life has a decisive effect on his or her success in school. Such influence cannot be canceled out simply by increasing the hours spent in class or improving school facilities.52 Active, even invasive involvement on the part of the state in its citizens’ family life could perhaps reduce disparities between them; but does anybody really want such intervention?
For the most part, the appropriation of the country’s education system as a means of realizing an ultimately impracticable ideal has proven to be more detrimental than beneficial. The almost exclusive focus on egalitarianism has had the opposite effect than the one intended: Many parents are dissatisfied with their children’s education, and those with the means to do so send their children to private schools. All of which, of course, has only made equality a more distant goal. The teachers of previous generations would have been far from pleased with the performance of today’s education system. Maybe it’s time we gave their views a fair hearing. Learning from those who came before us—that, too, is the sign of a good education.

Avner Molcho has a doctorate in history from Tel Aviv University.

1. See, for example, Or Kashti, “Math Tests Show Standards Falling, Gaps Growing in Israeli Schools,” Haaretz.com, December 10, 2008, www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/math-tests-show-standards-falling-gaps-growing-in-israeli-schools-1.259201.

2. Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar, for example, has announced the need to reintroduce authority and discipline into schools, as “many countries have already renounced liberal theories.” See Or Kashti, “Peres: Schools’ Refusal to Take Ethiopian Students Is a Disgrace,” Haaretz.com, August 28, 2009, www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/peres-schools-refusal-to-take-ethiopian-students-is-a-disgrace-1.282833.

3. The latest issue of the Israeli journal Alpayim was dedicated to the subject of education. Yossi Dahan, the volume’s editor, writes in the introduction, “One of the education system’s main failures, to which many of its critics point, is the deep-seated inequality that characterizes it”; indeed, most of the articles that appear in the issue are concerned with this perceived flaw. See Yossi Dahan, “Introduction,” Alpayim 34 (2009), p. 11 [Hebrew].

4. Attila Somfalvi, “Netanyahu’s Educational Vision: No to the Nakba, Yes to Jabotinsky,” Ynet, August 31, 2008, www.ynet.co.il/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrintPreview/1,2506,L-3589924,00.html [Hebrew].

5. From a speech delivered on February 8, 2007 at a convention organized by Sikkuy—The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel. See www.sikkuy.org.il/kvutzotsikkuy/kenesmisgav2-07.html [Hebrew].

6. The issue of education has attracted a great deal of attention from Israeli critical sociologists, who take it as a given that the country’s school system should be evaluated on the basis of its success in advancing economic equality. These scholars have severely criticized attempts of successive Israeli governments to implement said economic equality, although they unequivocally accept the claim that such is the education system’s goal. A clear-cut example of this approach is an article by Yossi Dahan and Yossi Yona, “The Dovrat Report, Equality of Opportunity, and Israeli Reality,” Theory and Criticism 28 (Spring 2006), pp. 101-125 [Hebrew]. Dahan and Yona claim that the 2004 report undermined the “moral ideal of equality of opportunity in education” that it purports to espouse (p. 101), even as they “agree with the claim that the issue of equality in education must be an indispensable part of a general theory of distributive justice” (p. 107). See also the first part of the article “The Dovrat Report: On the Neo-Liberal Revolution in Education,” Theory and Criticism 27 (Spring 2005), pp. 11-38 [Hebrew].

7. National Task Force for the Advancement of Education in Israel, Because Every Child Deserves More: A National Education Plan (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education and Culture, January 2005) [Hebrew]. For an English summary of the report, see http://cms.education.gov.il/EducationCMS/Units/Ntfe/HdochHsofi/DochSofi.htm.

8. Shlomo Swirski, Education in Israel: Schooling for Inequality (Tel Aviv: Brerot, 1990), p. 7 [Hebrew].

9. Leon Roth, ed., Secondary Hebrew Schooling in Israel (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 1939) [Hebrew]. On Roth’s philosophy, see Neve Gordon and Gabriel Motzkin, “Between Universalism and Particularism: Philosophy and Nation Building,” in Hagit Lavsky, ed., The History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: A Period of Consolidation and Growth (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005), pp. 179-198 [Hebrew]. The authors do not discuss Roth’s extensive writings on education.

10. Alexander Dushkin, “Edifying Character and Teaching Methodologies,” in Roth, Secondary Hebrew Schooling, p. 84 [Hebrew].

11. Dushkin, “Edifying Character,” p. 89.

12. Educating for Citizenship in Israel: Lectures and Discussions Held at a Symposium on the Problems of Educating for Citizenship (Jerusalem: Association of High Schools in Israel, 1954), p. 91 [Hebrew].

13. Educating for Citizenship in Israel, p. 93.

14. Leon Roth, ed., Educating for Citizenship: A Compilation of Lectures (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1950), p. 9 [Hebrew].

15. Ernst A. Simon, “The Leadership Principle,” in Roth, Educating for Citizenship, p. 62 [Hebrew].

16. Ben-Zion Dinor, “On the Structure and Character of Secondary Schooling in Israel,” in The Problems of the High School (Jerusalem: Association of High Schools in Israel, 1953), p. 15 [Hebrew].

17. Leon Roth, “What We Can Learn from a Classical Education,” in Leon Roth, Higher Education and Educating the Generation (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1944), pp. 30-44 [Hebrew].

18. Recommendations of the Labor Party Committee on Education, Israel Labor Party Archives, 2-7-1958-12 [Hebrew].

19. Joseph Bentwich, Education in the State of Israel (Tel Aviv: Chechik, 1960), p. 196 [Hebrew].

20. Bentwich, Education in the State of Israel, p. 197.

21. See Michael Chen and Haya Segel, “Hebrew College-Preparatory Secondary Education,” in Walter Ackerman, Arik Karmon, and David Zucker, eds., Education in a Developing Society: The Israeli System (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Van Leer and Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1985), pp. 375-406 [Hebrew].

22. Aaron F. Kleinberger, “Trends and Problems in High School Education,” in Yohanan Twersky, ed., Theory and Practice in Education: A Memorial Volume for Avraham Arnon (Tel Aviv: The Public Committee, 1963), p. 459 [Hebrew].

23. Joshua Prawer, “Secondary Education, General Education, and Higher Education,” in Twersky, Theory and Practice in Education, pp. 466-467 [Hebrew].

24. March 27, 1957, Israel Labor Party Archives, 2-7-1957-5a [Hebrew].

25. Minutes of the meeting of the Labor Party Committee on Education, March 27, 1957, Israel Labor Party Archives, 2-7-1957-5a [Hebrew].

26. Ernst A. Simon, “The Problem of the Elite,” in Problems of the High School, p. 53 [Hebrew].

27. Simon, “Problem of the Elite,” p. 54.

28. Simon, “Problem of the Elite,” pp. 53, 63. Simon claimed that the solution to the problem of an elite education lies in the distinction between an age-appropriate, post-elementary school education and a high-school education. In the United States, he explained, an attempt had been made to abolish this distinction, and to provide a high-school education to 80 percent of the high-school-aged populace. “That quantitative extension,” claimed Simon, “was undoubtedly accompanied by a qualitative decline.” He referred to the debate then raging in the United States between John Dewey’s democratic school of thought and the school of Robert Hutchins, which does not oppose mass education but nevertheless distinguishes it from “the true high-school education.” Simon concluded that “we in Israel must provide an education to all Israeli children of high-school age and a high-school education to gifted Israeli youth, without discrimination for reasons of race, religion, national origin, and gender.” See Simon, “Problem of the Elite,” p. 61.

29. Conclusions of the Fraenkel Committee, June 16, 1954, Israel State Archives, 1662/3-gal [Hebrew].

30. Secondary Education: Trends and Problems (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, 1965), p. 98 [Hebrew]. As early as the 1960s, some opinions favored the extension of theoretical high-school studies to a greater number of students. These opinions, however, were motivated not by a desire to promote social equality, but by the realization that there was a need to increase not only the number of university graduates in Israel, but also the number of high-school graduates. Then Minister of Education Abba Eban explained as much to the Knesset Committee on Education: “Historically, secondary education developed not as a general necessity,” but rather as a means of “creating a leadership [class], a type of elite… and in this lie the origins of its selectivity.” But today, continued Eban, a change is sweeping the world. “The continuation of one’s studies beyond primary school is no longer seen as something reserved for a small and select group.” This change reflects a far-reaching conceptual shift: Previously, high school was considered only “a passageway to higher education.” While it still most certainly serves this function, it now “also needs to guarantee the continued education of tens of thousands [of individuals] who have no chance of—and do not even aspire to—pursuing further studies after the age of eighteen. All of the difficulties of high-school education stem from this dual function: to ensure excellent academic quality for those who will continue on, as well as to provide an education for those who will begin working immediately upon completion of their high-school requirements.” February 7, 1962, Israel State Archives, 11/151-kaf [Hebrew]. In other words, while Eban was of the opinion that high-school education should encompass a larger number of students, he was not in favor of an egalitarian system. Those expected to enroll in university, he believed, should be taught on a higher academic level than their peers.

31. August 24, 1961, Israel Labor Party Archives, 2-932-1961-350 [Hebrew].

32. September 4, 1961, Israel Labor Party Archives, 2-932-1961-174 [Hebrew].

33. General Education in a Free Society, Report of the Harvard Committee (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1950), pp. 57-58. I wish to thank Professor Edna Ullmann-Margalit for referring me to this document. Professor Ullmann-Margalit says that she teaches it to her students as an example of a frame of mind that died out shortly after put to paper.

34. General Education in a Free Society, pp. 94-95.

35. Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1996).

36. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent, p. 279.

37. Recent years have seen a surge of academic interest in the “republican” features of Zionism. See, for example, Nir Kedar, Mamlachtiut: David Ben-Gurion’s Civic Thought (Beersheva: Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2009) [Hebrew].

38. For a discussion of this topic, see Abraham Stahl, “The Americanization of Educational Research in Israel,” Megamot 28:1 (1984), pp. 30-41 [Hebrew]. Stahl claims that Israel’s approach to education—the way the questions are framed and the goals defined—is modeled after the American one, despite the profound differences between the two countries.

39. For a discussion of different types of equality in liberal thought and the notion of equal opportunity in education, see Douglas Rae et al., Equalities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1981), pp. 64-67; and Henry Phelps Brown, Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality (Oxford: Oxford, 1988), p. 241. According to Brown, “Equality of opportunity is an article of American faith held so unquestionably that it has come to be experienced as a fact. Education [in the United States] is not directed towards the upholding of academic standards that are, in practice, congenial to only a minority of pupils, but is designed to provide pupils of all sorts with what interests them and will help them get a job.”

40. The liberal view of education in Israel was first given voice in 1962, in a document written by the economist Ephraim Kleiman concerning ways to overcome gaps between ethnic groups. He states, “One of the most severe problems in absorbing new immigrants is that of differences in education levels among individuals from different countries of origin and ethnic groups. This gap also has powerful economic implications, since there is a strong correlation between a person’s level of education and his level of income. Significant differences in educational levels inevitably lead to inequality in income levels. Because education levels are determined to a large degree by country of origin (i.e., by ethnic identity), the latter subsequently determines, if indirectly, income levels. The effect of this is that certain ethnic communities are disadvantaged from the outset in comparison with others in terms of their financial and social status.” Furthermore, “The present link between ethnic identity, education, and level of income perpetuates itself: Uneducated groups with low income levels spend a smaller percentage of their income on education,” and consequently, “children from less-educated families (who therefore have lower income) have no opportunity to attain an education that will exceed that of their parents—that is, unless society as a whole attends to that need.” See “A Comparison of Two Alternatives for Increasing Education Expenditure,” Israel State Archives, 1845/15-gal (emphasis in the original) [Hebrew].

41. This idea is already found in the works of Adam Smith and other classical economists, but was only really developed (and mathematically modeled) since the 1960s. For a history of the field, see Maureen Woodhall, “Human Capital Concepts,” in A.H. Halsey et al., eds. Education: Culture, Economy, and Society (Oxford: Oxford, 1997), pp. 219-223; and Irvin Sobel, “The Human Capital Revolution in Economic Development: Its Current History and Status,” Comparative Education Review 22:2 (June 1978), pp. 278-308.

42. This interesting point is mentioned in academic literature, but has yet to be the subject of an independent study. On European socialists’ relative disinterest in the issue of education, see Fabio Luca Cavazza, “The European School System: Problems and Trends,” Daedalus 93:1 (Winter 1964), pp. 394-415. On the causes of the changes in this trend, see Seymour Martin Lipset, “Education and Equality: Israel and the United States Compared,” Society 11:3 (March 1974), pp. 56-61; and Sobel, “The Human Capital Revolution,” p. 289.

43. It is interesting to note that economist Gary Becker, one of the founding fathers of the theory of human-capital investment, explains in a short autobiography he wrote after receiving the Nobel Prize that the uniqueness of his early studies of the economics of discrimination was due to its being “the first systematic effort to use economic theory to analyze the effects of prejudice on the earnings, employment, and occupations of minorities.” This research, he says, started him “down the path of applying economics to social issues, a path that I have continued to follow.” For Becker, “social issues” meant combating discrimination. See Gary S. Becker, “Autobiography,” in Tore Frängsmyr, ed., Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 1992 (Stockholm: Nobel Foundation, 1993), http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1992/becker-The other piece of theautobio.html.

44. Na’ama Shefi, “A Far Cry from Equality,” Haaretz, June 16, 2009 [Hebrew].

45. The Adva Center, the leading watchdog of Israel’s education system, regularly publishes data on the correlation between academic achievement and ethnic identity (Jewish, Arab, and Druze), gender, and place of residence. See www.adva.org.

46. This outcome of a liberal education was observed even before it became the dominant model. Pinhas Rosen, who served as Israel’s minister of justice, wrote in the 1950s that an education that places the child in the center cannot but lead to egocentrism. See Pinhas Rosen, “The Educator in the Hagshama Period,” Hahinuch 3 (1956), pp. 237-242 [Hebrew].

47. In a detailed article on the state of education in Israel, journalist Or Kashti bemoans the “disregard for education” which fuels the neglect of “questions such as what are our educational goals or what is the desired character of the school’s graduates. Other principal goals, such as closing economic gaps and promoting social encounters, which up until recently were among the stated objectives of the Ministry of Education, are no longer even considered. The importance of education is slowly but steadily being beaten out of us.” Or Kashti, “The Demise of Public Education: Privatization or Disintegration?” Haaretz, August 24, 2007, [Hebrew].

48. Israel is ranked second after the United States in the establishment of “democratic schools.” There are no fewer than twenty-four such schools operating in Israel, compared with only four in England and two in France. See Dana Darbinsky, “Are Democratic Schools the Next Hot Thing?” Ynet, November 5, 2009, www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3798388,00.html [Hebrew].

49. See, for example, Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, who insisted that “the growing stress on social integration” was accompanied by “a much weaker and even ambivalent attitude to the upholding of standards.” Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, The Transformation of Israeli Society: An Essay in Interpretation (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1985), p. 267.

50. At the time, the debate centered on the issue of secondary education, which was not yet considered compulsory. It could, however, be applied to the issue of higher education.

51. Yossi Dahan, “A Vindication of Educational Feudalism,” Haokets, November 28, 2004, www.haokets.com/article.asp?ArticleID=897 [Hebrew].

52. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Halsey, Education: Culture, Economy, and Society, pp. 46-58. Interestingly, Bourdieu’s claims are generally disregarded by critical sociologists of education, despite their direct relevance to the field.

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