Minister of Education

May 1, 2008
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Ruth Calderon

Israel’s chief resource is its human potential. We have no oil, no water, no forests. Cultivating learning and the pursuit of knowledge of Torah, as well as of arts and sciences, have always been central Jewish values. The intellectual achievements of Jews have always stood out. In fact, the establishment of the state fostered the dream that Israel would become an epicenter of Jewish “genius.” Sixty years after statehood, we are still learning how to educate youngsters to use their talents, be drawn to innovation and, at the same time, become decent people and good citizens.

If I were Israel’s minister of education I would try to achieve this goal by reinventing the public school system that was legislated in 1953. Over the years, the divisions between the two streams of education — one secular and the other religious — have became enormously fragmented. The religious stream has spawned a variety of styles of religious education, including an educational approach that undermines the centrality of the state and its values. Within the secular stream, some of the finest students are migrating toward private schools because they are frustrated with the poor quality of public education. Insular communities have evolved around private schools and children are becoming more parochial, more familiar with like-mindedness; thus, solidarity with Israel’s citizens is being eroded.

The cleavage between secular and religious education should be rectified. These very definitions are wrong and create identity confusion. To revive a system of education that fosters identity, produces broadly educated adults and engaged citizens, and unifies experience, Israel needs a uniform state/public school system. It is better for Israel if this experience is provided by schools in addition to the army. The revitalized system must be based on a core curriculum that is modest and down-to-earth. Ethical education cannot tolerate falseness, kitsch, or excessive pathos. Israeli educators are no longer the authoritative figures they once were, simply because their core values are no longer held in consensus. Communities would not be forced to accept a constructed identity imposed from “above” by the ministry of education.

Schools can only educate toward values that the family holds dear. Cultural identity demands sharing a language. This language is acquired by a child, first in the home, where he or she listens to conversations, idioms, terms of endearment, anger, or even swear words that together create the “world” of the nuclear family. Later, in school, one’s cultural language expands and incorporates literature, art and music, as well as television, computers, and the digital environment.

The state school creates a common cultural language for all citizens. It is a “boot camp” to train Israel’s future citizens in civic skills such as integrity, manners, consideration for others, standing up for one’s rights, and respect for the law. A democratic learning community, with known boundaries and clear mechanisms of influence, provides students with opportunities to learn and practice diverse forms of action, and to test the breadth and the boundaries of liberties in a democratic community.

The state school would be both uniform (standardized) and modular. The core curriculum would embody unity and a charter of good citizenship and humaneness. Complementing the core values, every community and family would educate toward the particular values that it cherishes. Particular religious orientations of every community would be respected so long as the community’s members participated in the core curriculum and the joint charter. Modular content would be created by and for individual communities so that each community could create distinct identity modules for non-Jewish Israeli communities (Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze) as well as for diverse Jewish communities with their particular emphases under the aegis of a common state institution. Graduates of the system would intimately understand the principles of democratic life, and each day would begin with a pledge of allegiance to the flag and the state.

Every graduate would acquire competency in the cultural heritage of his or her own community and proficiency in the literature of the “Great Books” of Jewish civilization as well as of   the “general” culture. Hebrew language, mathematics, sciences, English, and computer literacy studies would allow every graduate of the system to enroll in institutions of higher education. (Learning Arabic as a second language once the broader population felt peace was at hand would become more popular.)

Parents would choose which public school their children would attend. Ethical and religious tones would be set by each community, which would also determine which organizations would provide suitable content. To this end, a standard voucher of equal currency would be issued; the community rather than the ministry of education would be authorized to use it. The community’s “consumer” choice would create competition among content providers, resulting in a florescence of educational opportunities.

The school structure and its environment would be sensitive to the needs of both children and communities. Aesthetics, beauty, simplicity, and comfort would be valued; quiet spaces as well as play spaces would be planned. A shared architectural style would turn schools into a cultural symbol, generating a sense of commonality and mutual feeling among all residents of Israel.

The state school would be influenced by the educational institutions that laid the foundations of Hebrew culture: from the heder we would take the principle of early literacy, the biblical stories as the child’s narrative substrate, and the small learning group. From the kindergarten we would adopt and create a safe, playful environment that would allow creativity and movement, permitting choice within a structured schedule. From the bet midrash we would adopt learning in hevrutot, small groups. And though we would adopt the study of primary texts — the Bible, Mishnah, Kabbalah, Hassidism, siddur, poetry, Jewish thought, Koran, New Testament — we would avoid a particular religious stance vis-à-vis the material studied; students would study texts as cultural treasures, each according to his or her own belief. From the gymnasium we would adopt the view of culture as language, with an emphasis on Hebrew as a language connecting Jews all over the world. Hebrew could also become a language that connects Israeli citizens of all faiths. Schools would take from the incubator a direct connection between theory and practice, on-the-job learning, and the value of experimentation. From the art school we would emphasize individual learning and the cultivation of the talents of each student.

I recall a ceremonial moment in my childhood schoolyard. We stood, arranged in the shape of the letter “chet,” and the eighth graders presented Natan Alterman’s poem, “The Silver Platter,” which pays tribute to the soldiers who helped create Israel. A ray of light broke through the clouds and I thought God had joined our ceremony. Even today, since I have learned to regard the memorial service critically, I think back to that moment and know that it helped create my identity. I would not want children to grow up in Israel, in any community, without such moments of remembrance, and belonging at school.

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Dr. Ruth Calderon, PhD, is the founder and head of Alma College, a liberal arts center in Israel specializing in the study of Hebrew culture. In 1989 she founded and headed "Elul" Bet Midrash that had the unique distinction of offering Jewish studies on the basis of equality for men and women, religious and non-religious scholars. She is the author of The Market, the Home, the Heart, a book offering a personal homiletic reading of talmudic legends, which received the prestigious Avichai Prize in 1997. Translated by Ilana Goldberg.

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