More than 10 years late, the people in charge of higher education have remembered to tackle the real problem. Not research budgets, not tuition fees, not lecturers' salaries - but education itself. The chairman of the Council for Higher Education's planning and budget committee, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, has dared to touch the burning coals and declare that the decline in humanistic education has to be remedied by integrating general studies into all bachelor degree courses, whatever the student is majoring in.
In the 15 years that have elapsed since legislation was passed enabling Israel's colleges - distinct from universities - to grant academic degrees, no one has paid any attention to this point. Tens of thousands of students have poured into these colleges, attracted not only by low admittance requirements and geographic convenience, but also by the kind of courses they offer, which are mostly of a practical nature.
Professional specialization has been taking an increasingly prominent role in the western world for the last 200 years, and in recent decades it has become steadily narrower. Each discipline is broken down into separate fields and sub-fields, each of which has its own specialists.
The body of knowledge has grown, and so has experience. But the narrow focus that breaks academic occupations into tiny squares has made us into horses wearing blinders, our vision has become so narrow.
It's clear that you don't have to know all about the economic crisis of 1929 to understand that of 2009. Of course, there's no need to delve into Napoleon's conquests to understand America's Middle East politics. It's reasonable to assume that you can learn math without knowing Nietzsche's philosophy. But can free and creative thought be expected in the absence of a basic awareness of certain fundamental elements of culture and science?
Knowledge of the world views of those who lived before us and of literary works that reflect the thinking of previous generations and an ability to analyze ideas whatever their provenance are not considered today to be among the essential tools that every person needs. It is enough to know the set of formulas or cliches that provide answers to the everyday questions that we face. But what happens when we need unusual solutions in order to cope with unique situations?
Trajtenberg doesn't need advocates to back up his proposal. The question is, how to implement it? The students will be the easy part of the problem. Surprisingly, the same young people who vote with their feet against the humanities vie for places in enrichment lessons in history and literature. The hard job will be to persuade the decision makers, including Trajtenberg himself, that budgets have to be provided for humanistic studies, because of their importance for intellectual development.
Assuming that his intentions are sincere, we can only hope that he will restore to academia its historic role as the path-setter for education in general. The humanities have to be given back their usurped position and universalist education must be restored to its former pride of place; they are no less important than international math examinations.
In 1943, Berl Katzenelson believed that a lot of translation could be dispensed with, because the youth knew foreign languages and other cultures. When the first language is English and the second is Java, even Berl would have had to think again.
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