University students in Israel.
Students at an Israeli university. English-only programs have not won Council for Higher Education approval. Photo by Emil Salman
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Tel Aviv University’s decision to close its French studies department (Yarden Skop, April 10) is part of a broader and disturbing trend, of a decline in the status of humanities studies. Department head Prof. Michele Bokobza Kahan, said that her department, which 15 years ago had 400 students, had fewer than 30 this year.

According to figures from the Council for Higher Education, it is not only French studies that is viewed as an unattractive major. In 2012, humanities majors represented just 7.5 percent of undergraduates, compared to 11.7 percent in 2001, and their number declined further this year.

The deterioration in the status of the humanities is connected to a clear preference on the part of students of practical training over the expansion of their horizons. As a result of fierce competition with the dozens of colleges that have opened in Israel over the past several years, offering vocation-centered degree studies, the country’s universities have had to downsize their less popular departments — generally the less “practical” ones.

The humanities suffer from low funding, in part due to factors that are unrelated to enrollment rates. External research grants are usually given to students of the exact sciences. The policy of factoring in publications in profession journals into salary calculations, according to a formula determined by the CHE’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, is problematic: Many publications in the humanities are books or chapters of books, and are therefore not rewarded.

The humanities are a cultural and social asset that are no less valuable than engineering or computer science. Knowledge and critical thinking are essential tools in a democratic and liberal society. No state can settle for the professional training only of its citizens. It must foster deeper, theoretical thought and the development of spheres of knowledge as broadly as possible.

The dying of the humanities might seem inevitable, but it is not. Education Minister Shay Piron and the heads of the CHE’s Planning and Budgeting Committee must consider a form of affirmative action in funding the humanities. The universities, for their part, must fight to enroll as many students and teachers as possible in these departments, and insist on keeping these departments open.