How to kill a poem
The latest initiative by the Education Ministry is a good example of the ministry's habit of establishing a worthy goal and destroying it instead of trying to reach it.
The Education Ministry announced recently that as of next year, students will be required to learn poetry by heart. The decision is based on the idea that this will strengthen students' interest in literature and improve that subject's status; it will even make students love and want to delve into literature, to quote a veteran teacher from central Israel.
This initiative is a good example of the ministry's habit of establishing a worthy goal and destroying it instead of trying to reach it. Memorizing a poem not only doesn't bring students closer to the work, it creates a distance greater than the one before the forced memorization. Actually, the very fact that any compulsion needs to be used when teaching a poem reflects a misunderstanding of the issue.
What process does a student experience when memorizing a poem? First, he prioritizes the goal of memorizing, concluding that the poem is basically a collection of words that need to be stored in his memory. To make this possible, the student invests great energy in turning the words into abstract shapes - monuments that need to be stacked together in the most effective possible way.
The poem, a living structure with dynamic content, is then diluted and flattened to be filed away and stored. Memorizing consists of prioritizing form over content. The ministry's decision implies that the desire to bring two entities together needs to be forced, because one entity is not interested in the relationship. Instead of getting the refusing party to understand the beauty and uniqueness of the other party and to want the connection, it is required to "love" the other party by being forced to absorb it. At the end of that process, the word "love" is swapped for the word "force."
Emptying something of its content by swapping terms is also the basis for Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar's decision to introduce a program for students to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Sa'ar attaches "great significance in getting to know the historic roots of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel." He disconnects "the historic roots of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel" from Hebron's contemporary context, which involves segregation, abuse of a large majority by a small minority and violent actions - products of a disagreement on history.
This disconnection is no accident: Sa'ar strengthens "the historic roots of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel" to hollow out the historic roots of anyone who doesn't belong to the People of Israel. It's a political decision disguised as an educational one; it's a flattened history lesson crudely acting as a cover for a civics class entitled "how the regime recruits the past to justify the continuation of its rule."
Both decisions indicate a compulsive need to search the past and take from its scaffolding something to support the shaky present. The goal is to find isolated spots in the cultural-historical vista, link them retroactively and invent a common denominator. For instance, by memorizing a poem by Bialik, students will recognize the idea of Bialik as "the national poet." By visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the students behold the image of Abraham as the father of the nation. Bialik and Abraham, the "national" and the "father." It seems these are the words of the poem that Sa'ar really wants us to learn by heart.