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The anger of 1,400 parents and educational professionals who petitioned against change in the bonus system for matriculation exams is understandable. Under the change, eight disciplines - mathematics, English, chemistry, physics, biology, literature, Bible and history - will receive extra weight in scoring the exams, for the purpose of university admission. This change is detrimental to a number of liberal arts subjects.

But it's hard to understand why the protesters have waited until now to complain. Older people in this disgruntled group must certainly recall the looks of respect given to anyone admitted to the science tracks, compared to the disdain shown to students who chose the humanities.

Younger people speak openly about improving their matriculation exam scores by taking in-depth tests in "easy" subjects. This is what the universities are opposing by devising the new bonus system. But what needs to be altered is the status of the humanities.

Since the 1970s, the matriculation exams have often changed. The junior high school reform, the exam lottery system and the focus on specific exam topics have turned the exams into a technical tool, with content secondary.

Political changes in Israel worsened the situation. The history of the Jewish people and Hebrew Bible studies are suspected of being used as tools to inculcate certain outlooks. Institutions of higher learning made their own contribution. The revolution wrought by the colleges addressed the need to acquire academic education with a practical dimension that eases the way to professional work. Instead of humanities subjects, many students have over the past 15 years preferred courses that promote advancement in the workplace. The result is emptying classrooms for humanities courses in higher education.

The universities now are immersing themselves in free-market ideology. Traditionally, they helped put content in matriculation exams considered essential for general knowledge, but now they are relinquishing this role. As the universities see it, matriculation exams are simply predictors of success, and academic education should be conferred only to the most talented students, along with those whose parents financed an endless stream of private lessons.

In response to the transformation of high schools into training workshops for academic studies, we should reiterate what prominent Israeli scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, have stressed: Academic achievement is founded not only on budgets, but also on the forging of a promising ideological agenda.

Truly educated people who have reached the pinnacle of success can quote passages from the Bible, Bialik and Shakespeare; they whistle Mozart and appreciate paintings by Van Gogh. Even those who studied on vaunted science tracks in high school were taught by teachers who believed that a good mathematician knows something about Western culture, and that a biologist should find the time to visit an art exhibition.

Expertise needed for success in the 21st century workplace must be cultivated along with exposure to general knowledge; narrowly focused, technocratic training is counterproductive. To effect this change, we must cast off the approach that considers science education important and the humanities inferior. Excellent teachers in the humanities must be trained; their methods should be honed and their work respected.

Such fundamental change requires collaborative work - the Education Ministry, heads of higher education institutions and parents must take part. Any thinking person needs education that stresses fundamental elements of literature, history, the arts and geography, among other subjects. Only such education will extricate Israeli classrooms from the current mire.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: הספרות חשובה כמו מתמטיקה