The Humanities Are Productive Fields, Too

Israel's higher education system in general, and the humanities in particular, are suffering because of erroneous data.

Shulamit Volkov
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Shulamit Volkov

A discussion of the state of humanities studies in Israel is being waged on the pages of Haaretz, while TheMarker contains a debate on how research spending is calculated. The two arguments are interconnected.

An argument over data is indeed technical in essence, but since data, and not only statistics, is the foundation for every policy and for every policy change, it is important even to those who are exhausted by technical details. The data of official organizations is certainly professional, but it too is grounded in fundamental assumptions and is subject to debate.

In principle, it is better to discuss the crisis in higher education than to talk about the doings of some committee. I would like to present two examples that are connected to data and the crisis in the humanities.

The Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budget Committee allocates state resources to the colleges and universities using a sophisticated model that estimates the output of the various academic bodies and rewards them accordingly. For years, the publication of articles in professional journals has been one of the main indices for measuring research productivity. As a result, books written by scholars in the humanities based on their research, and published in Israel and abroad, are not taken into consideration.

This applies to thousands of books that are the primary and most important product of these scholars' research activity. Also not taken into account are encyclopedia entries, articles published in various anthologies and other material.

Research output in the humanities, and therefore the amount of money allocated to the institutions of higher education, is calculated on the basis of this incomplete data. It is no wonder, then, that the decision makers see a research sector that makes only a meager contribution, and that its budget could - and perhaps even should - be cut.

While the Planning and Budgeting Committee data was thus correct, insofar as it conformed with the assumptions underlying the data, it is nevertheless clear that it does not reflect what it purports to reflect and that the policy results on the ground have been, and still are, catastrophic. Fortunately, the committee is also aware of this matter and is working to change its model accordingly.

Another example is the story about university faculty members "working only three hours a week." In the past, for example, piano teachers at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University were reprimanded for teaching only two hours a week or in some cases not at all. Certain individuals repeatedly serve up these examples of the irresponsible behavior supposedly spreading through the country's universities.

It later emerged that the data had been gathered from the course catalogues, which lists only the classroom courses. No mention is made of what every first-year student in the school knows: Every teacher of piano (or any other instrument) gives every student in the class private lessons, for at least one hour a week each and sometimes much more.

This is just one example of the misleading assessment of the time that teachers devote to their students during the academic year, and often during vacations, too. An evaluation of this sort is particularly complicated in the humanities, where there are not laboratory hours to measure. How do the professional data-gatherers measure the contribution of the humanities to cultural activity in Israel, to the critical debate that takes place in the country or to the general education level of the country's citizens?

Israel's higher education system in general, and the humanities in particular, are suffering both because of erroneous data and because of the increasing belittlement of values that cannot be measured. The time has come to rid ourselves of both these ills.

Shulamit Volkov teaches in the History Department of Tel Aviv University.