Despite the Nobel Win, Israel Science Education Said in 'Very Deep Crisis'

Prof. Ehud Keinan, chairman of the Education Ministry's advisory panel on chemistry, and other educators say Prof. Daniel Shechtman's prize is a product of an education system that no longer exists.

"It's a joyous day, but it would best to return to reality: The educational establishment has led the field of chemistry in Israel into a very deep crisis," said Prof. Ehud Keinan, chairman of the Education Ministry's advisory panel on chemistry, when asked to comment on the news that this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry will be awarded to Prof. Daniel Shechtman.

"Everyone is awestruck, but the truth is they don't have a clue" what Shechtman did, Keinan continued. "All they say is, 'What a smart man, he does wonderful things.' That is absolutely a result of the education system. If something like this happened in Taiwan, at least half the population could explain what's behind the granting of the award. That's the difference between appreciation and admiration: Appreciation comes with knowledge. And to our regret, there isn't enough of it here."

microscopes, science
Archive: Gil Eliyahu / Gini

Many educators in the sciences, and in chemistry in particular, viewed Wednesday's announcement by the Nobel Prize Committee as an opportunity to sound a warning about the deterioration of the status of the exact sciences in Israel. Shechtman's prize, they said, is a product of an education system that no longer exists.

Shechtman Wednesday joined the critics of science education in Israel, telling Haaretz that while teachers should serve as role models, the low wages paid to teachers here do not attract the kind of individuals who deserve to be role models.

"Today, Israel is still producing world-class scientists," Shechtman said. "But unless changes are made, the output will dwindle over the years. I believe the teachers understand the material, but in order to get to where they can pass it on, you need to bring good people into teaching, and [science] education must begin at a very early age."

"The thin layer of the highest achievers will remain, because it cannot be bled dry," Keinan added. "What's sad is that the highest achievers reach their attainments despite the education system, not because of it. They get help from their parents, from private programs and from programs for high achievers.

"It's very unfortunate that we don't see that Israel is responsible for this great loss, for the continual deterioration of the situation," he said. "The layer of high achievers could be much thicker - 30 Nobel prizes, not 10.

"I look at many countries in the Far East, all of which obtained independence at around the same time as we did and began as poor countries. Look where we are today, and where they are. We too have had significant achievements, but we are eroding our own position.

"Until the 1970s, we developed very well. But since then, there has been a continual and clear decline, and the future looks bleak. Deteriorating science education is an existential threat to the State of Israel no less than Iran's nuclear program," Keinan warned.

Keinan said that only 15 percent of today's high-school graduates have been exposed to science at all, which is a change from the past. "They don't have the tiniest shred of an idea about basic scientific concepts - what a molecule or a magnetic field is and why planes can fly," he said.

He also expressed concern over the state of science teachers. "We're in serious trouble, with a phenomenal decline in the number of teachers," he warned. "The pace of retirement is astonishing and there are no new teachers, so a biology teacher gets one month of training and turns into a chemistry teacher. But of course it's impossible to learn that way."