Let Us Not Forsake the Spirit

The fewer jobs available for the small public of educated students who chose to devote their best years to acquire a humanities education essentially means the thinning out of the faculties and their students.

David Assaf
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David Assaf

Every year Tel Aviv University holds an "employment fair." Loud, colorful booths are set up on the lawns of the campus that attract hundreds of students who are concerned about their future. They seek out information and fill out questionnaires, and it's a safe assumption that a large portion of them find their employment future at the fair.

Every year I stroll among the celebrants, between the booths of the high-tech companies, the banks and cellular communications companies, and I feel downcast. I look for the booths that will offer jobs to graduates of the humanities and social sciences and arts faculties - but find none.

There is no one to offer work or an opportunity to the small public of educated students who chose to devote their best years to acquire a humanities education, to specialize in cultural or Jewish studies, history or philosophy, Bible or literature, history of art or linguistics. These knowledge-based fields, which are the spiritual foundation of every healthy society, of all that is beautiful and delightful in our world, are not popular commodities. The graduates of these faculties look with sadness and disappointment at the range of opportunities being offered to their friends from the science faculties, from business administration and from the computer sciences.

The result is the thinning out of the humanities faculties, the vanishing of their students. This tendency, it must be admitted, was apparent already decades ago. The decline of humanities studies in the Western countries, including Israel, is a generation-old phenomenon. But today it has reached the crisis stage, and in Israel is threatening the country's cultural image.

Does Israeli society have the right to forsake the humanities and Jewish studies and leave them on the brink of death? Surely no civilized person will answer this question affirmatively. Those who hold precious the development and consolidation of their cultural identity, those for whom humanistic education and knowledge are formative elements of their lives, cannot abandon these subjects. After all, how will the bank manager and the accountant spend their leisure time? Who will the physicians and the analysts want as teachers for their children?

When I ask physicians or jurists about the second subject they would have liked to study, in addition to the profession they chose for material reasons, they generally reply: history of art, history, literature, philosophy. "That is for the soul," they say. "But in the meantime a person has to make a living."

The window of opportunity of the humanities opened briefly recently when Ehud Olmert, in his capacity as minister of finance, dared to tear away the populist mask of hypocrisy around the tuition fees in the universities and proposed a differential system: the "poor" will pay less, the "rich" will pay more.

I would like to suggest a different type of division - not the old distinction between "poor students" and "rich students," but a distinction of curriculum content. There is no justification for the State of Israel to subsidize thousands more lawyers and accountants every year, who will enter a relatively accommodating labor market and will generally enjoy high salaries. It is preferable for the state to subsidize students who will study Bible, Hebrew literature and Jewish and general history, to encourage those who are ready to invest a few years of their lives studying humanities, even though the labor market does not promise them much. Is the State of Israel interested in more lawyers and accountants, on top of their already vast numbers?

Olmert, then, should declare that whoever chooses to study in the humanities departments - Bible, literature, history and so forth - will enjoy an especially low tuition fee, while those who choose to take high-paying professions - dentistry, business administration, law and so forth - will pay a realistic tuition fee. There is nothing to fear. Studies have shown that the absolute majority of the graduates of high-paying professions do very well after their university days. They will earn high salaries which will easily cover the realistic tuition they had to pay, and until they achieve that income level they can, if they wish, make the payments in installments of various kinds, such as have already been suggested in the past.

Everyone would benefit if the finance minister were to take this step, and especially the humanities faculties. The departments of cultural studies - and in the long run the entire Israeli society - would enjoy a new and surging flow of students, from both rich and poor homes, who would take advantage of the tuition deduction to enrich their education, their spirit and their identity.

The writer is head of the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University.

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