Yaacov Lorch, a science educator who criticized Israel’s school system for embracing rote learning, has died at 95 – though he’s also famous for featuring on the front page of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in 1935, albeit indirectly.
In the following decades Lorch, who died in November, would lead a versatile life in education.
“Lorch was among a small handful of people who cared. His frequent letters to newspaper editors, which were full of his typical humor and plenty of sarcasm, could be said to include most of the fields of human endeavor,” Zvi Yanai once wrote in the periodical Mahshavot (Thoughts).
Lorch edited the Hebrew edition of Aristotle’s biological writings, and with Galila Ron-Feder published the series “Hahalutzim” (“The Pioneers”) on great discoveries. Lorch was also a founder of the children’s newspaper Pashosh, and was one of the first teachers in a project that introduced children to science.
He criticized the school system as a “suffocation system,” a play on the Hebrew word for education (hinuch) and one of the words for suffocation (hinuk). He believed that the study methods in Israel stifled students’ motivation and wasted their potential. He was particularly opposed to rote learning.
“Although facts are the basis of every subject, we forget that the student isn’t a cupboard into which we place knowledge in tin cans,” he wrote. “The student is a dynamic creature, and we should try to cultivate the motivation, curiosity and confidence that will let him make his way in life on his own steam.”
As a scientist he also criticized the way natural sciences are taught. “We forget the essential difference between a scientific problem and a problem taken from real life,” he said.
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For example, when teaching the Darwinist war of survival among species, students are likely to conclude that violent types – in human society as well – are the fittest. The result, he said, is “a song of praise to violence.”
Lorch’s family moved from Nuremberg to Jerusalem in 1935, the year the Nazis enacted racial laws against the Jews named after that German city. His father Max and mother Hannah packed their fine wood furniture, cello and piano into a large wooden crate, a photo of which was published on Der Stürmer’s front page. Under it was a sarcastic caption: “Wishing you a bon voyage.”
Max, a lawyer, was a former artillery officer in the Kaiser’s army who returned from World War I wounded and decorated. The family business made and sold silver items and was the official supplier of the Bavarian royal family. Hannah, née Wissman, had a doctorate in literature.
The couple had three children; Wolfgang (Yaacov), the eldest, was born in 1924. Fritz (Netanel) would become a diplomat and a secretary general of the Knesset (and has a Jerusalem street named after him). Ruthie would die during her military service in an accident at the Tzrifin base.
The family settled in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood; Yaacov eventually worked for the British, at the Royal Air Force’s meteorological office, where he began to study nature. He also learned Morse code there and wound up serving in the 1948 War of Independence as a wireless operator.
He began his higher education studying agriculture in Rehovot and received a doctorate from the botany department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He studied plant fossils and worked in physiology and the classification of flora into species and other categories.
He was also interested in the relationship between people and nature; for example, the fact that corals are living creatures, and the way Nazi ideology infiltrated into science books.
In 1979 he translated into Hebrew an underground book by teachers from Denmark on students’ rights, drugs, sex and criticism of the adult world.
Lorch is survived by his wife Ruth – a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in Poland – two children, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Throughout his career, he also criticized the academic world and refused to use his academic title. “The title creates a kind of hypnosis among ordinary people; people with academic degrees supposedly have a monopoly on rational thought,” he said.
“We who are involved in these things know that a person becomes a professor here simply because no one more worthy was found. We know that even though a professor of chemistry, for example, understands chemistry, on any other question his opinion is no better than that of an elementary school teacher.”
As Lorch put it, “The passion for academic degrees undermines the desire to add knowledge. The multiplicity of universities in Israel reflects people’s desire to be professors more than it attests to a great curiosity for their studies.”