Pen Ultimate / The Third Degree

Making higher education accessible to all is a good thing, but there's a price to be paid for it

The day will come when we will speak about the "Esterina effect" and appreciate MK Tartman's input in the ongoing debate over higher education. Even before she appeared on the scene, Israel achieved that rare combination of simultaneously being able to look down with contempt at "the scholars of the academic elite" while showing off one's own academic achievements.

As having a degree can pay off - indeed, having one sometimes entitles a person to a higher salary - we have seen in recent years the development of a veritable industry that allows people to pursue degrees, sometimes by mail or over the Internet. The raison d'etre for letting this happen was to make higher education accessible to all. But as with all good things and honorable intentions, there is always a price to pay. At least one MK has been punished for misrepresenting his academic achievements.

Having a degree does not provide one with immunity from stupidity, malice or corruption. And not having a degree doesn't mean that you can't be wise, well-intentioned or honest. But the brouhaha over MK Tartman has trained a spotlight on this thorny issue.

Poles (and I am one) should understand this problematic situation. During the 45 years of communist rule in their country, many honest and kindhearted citizens were asked - well, not in the form of a regular question (the answer was implicit in the query) - to cooperate with the security services by supplying information. Many of them did not refuse, in order to be allowed to do the many regular things they wanted to do; thus many did provide information. But in the case of others, even if they did not do anything - they did not inform on their friends, for instance - nothing bad happened to them either. But since the security services excelled in meticulous gathering of information, and since times have changed in Poland, there is now a demand that any candidate for public service submit his "record" for public scrutiny - and thus better hope that there's nothing about him in any files. Consequently, nowadays no one can say he has a degree unless he can substantiate this by presenting the proper documents from widely recognized institutions of knowledge and scholarship.

Black sheep

I'm ready and willing to be the first to come clean on this score, even though I'm the black sheep in three generations of academics in the Handelzalts family: My father was an MD and my mother had a master's degree in educational psychology; my wife has a master's degree in clinical psychology; my eldest son has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and his wife, a master's in physiotherapy; my second son and his wife are both working on their Ph.D.s in education; and my daughter is finishing her master's thesis in the field of clinical psychology of children - a degree which her husband has already completed.

And me? I had studied for three years in the departments of comparative literature and theater arts at Tel Aviv University when, in 1971, I had to take a break to do the compulsory army service I had postponed in order to study. One thing followed another and eight years later, my wife and the mother of my children inquired "What about your academic studies?" I checked with the TAU authorities, completed the papers I had to write, and in 1979 received a bachelor's degree - without any particular distinction.

As one does not frame or hang a B.A. diploma on a wall, I put it in a safe place and forgot all about it. Not having a master's degree does not keep one from acquiring numerous books, so when we had to move, in 2001, I had to decide which books would move with us. I made my decisions, checked the various volumes for inscriptions, and as I do not keep foreign currency or dried flowers in any of my books, did not shake them open. I put them in boxes and carried them to a used-book store. The owner paid for some, and agreed to take the rest off my hands for the same price.

A couple of weeks passed and he called me. "I think there is one book you really do not want to get rid of," he said. "Which one? Why?" I asked. "Can't tell you." he said. "You'll have to come and see for yourself."

I've been known to rush to a bookshop on less intriguing pretexts. I presented myself there and the proprietor showed me a big, heavy volume - an illustrated history of Yemenite Jewry, which I had kept on my lower shelves, although I was not able to explain how and why it got there. To my quizzical look, he just responded, smiling: "Leaf through it." I did, and the first thing that fell out was my diploma. I thanked him profusely, trying to come up with some plausible excuse, and hurried home to put the precious document in a safe place.

I'm writing about all this not because I covet the Tourism portfolio, or even an MK's seat, God forbid. It's just that Hillel told us not to judge our fellow man until we put ourselves in his place - so I'm trying to do just that.

Anyway, if anyone wants me to present the diploma to prove that I have a bachelor of arts degree - not much to be proud of, I admit - I'm ready and willing to do so. That is, if I can remember which book I stuck it into this time.