Value Added?

In the course of one month, our hyperactive education minister decided that school children will wear uniforms, stand up when the teacher enters the classroom and work in factories. His moves have the support of the national high school student union, but what do they have to do with values?

In the school I attended, the pupils wore a uniform. They also stood up when the teacher entered the classroom and shouted: "Good morning, madam/sir!" Getting up did not make me a good citizen and the light-blue shirt did not make me more disciplined.

By contrast, in Tichon Hadash, the Tel Aviv high school that Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar attended, the students did not get up in honor of the teacher and did not wear a school uniform. But despite this, Minister Sa'ar became a devoted and useful citizen who is determined to improve the education system. In the past few weeks he has been seized by a devoted and useful spirit of hyperactivity. In the course of one month, he decided to dress the students in school uniforms, make them stand up when the teacher enters the classroom, send them to factories and have their teachers meet with army officers.

Activity is preferable to stagnation, and taking responsibility in an era of privatization is doubly preferable. The latest proposals come wrapped in an alluring package of "values education" - the values in question being discipline, respect and Zionism. Usually people snap to attention when they hear the word "values," but the reactions this time were lukewarm, and the disappointment bitter. What's going on here?

It turns out that not everyone loves "values," especially not the values of the Ministry of Education. How can that be? After all, it's because values are in such short supply that we drive wildly, push ahead in lines and enjoy "Big Brother." Yet now comes a cabinet minister bearing a whole sack of values, and everyone turns away with a sour face.

The late writer and educator S. Yizhar was suspicious of values that politicians would want to "inculcate" by means of "education." Even if the politician happens to be none other than the education minister. What is education? Yizhar asked in a 1974 article. The intention, he replied, is "simply indoctrination ... propaganda ..."

What about "values"? According to Yizhar, they are "a bundle of lovely things" whose exact content no one knows. Today, too, educators find it difficult to explain what the exact values are that "need to be inculcated."

If pressed, they mumble something about "love of the nation and the land," in the hope that this will satisfy you and get you off their case. What is love of the nation and the land? Which land are they talking about, Yizhar insisted - the one west of the Green Line, or the one that stretches to the Jordan River? He also asked: Is there agreement about values? And how can we resolve the contradictions that sometimes crop up in positive values? Is "peace," for example, always compatible with "justice"?

Army values

Education Minister Sa'ar will not allow fine points like these to sway him from his path. Nor will he flinch from adopting ideas that his predecessors did not succeed in implementing. Education ministers have always stood for values. Already 20 years ago, and not for the first time, it was decided to fill the students with pride and infuse their bland routine with meaningful content. The education minister at the time, Limor Livnat, suggested that students stand up when the teacher enters, that the national flag be raised and that the national anthem sung. Her suggestions, fraught with national significance, somehow faded away. The idea of the school uniform sparked a public debate, and in its wake 300 schools introduced compulsory uniforms. That relative success did not console Livnat. She concluded her term on a sad note: "I was more popular when I entered the education system, and determined to make changes for the children's benefit ... I was the butt of harsh criticism and paid the price of uninhibited attacks and a decrease in popularity."

The present minister, it must be admitted, does not intend to sit idly by and wait for his popularity to slide. For the inculcation effort, he has mobilized the Israel Defense Forces, whose values, after all, are in no doubt. The campaign was launched in a festive ceremony. In its course, army officers visited high schools and spoke with teachers about "army-society relations and values education." A similar project, with the highly imaginative name "The Next Generation," was launched (in a festive ceremony!) five years ago.

The Next Generation was intended to strengthen the army's relations with young people and inculcate key values. The values also bore a more practical significance: to increase the proportion of inductees volunteering for combat units. There is no way to know if the project was a success, but important lessons were learned from it, particularly the assumption that it was given too much exposure.

Between Hadar and Yizhar

The current campaign began - after the festive ceremony, of course - in total secrecy. My requests to be present at a meeting were turned down politely but firmly. So, who knows what went on in those dark rooms between teachers and officers? The reactions were enthusiastic. Okay, not all of them, but the reaction of the national high school student union and of its chairperson, Hadar Shuman, was definitely upbeat.

Shuman, who is 17 and from Be'er Sheva, has headed the union for the past six months. When it comes to values, there is no one more enthusiastic than she. She definitely views the connection with the army as an important value, no less important than studies and grades. (The studies, by the way, could stand some improvement: of 49 countries where international tests are given, Israel placed 24th in mathematics and 25th in the sciences.)

Hadar Shuman, a big believer in values, is on excellent cooperative terms with Minister Sa'ar. Before presenting his latest ideas, the minister consulted with her and her colleagues in the leadership. His decisions, she says, usually have her full backing. Did she and the others have no objections? Well, she thinks that getting up for the teacher should be introduced gradually, maybe in the lower grades. It would seem safe to say that the education minister considers Hadar a faithful partner on his path.

S. Yizhar, though, would see her approach as proof that he was right in dissenting from values education. How did Yizhar identify faulty education? "When the same things that adults utter in their thick voices are spoken by the little ones."

Liad Mudrik was chairperson of the high school student union 14 years before Hadar Shuman. In the future, Hadar aspires to be an "education woman"; Mudrik is now a journalist and a doctoral candidate in philosophy and neuroscience. There was no school uniform in her high school and the students did not stand when the teacher came in. In fact, in her day there wasn't such a close connection between the education minister and the student union, and that body espoused independent opinions.

Possibly, Mudrik says, ties with the Education Ministry brought about voluntary constraints, but this did not make the students an adjunct of the establishment. Yizhar writes: "There is no need to defend values, and anyway it is impossible." Liad Mudrik doesn't agree. "Values," she says, "are difficult to define and impossible to dictate, but students can and should be given the tools to analyze and understand them." It seems unlikely that consideration of the need for values disturbs the repose of the industrious minister.

In the h=andsome Jerusalem building that houses the Ministry of Education, lights burn until the wee hours and efficient bureaucrats work diligently on new and surprising ideas. Just this week, the minister declared a new computerization plan. Asked whether he already had a budget for the plan, the minister replied: "I believe that the government will not let the opportunity go by." He did not say how much money was involved.

"The common denominator of the flood of decisions that are foisted on the schools is that they don't cost money," a Tel Aviv high school principal told Haaretz two weeks ago. "Whenever a guideline like this arrives, the suspicion arises that it's just spin."