Give Undergraduate Students a Real Education

Oren Harman
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Credit: Hila Peleg
Oren Harman

Ambrose Bierce was an American satirist, journalist, short-story writer and cynic. His motto was “Nothing matters,” and it was said of him that a purer nihilist was never born. Before he simply vanished in Mexico – one of the grandest disappearances of all time – Bierce left behind a biting lexicon, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” which disclosed some ounces of wisdom. Under the definition “Education, n.” he wrote: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

So here’s a question: What are our universities for? Does the government support them in order to cultivate its people or first and foremost with the economy in mind? The evolution of higher education in Israel over the past decade gives one the sense that there exists a conflict between these two goals, and its stewards are increasingly being called upon to make a choice.

In 2000, only a small percentage of Israel’s recipients of bachelor’s degrees did their studying outside the hallowed halls of universities; today, over 60 percent graduate from the country’s colleges. The overall trend is that the universities are losing the bachelor’s degree to the colleges, and consolidating their resources on postgraduate research. The balance in higher education is shifting, and the change is having an impact on us all.

Here, then, is a call to order: Alongside the cultivation of research, the universities should concentrate their efforts in creating a first-rate undergraduate degree. Not the familiar degree adopted from the European system, in which students are trained narrowly in one or two subjects – be it physics or literature, biology or history, political science, sociology or the Bible.

Rather, as we increasingly churn out more lawyers, communications majors, business administrators, engineers and technicians, the times call for a broad liberal arts training, one that transforms mere instruction into genuine education. After all, who are the young people coming out of our universities today? However bright, they are minor experts in insulated disciplines, whom the universities have generally failed to equip with the different kinds of writing and thinking skills – statistical, interpretive, analytic and creative – that would enrich their lives, whatever professional choice they ultimately make.

It has long been debated whether the good economist is he who has studied philosophy; the good biologist he who has been exposed to social theories; and the good man of letters he who grappled with the rigors of mathematics. And, in truth, the jury is still out. What is patently clear, however, is that thousands of undergraduates leaving the universities each year in Israel, without ever returning, step into the world with a shallow and compromised understanding of what is in it, what has come before, and how to continue learning and experiencing life, and asking of it important questions.

Luckily, a plethora of alternatives – in the form of myriad colleges – are now available for those for whom time is of the essence. The universities, by contrast, can offer a different kind of education: round, broad, living, breathing.

Ambrose Bierce was right (and with him Ethics of the Fathers [Pirkei Avot], Aristotle, Maimonides, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, Paolo Freire and Nelson Mandela): The best education is that which engenders a sense of humility, and the curiosity and openness that come with it. To genuinely become an education, instruction should be as broad as possible – there will be plenty of time for professional training later.

In bringing this about, the universities to take a leading role. In so doing, they will help young Israelis, as Mahatma Gandhi once exhorted, to live as if they were to die tomorrow, and learn as if they were to live forever.

Prof. Oren Harman is a writer and historian of science, and chair of the graduate program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University. 

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