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Next Up for Israel: A Ban on Teaching Evolution

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Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, December 8, 2016.
Naftali Bennett at the Knesset, December 8, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

It was only a matter of time before Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) began a new round of silencing, threats and scare-mongering, this time in higher education. The new initiative, to determine rules for the statements made in class by professors, is another reflection of the logic that rules today in the corridors of power, which maintains that there is no room for critical thinking, or God forbid for the search for truth, since anyone who doesn’t align himself with the government is marked as a “traitor.”

This evil spirit should disturb everyone in academe, for which disagreement and debate are the motivating force, and where the search for truth is shared by all its members, regardless of political viewpoint. Therefore the present debate mustn’t be painted inside academe in shades of right and left, or be turned into another populist struggle against the elites, a la Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud).

Politics can be found in every academic field: in the study of evolution, in feminist theory, in the study of neoliberal economics and in studies of planet Earth. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is a frightening example of a man who disdains the scientific conclusions about global warming. Anyone to whom truth is dear understands that someone who wants to forbid discussion of the occupation today, tomorrow will forbid the study of the scientific theory about the origin of man, or anything else that doesn’t accord with the interests of industry and the wealthy. Have we mentioned the “post-truth era”?

Fortunately we, the members of academe, have a very important tool with which to fight this evil spirit, perhaps the most important one of all: Enlightenment and education are tools that are still at our disposal, and for some reason we tend to neglect them.

Every year, students ask me why I teach a theory and immediately afterwards criticize it, and how I can present viewpoints that I obviously don’t identify with. These are questions that represent the profound lack of understanding of most students about an open discussion and the importance of debate, not to mention the meaning of the concept “academic freedom.”

There are questions that I doubt most advanced students, even in the social sciences and humanities, are capable of answering satisfactorily: Why should academics have the freedom to express an opinion (as opposed to judges or military personnel, for example); what is the significance of the tradition that academic institutions receive independence in managing their affairs; and why is it important to finance the study and research of basic science, which by definition “doesn’t pay.”

But that’s precisely the thing that academics can change, without getting upset by some government or other, by dint of the independence of academic institutions. Just as students were once required to participate in physical education lessons, every student should be required to take at least one course in civics or democracy or critical thinking or skepticism or criticism or any similar subject.

Opponents of the idea will say that there is no need for that, because after all, every academic course teaches skepticism. But even if that’s true, it’s not enough. Students need a course that will spell out these things, that will present contradictory opinions and make it possible to process them in an intelligent manner.

Those in agreement, the ones who are hiding behind practical arguments, will probably say that there isn’t enough time in the academic schedule. There is material that’s important to teach, the students have to be prepared for the job market, and therefore there is no room left for general courses.

But academic quality is actually measured by an order of priorities that isn’t entirely practical, and by choosing to prepare students who, in addition to being professionals, will be thinking, ethical people and good citizens in a democratic society. This is the time to dare to teach, and as soon as possible. We can start tomorrow morning by interrupting the academic schedule for an hour, during which everyone will learn a lesson devoted to a complex and critical discussion of the concept of academic freedom.

Prof. Hashiloni-Dolev teaches at the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo.

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