The Ignorance of Israel's Higher Education Minister

Menny Mautner
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Israel's Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin, June 23, 2020.
Menny Mautner

The presidents of the universities in Israel have found themselves in sharp conflict with Higher Education Minister Zeev Elkin in the wake of his meddling in the ways the universities manage their affairs. The conflict has reached the the High Court of Justice. It is important to understand the minister’s worldview with regard to the role of the universities, as it emerges in the first interview he has given to the right-of -center weekly Makor Rishon.

The way in which the minister perceives the universities can explain much of his behavior in the conflict with the university presidents. The inception of the modern university is in a memorandum written by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810 in advance of the founding of a university in Berlin. He posited two ideals for the university. The first ideal is the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, which adheres to the standards of truth. Knowledge for its own sake is knowledge of human beings and the world, which has no other value apart from its intrinsic value as knowledge and the need of human beings to satisfy their curiosity and their inquisitiveness.

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The second ideal is that of Bildung, the shaping of the individual’s intellectual, moral and aesthetic skills through internalizing the elite materials of the cultural. What these two ideals have in common is that they both embody clearly humanistic values concerned with the individual’s spiritual flourishing.

The 20th-century sociologist Edward Shils wrote that nearly every existing university at the beginning of the 19th century adopted Humboldt’s vision, as did every university founded in the world since then. When we think about the university, we think in terms of Humboldt’s vision, he wrote. However, in processes that already began to develop during the 19th century, the university also adopted a third ideal – obtaining instrumental knowledge. Universities around the world began to see

themselves as institutions that are supposed to train professionals who will work in state mechanisms, in the service of national security, in the service of the economy and in the service of corporations and would satisfy university graduates’ need for certification of their qualifications and professional prestige.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, extensive literature was produced concerning the purposes of the university. The greatest thinkers in the humanities and the social sciences engaged with this issue. They all repeatedly stressed the importance of the two ideals Humboldt presented – knowledge for its own sake and Bildung.

Upon reading the interview with Elkin, it becomes clear that in his perception the main role of the university is to serve the needs of the state – primarily its economic needs – as well as the students’ need for professional training. He relates almost incidentally to the humanist ideal of knowledge for its own sake and he does not mention the second humanist ideal, Bildung, at all.

Elkin says: “We are in a field that has a great deal of importance for the economy. Everyone understands that with all due respect for the natural gas we found, our economic future is located in the Israeli brain – and therefore the main thing is found in higher education.” And subsequently: “Higher education has value in and of itself, that of a system of research and science.” Here, in these few and general statements, it appears that the minister recognizes the ideal of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.

However, immediately thereafter he adds: “But nevertheless, among its key roles, apart from providing its own values, there are two things: The one, it is intended for the students. It must help them acquire a profession and more than that – skills directed at how to consume knowledge and how to analyze it. The second thing for the sake of which it is intended is the state. Academia must supply the state with the fields and professions it needs in order to continue to flourish and grow economically.” 

The minister also says: “A minister can reflect the needs of the state of Israel in the process of multi-year planning – what the state as an economy and a society needs – in order to influence that multi-year planning and to establish accordingly what gets studied, how much gets studied and what gets encouraged.”

It might have been possible to expect that Elkin, before declaring his “credo” with regard to higher education, would have devoted a number of hours to reading up on the subject or at least conversing with people who have applied themselves to the topic. It does not appear that the minister did any of that. He has no need for what others have thought and written; the impressions he garnered when he was a doctoral student in the field of the history of the Jewish people at Hebrew University suffice for him. With total confidence he thus bestows upon his readers the insights of his own common sense concerning the university. And yes, all this does exist in the framework of his longstanding nationalist view of the world, which turns out in his case to shunt aside the humanist values.

Prof. Menachem Mautner is a member of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.

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