Opinion

Why Israeli Students Don't Care About the University's Ethics Code

In the neoliberal age, higher education is nothing but a task, and any profit derived isn’t intellectual but monetary

Tel Aviv University
Ofer Vaknin

There’s still a little opposition to the ethics code for academia devised by Prof. Asa Kasher. Last June, when it was first discussed, many people, including many educators, expressed a belief that an ethics code was a declaration of war against academia, one more step in the campaign against the left and anything identified with it. Academics called for a boycott against Kasher, and the students’ union threatened a strike. But lo and behold last week a different code was laid at academia’s doorstep.

One may assume that if the code is approved you won’t see students crying out, just as they haven’t complained so far. The reason is that, except for the few protesting, most students don’t care (I can state this as a full-time student). This is strange because students aren’t just about Facebook and Israel’s Funjoya student festival – these are people who’ve chosen to invest at least three years in study and intellectual development. But the ethics code or a proposal for new regulations doesn’t interest them even though they’ll be the ones most immediately affected.

When the new guidelines forbid teachers from freely discussing controversial topics such as calls for boycotting Israel, they take away the base on which academia rests, a structure built on conflicts, polemics and the lessons drawn from them.

After all, producing new knowledge depends on replacing previous knowledge. If the ethics code prohibits academia from touching on familiar conflicts, it prohibits academia from producing knowledge that could advance Israeli society toward the democratic principles on which it’s supposed to be built. Thus academia will manufacture only knowledge that validates the existing reality that perpetuates society as a violent, racist and occupying entity.

Students have long ceased to be an activist element, a vigorous and radical one in Israeli society. Protests organized by students are but nostalgic and weary vestiges of a period when students were the vanguard in civil-society campaigns.

At the beginning of one class the lecturer asked what we thought about the ethics code; maybe he was hoping to light a fire under us. We reacted with surprise; what does that have to do with us? How is this related to the subject matter? Some of us may have wondered if there would be an exam question on the issue. After a pregnant pause two brave souls spoke up; it turned out they held opposing views on the matter, and we all listened while staring at our screens, doing some online shopping.

In practice, most students have evaded the issue. It’s not that they’re spoiled or focused on themselves. Well, actually they are, but it’s like the  poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote: “We are children of our era.” Unfortunately, this is an apolitical era.

In the neoliberal age, everything political crumbles into the nonpolitical. Instead of solidarity, civic partnership and equality of opportunity, we see trends of individuation, the maximization of opportunities and self-importance. This hasn’t been a political game for a long time. The university is a training ground for obtaining a career because an academic degree has long been a precondition for acquiring a profession. Thus, for thousands of students higher education is nothing but a task, and any profit derived, lest we think otherwise, isn’t intellectual but monetary, and a private one at that.

We’ve been educated to be entrepreneurial and expand our possibilities, to manage ourselves as a kind of startup that measures the costs and benefits of every decision. If that’s the case, embarking on a campaign doesn’t pay. It demands a great effort for too small a profit. It requires a communal effort, subjugating our fates to nonpersonal considerations that probably aren’t profitable. Thus an ethics code that limits freedom of expression and criticism of political matters doesn’t really affect a student’s agenda.

Many academics, the ones who protested the ethics code, are copying the students’ apolitical path: from a meagerly funded education system to an obedient military career and from there to higher education. This is expressed in the choice of subject matter, perspectives and the manner of instruction, which students often dislike. Many lecturers don’t recognize their students; that too has become something unprofitable. These teachers are busy with their research, groaning under the universities’ demands to maximize output and returns, to prefer their research over their role as educators.

Academic freedom has no value in a space that has been severed from politics (while imagining that this is even possible), which is why an ethics code is negligible to the common student. Too few students and academics are committed to a true campaign. They must suffice with an enlightened and supposedly radical ideology over real content. The face of a generation will always resemble the face of the era, and this one stubbornly insists on being apolitical.