What Exactly Does the Education System Produce?

When people say "the education system," one immediately imagines a large factory where people work hard in long shifts and go on strike every time they receive their pay slips (an average of NIS 5,628 per month). No one takes a moment to ask what is actually being produced there. Are their products good? Bad? Everyone agrees they earn too little money, but no one really knows what for.

If, at least, they were to say they were producing "knowledge" or "education," then it would be possible to measure the quality of their work. (Here is an example: a third of 15-year-olds who have completed nine or 10 years of schooling in Israel do not understand what they are reading, based on the results of an international test conducted four years ago in 41 countries. In math, according to the same test, the Israeli achievements are among the lowest in developed countries.) But the system does not make do with knowledge and education. It wants to educate. Educate? That is a different story altogether.

In education, there is much pretension and just as much responsibility. International tests are not necessary to see the results of education, because the results can be seen everywhere: on the roads, in the Knesset and on television. The education system's product is not a matriculation certification but rather the young adult himself, his worldview and the way in which he gives expression to it.

Two days ago, I attended the Israel education conference. Outside, the strike continued and on the lower level, people were eating hotel danishes. On the opening night, activists and politicians spoke in praise of education. Like Hans Christian Andersen's tailors, the education activists presented to the world cliches full of hot air; but no one rose up in protest. Are representatives of the Likud, Labor, Kadima and Meretz the educators?

Politicians and activists at an education conference are like print workers at a discussion of journalism. Budgets are important for the future of education just as the price of paper is important for the future of the press, but they are not the most important things. The students and what happens to them in the boring buildings where they are trapped for 12 years are the essence.

Every graduate wants to forget his memories from school or at least suppress them. Afterward, as a parent, he is surprised to discover what his children are doing. In a survey taken at the beginning of the year by the Smith Institute, 62 percent of parents rated their children's level of achievement as "low."

Both the parents and their children, when they become parents, are not interested in content.

When you want to discuss the content of the studies, the schools become confidential nuclear reactors and parents become completely illiterate. The study programs are presented as such complicated overlapping combinations that no one is capable of grasping them. So what do you do? Talk about "excellence," play around with "reforms" and for dessert, "thinking." For garnish, the politicians, who are the ones who are accessible, available and the most talkative on earth, are invited.

Politicians' banal truths

But the politicians and activists will not ask to discuss the way in which Scriptures are taught, or the anachronism of having annual school outings. They will not dare review whether it is possible to teach art without touching on the New Testament and they don't care that students do not know the borders of the state in which they live, don't know how to fill out a questionnaire in English and cannot manage to understand a language which almost a quarter of the state's population uses. And in general, has anyone seen the eleventh grade history book recently? Give one to even the most indifferent parent and he will rush to smash the windows of the school where it is used.

Such a parent will delight Labor MK Ami Ayalon. He thinks that the job of a school is to educate its students in social involvement. Ayalon, a small, wiry and tense type, says forcefully and determinedly the most banal truths that a politician can utter when discussing education. There is no knowing where he pulled out the need for "a single shared narrative" as a miracle cure for linking the different sections of this "torn, divided and frightened" country, and what his relevance was to this conference.

The CEO of the First International Bank, Smadar Tzadik Barber, whose appearance at the education conference is surprising on its own, felt, in contrast, that our situation has never been better. In a somewhat convoluted way, she manages to connect between the need to teach students about financial consumerism and the troubles of her bank, which is struggling with larger banks.

Wise consumerism, it could be understood from her remarks, will teach the youth it is possible to choose among the banks. That is what she said without adding anything else - those who get it will get it.

The other speakers came from the education system. They unhesitatingly poured education and knowledge into the same pot, stirred and cooked it and looked at the mixture with a measure of disgust. For they, too, the school principals and education experts, i.e., the chefs themselves, have no idea what they want from their students.

They came out against the matriculation certificate as the sole measure of success in one's studies. They mocked the way in which schools obtain their matriculation grades, but did not suggest a better way.

During the entire discussion, there was a whispering hum coursing through the hall. This is a hum I remember from boring chemistry classes during an oppressive afternoon heat wave.

There, the teacher, Batsheva, would cut it off with an angry clap of the hands and here it goes on and on, despite the pleas from the dais. What do we want, where do we want to go, asked Prof. Yogev of Tel Aviv University? What is the image of the high school graduate that we would like to see? He and his fellow panel members did not have an answer.

And indeed, if asked, I would have answered that after 12 years of education I would like there to be such a person, one who is honest reliable, industrious, curious and generous. And on second thought: He should also know how to listen, not chatter away during a lecture, and put down his cell phone for a minute.