Wanted: A Minister Who Values Education

"Apparently the revolutionaries demanded civil rights," one of my college students said recently. Not just apparently, I retorted, but in actual practice. After years in which I abstained from acting like the annoying aunt, correcting people when they say hamesh shekel ("five shekel") instead of the grammatically correct Hebrew usage of the number five in this instance ("hamisha"), and weeding out the Hebrew equivalent of phrases such as "whatever," "as if," "like," and "seemingly," I have returned to fight for the language's receding integrity, armed with new pearls of wisdom. The contempt I acquired for the cheapening of the language, and - more so - for the difficulty of those born in the 1980s to build a convincing argument, has come back to haunt me.

True, they are the ignorant ones whose language is limited to dismantling "synonyms" in the textbook for the psychometric exam, but we are the ones who pave the way. The education portfolio features prominently in every election campaign, yet afterward returns to its natural place as excess baggage.

One can fire two tank shells and raise the interest rate to 3 percent, but it is impossible to develop a sophisticated defense system to deal with a crumbling economy, find ways to solve the Mideast conflict, create fine art, and understand the concept of democracy without a tool for thinking. The required tools to develop independent and critical thought are lacking from the Israeli education system. The time has come to restore them.

The education portfolio is supposed to top the agenda. The minister in charge does not necessarily have to be affiliated with education. Even a professor of philosophy would not be able to stop the rapid decline. A minister, though, will need to withstand treacherous conditions, doggedly pursuing and dealing with functionaries who view education as a foreign entity. Such a minister must fight for an "unimportant" budget that does not cut enemies down to size and must not toady to aides and associates. The minister must remember and remind others that education is not limited to the rules of the English language and mathematical formulas. There are aspects and values that cannot be confined to a flag, national anthem or holy text.

Proposals for a quick and immediate improvement, such as the idea of enlisting college graduates for teaching jobs, will continue to send the system spiraling downward. The experiments on children began in the late 1960s, when we tried to imitate the Americans and created junior high schools. Yet we forgot that in this grand world we need to stick to the little things. There they learn how to make an oral argument and then formulate it in writing. Here they gave up on teaching how to write in the 1980s in order to preserve children's creativity. In the 1990s, subjects for the bagrut high school matriculation exam were chosen by lottery, a method that was later changed in favor of shelving those subjects students struggled with and scheduling two test-taking dates. Despite the easier burden, fewer than half of those who finish 12 years of schooling are eligible for a bagrut diploma.

Politicians paid lip service to the education system and to all of society. In the last 15 years, dozens of colleges have sprung up, making higher education accessible to all. The enrollment of many who were eligible for bagrut revealed the bareness of the system. With the exception of a small number of graduates of schools in large cities, the new students are not equipped with fundamental learning tools. If they are the first generation of higher education and also the children of laborers, their starting point is low. Their ability to read texts and distinguish between the main idea and the peripheral points, their ability to present knowledge as a sound argument and their success in putting together Hebrew sentences without grammatical errors depend almost solely on what they receive at home. School has contributed almost nothing to their intellectual development.

This time, if we don't choose a minister for whom education is more important than power and narrow political interests, we will have lasting proof that we are not the advanced society we claim to be. We will find ourselves qualified to join the developing world.