Opinion- 25 July 2007




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Yaron Ezrahi*: Fools in the Public Sphere

Below we reprint excerpts from an article first published in Haaretz on 23 July, 2007



There is nothing that strengthens the self-assurance and the abilities of a citizen in a democracy to judge and to criticize the government more than learning, and in particular at the post-secondary level. But the policy of the recent governments in Israel toward the universities has proven that here, as in other areas, the government has no interest in investing public funds in the public's education and in strengthening the public as the sovereign partner of the institutions of state.

It is not merely by chance that the ability of the universities in Israel to impart higher education... has been eroded, as they have had to fight an ongoing battle against far-reaching cuts. Instead, the universities, which are no longer worthy of being called institutions of higher learning, have become schools for research and advanced technical training. [A] student of chemistry or economics at most of Israel's universities can study almost nothing except chemistry or economics from the beginning of his first year until the completion of his doctorate.

Every day, Israeli society pays a heavy price for the "professional" decisions of people with advanced degrees who are in fact little more than narrow-minded experts.

In this way we have jurists who have to deal with sex offenders without having had a single lesson in the social sciences... we have doctors who were never exposed to a lesson in ethics... we have an army of economists who have studied almost nothing other than economics, who have never been exposed... to cultural studies, but who wield the budgetary axe with intolerable ease when it comes to cultural institutions... which for them constitute parasitical organizations that lack legitimacy because they are unable to fund themselves.

 [T]oday [Israel] is being led by a government that tries to continue evading its responsibility to make it possible for all citizens to fulfill their right and duty to acquire higher education [and which fails] to provide even adequate lower education in the state school system... A government unable to view university studies as something other than a "subsidized commodity." It is therefore no surprise that in this case as well, they expect the client to pay the full price.

Abandoning the universities to the forces of the market will put an end to the chances of funding higher learning and be the final nail in the coffin of the universities as cultural and spiritual centres.

When the spokesmen of the Shochat committee talk about encouraging excellence in university institutions, they are referring to professional and research excellence in the narrow meanings of the words, while neglecting, not unintentionally, cultural and spiritual excellence and the development of the Israeli human being. The university professors and their students still have time to thwart this absurd move, which is in tragic opposition to the vision of those who formulated university education in Israel - Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Judah Magnes, George Wise, Natan Rotenstreich and Joseph Ben- David.

The national discourse should focus on how to give higher education an appropriate position on the list of national priorities.

*Yaron Ezrahi is professor of political science  at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.