On a “Tochnit Liba” in the Israeli educational system

27 Jun

by Ilan Bloch

I believe that the only core curriculum that should be mandated by law is Hebrew, Arabic and English classes (for all Israeli students, regardless of religious/ethnic background), as well as a basic civics program, which would comprise a survey course in Israeli society, including an introduction to the three monotheistic religions, as well as to the different le’omim (“ethnic nationalities”) and edot (“Jewish ethnic groupings”). This core curriculum would allow for the development of a common language between citizens and would foster a sense of inclusiveness amongst all sectors of the polity.

Beyond this, the role of the state should be to regulate courses which are offered by schools, ensuring that key benchmarks in teaching and learning, and assessment are met. Within this framework all students should be compelled to study a basic level of mathematics and science, and general humanities.

Although personally, I have clear ideas of what should be considered mandatory Jewish learning for all Israeli Jewish students, as an educator, I do not feel that there should be compulsory religious studies for any Israeli student – whether he be Jewish, Muslim or Christian. As a Jew who embraces his heritage, I would be delighted if all Jewish students in Israel would achieve a basic proficiency in Chumash (Bible), NaCH (Prophets and Writings), Gemara (the Jewish legal corpus) and Machshava (Jewish thought), although I feel that such courses need to be popular enough in and of themselves to attract students, and that compelling students to study these subjects may actually result in the estrangement of many of them from Judaism. What would be considered religious coercion by many students (as well as teachers and parents) cannot help to achieve the goal of producing proud, literate Jews.

Religious studies would be included within the general humanities category of courses. Perhaps each student should be required to select a certain number of courses from each category. The state should determine that a course in religious texts meets certain academic standards (whether the course uses the Tanach, the New Testament or the Quran as the text of choice), but should not compel any student to enroll in such a course. Ideally, such a course will be appealing to students and they will choose to participate out of their own free will (and perhaps even also choose to study religious texts from outside their own tradition), but they would also be free to select a course on (say) American history instead, as long as they completed the requisite number of humanities courses.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.


4 Responses to “On a “Tochnit Liba” in the Israeli educational system”

  1. Ra'anan June 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Curriculum must be justified as you’ve done regarding Hebrew, Arabic and English classes, basic understanding of Abrahamic religions and civics.
    But what about the content of math and science courses, is it currently justifiable or is it inflated in order to warehouse children until they are 18 to prevent the job market from being flooded? Courses must be first JUSTIFIED before benchmarking student achievement. Can the influence, effect, impact of general humanities on former students be MEASURED? Why would Jewish studies in the Jewish state be noncompulsory while math in the nonmathematical state YES be compulsory??? Why is mathematical coercion alright in your book? Why SHOULD a secular Israeli be interested in learning about Judaism? If no secular students would want religious courses, would you fire all of the teachers of religion? You would teach Greek & Roman mythology, but not TaNaKh???

    • Teaching Israel May 21, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Ra’anan. I apologize for the lateness of my response; your comment seems to have fallen between the cracks.

      I think that it is quite clear that math, science and general humanities courses help prepare students to get jobs in the real world (rather than “warehousing” them until age 18 to prevent the job market from being flooded, as you suggested). In fact, without these core courses being studied, students will be ill-equipped for the job market and will remain dependent on others to pay their way, which will increase strife between Jews, and might be considered a form of negligence (in terms of not preparing students for any life choices outside ongoing full-time yeshiva learning). Math should be compulsory in order to allow students the ability to enter tertiary study and the skilled job market.

      A secular Israeli will be interested in learning about Judaism if she finds it a compelling source of wisdom and spirituality. Perhaps such a goal will better be achieved by avoiding any element of religious coercion in general society, including in the school system. I would teach what students choose to learn (within the context of the core curriculum). If a student chooses to learn Greek and Roman mythology and not Tanach then perhaps such a choice will have come about as a result of the alienation of that student from Jewish tradition as a result of existing religious political control over his life and that of his family.

  2. Ra'anan May 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    Ilan, merely claiming “that math, science and general humanities courses help prepare student to get jobs in the real world” doesn’t mean it’s so. Although I may concede on math, and only to a degree, can you NAME any non-specialty jobs that require science and humanities? Also, how much math do non-specialty jobs require? I don’t think it’s enough to justify 12 years of math and this is NOT MY argument, I’m merely bringing ideas that were brought up in the last course of my Masters Associates degree in English Education, “Curriculum and Instruction,” which explored the origins of course content and it is NOT as you’ve claimed. Core curricula are, unfortunately, NOT research-based, nor has a correlation been established between success in “math, science and general humanities courses” and getting “jobs in the real world.” The idea of teaching humanities is a value-based idea of not creating a society of mere technocrats. Math and science courses ARE expanded to warehouse students, much of the information taught in these courses is UNNECESSARY information and the agenda of these core curricula pushers is NOT to increase the quality of student skills.

    Studying full-time in a yeshiva is a value-based ideal for a certain part of the population just as theatres and the programming of the Israel Broadcast Authority may represent value-based ideals for other segments of the population. And just as latter are not forced to “pay their way,” so, too, full-time yeshiva learners should also not be forced survive on their own.

    I remember even thirty years ago seeing two charedi colleges in New York (one of them was called C.O.P.E.) teaching a highly focused curriculum aimed totally at getting yeshiva boys into the job market. I see something similar popping up now all over the country here in Israel (Ono, for example, but there are many others). Colleges in Israel do not take the bagrut seriously as witnessed by them demanding that new applicants take academic placement exams and, if necessary, enroll in preparation (mekhina) courses to make up “for real” all of the years of “learning” in Israeli schools.

    I don’t think any secular Israelis will be exposed to the compelling sources of wisdom and spirituality of Judaism within the secular Israeli curriculum because the secular agenda is not interested in promoting those values. Even if there were no “religious coercion in general society,” secular Israelis generally will not avail themselves to Jewish texts, again, because that is not their agenda.

    I’ve seen many secular Israelis and Jews in America who have no “religious coercion” hanging over their heads, nor are the affected by “existing religious political control over [their lives], yet they simply lack a comfortable enough for them setting (like a school system) that would REQUIRE them to explore their own identities. Interestingly, there are non-affiliated Jews who take survey courses in Jewish subjects at the bachelors level of university studies as an elective, but their number is, relative to the general non-affiliated Jewish population, quite small.

    • Teaching Israel May 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

      Thanks Ra’anan for your considered response.

      I would frame your question of “Can you NAME any non-specialty jobs that require science and humanities?” differently and ask whether there are any skilled labor positions for which a reasonable level of math, science and humanities is not required? Or, to ask in another way: study of math, science and humanities is a prerequisite to enter tertiary-level education. Are there any skilled labor positions which do not require tertiary study?

      I am, a “core curriculum pusher” and, I can assure you, my aim in supporting a tochnit liba is most certainly to develop student skills (as well as allow students to acquire key knowledge in basic fields).

      You write that: “Studying full-time in a yeshiva is a value-based ideal for a certain part of the population just as theatres and the programming of the Israel Broadcast Authority may represent value-based ideals for other segments of the population. And just as latter are not forced to “pay their way,” so, too, full-time yeshiva learners should also not be forced survive on their own.”

      But, I do not think that the parallel works. A better analogy would be to compare full-time yeshiva study to full-time university study and, for the main part, university students are forced to “pay their way.” I have no issue with the state (i.e. my tax-payer shekels) subsidizing actual illuyim, just as I think the state should subsidize (and offer an exemption from IDF service to) prodigal university students, as well as potential Olympians, professional musicians, and so forth. But it cannot be expected that almost 60,000 yeshivah students should be subsidized by the tax-payer! There are certainly not that many illuyim amongst our Haredi brethren. And, if the non-illuyim want to learn all day, they are welcome to, but they will have to finance it themselves!

      The more vocational training colleges for Haredi men and women the better. Ken Yirbu because these colleges are needed to help Haredim (men, especially) enter the job market. At the moment, Haredi male employment market participation stands at around 50%. I want more Haredi males to work so that my tax-payer shekels do not need to subsidize those who either choose to be full-time students or who would be willing to enter the labor market but are unable to do so in any meaningful way because they do not have the basic educational background necessary to be able to do so.

      Just because Israeli universities require applicants to take the psychometric test does not mean they devalue the bagrut. In fact, as far as I understand, bagrut scores still count as part of the weighting to be accepted to university studies (that is, a student with better bagrut scores will need a lower psychometric score to be accepted to university studies than somebody with worse bagrut scores). Mechina programs are to help those without a full bagrut do bridging courses in order to be able to be accepted into university studies. One-year Mechina programs do not make up for twelve years of education. (Approximately four years of full-time study is required to make up for not studying a tochnit liba as a school student.)

      There is more and more secular learning going on in Israeli society. Institutions such as Alma and Bina offer evermore popular secular Jewish learning programs, and many students also avail themselves of the opportunities offered by secular and mixed mechinot kedam tzvayiot.

      And yes, there are some Jews who are not interested in learning about their Jewish heritage. If the Jewish educational world cannot offer compelling reasons for them to do so, then we have failed. But forcing mandatory study upon them is not necessarily the best way to further their interest in, or understanding of, Jewish heritage.

      Kol tuv


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