Ignorance is taking over Israeli Society

Prof. Shlomo Biderman, President of the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa), and former leading faculty at Tel-Aviv University, warns: Debased common denominator turns ignorance into cherished value. People say ‘I don’t need to know, I don’t want to know, don't confuse me with facts’. This is a disastrous state of affairs. At such times, we academics have betrayed society. Academic institutions deserted their social role of providing the public with knowledge and tools for thinking. We need an urgent change in higher education.

Uri Pasovsky, Calcalist

October 24, 2015

Prof. Shlomo Biderman (68) has an intimate, years-long acquaintance Israeli higher-education system. He has held several managerial positions at Tel-Aviv University (TAU), including: Dean of the Faculty for Humanities, and was candidate to the position of TAU President prior to his appointment as President of the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa) - a position he holds since last year. He is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy, considered a gifted speaker and lecturer; his packed lectures at TAU have been attended by students of all departments. He is also an orthodox Jew.

With the opening of the academic school year in Israel, Biderman provides a picture of an academe that has lost its ways, of a higher education system that is kept frozen in time and finds it hard to adjust to the great transformation in knowledge, and worse—has detached from the society within which it operates, even from its own students. He tells Calcalist in harsh words: “I think academia has betrayed society. Intellectuals have betrayed society. And as someone who was in academia, I am complicit in this betrayal”.

A disturbing analysis in and of itself, it is even more distressing in light of Biderman’s exclamation, that Israel is verging on a distractive and dangerous process of “ever growing ignorance”. Biderman laments, that “Israeli society has always been a relatively literate one, but a debased common denominator turns ignorance, at least in some sense, into value. ‘I don’t need to know, I don’t want to know, don’t confuse me with facts, don’t blur me with doubts, don’t burden me with multiple possibilities and don’t pester me with conflicting perspective’. Hesitation has become illegitimate. This change is reflected in our behavior, manifesting known signs of vulgarity and objectification of the ‘other’. Whoever is not for me is against me, and this ‘for me’ is becoming ever more sectarian. We see it in the streets, on the road, in the cinema and in the classrooms.

Valuing ignorance has even deeper, more dangerous implications. Life is grasped according to a personal preference scale, which is emotional and often childish. We ‘don’t connect’ to what does not take our fancy at a given time. And those things we favor are immediately crowned with ‘like’. There is little space between these two childish, narcissistic expressions. Gone is the complex order of preferences, according to which we were to fill our lives with content. In general, every complexity is just a waste of time. What you can’t say in 35 seconds you better say nothing about. What you cannot sum up as a bullet point should not be written. This preference for the empty over the full and the simple over the complex is dangerous, because the vacuum it leaves forms fertile ground for prejudice, arbitrary positions, and instinctive identification with your majority group. Hatred, racism and uncontrollable violence are very much culture—or sub-culture—dependent, they do not appear out of nowhere. I sense this ignorance taking over Israeli society, and this is a sad and volatile state of affairs”.

Anachronistic knowledge and teachers who betray their role

Biderman starts with the ails of higher education. “Academia defines its own identity in such conservative manner that has turned the institution anachronistic”, he says. “You can call it by different names—ivory tower, elitism. Institutions will always say: we’re not elitist—we create, volunteer and contribute’ and it’s true, but an academic institution with tens of thousands of students cannot define itself solely through its research excellence, because that is how it loses touch with the moral, intellectual and cultural roles of a higher-education system. By gravitating towards the research function, universities are oblivious to the deep transitions in the concepts that have defined their own operation: the public changes, its demands change, and the language changed. Students do not come to study the same way they did in the past, and a large part of the knowledge that was traditionally kept in the sole hands of universities, no longer is. Knowledge is going through a constant process of transition”.

What exactly is the change you point out? What happens to knowledge nowadays?

“An executive director in the Hi-Tech industry told me, that as far as computer science research, universities are a few years behind companies in the field, and the companies themselves fall behind the dynamic knowledge that is constantly generated by small groups of technology entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs develop unique pools of knowledge that will only retroactively reach the research community. Ownership over knowledge no longer rests with authoritative institutions of higher education”.

In his understated tone, Biderman not only points out changes in the nature of knowledge, but also wonders to what extent institutions of higher education even offer relevant knowledge nowadays. “Not many years ago, questioning the relevance of knowledge was regarded as a misplaced, and even reprehensible inquiry for a respectable academic institution; but we can remain aloof no longer. The privilege of research as a type of chess game that scholars play with each other is becoming ever more dated”.

Biderman is not only concerned about the detachment, or irrelevance of academic knowledge in 21st century, but also about the academe’s neglect of its duty to teach and instruct. “The university is supported by the state. In this sense, it ought to pay dividends to shareholders. Our primary shareholder is the Israeli public—where are the dividends to Israeli society?

Academic institutions rank themselves by their Impact Factors (a ranking of scientific journals where faculty members’ works appear), or by the number of international students they can attract, or how much they’re cited. None of this is relevant for students. Faculty members’ should be committed not only to the Impact Factor, but to students—including those who need our help in order to fulfill their potential”.

What is the meaning of commitment to the student?

An old Indian saying orders a teacher who has no students to take all of the material he ever taught and throw it in the nearby river. His position as a teacher depends on the existence of students. I knew many faculty members whose classrooms and labs were filled with students, but none of them were their students. As long the system sticks to quantitative models for evaluating teaching, and doesn’t even try to examine further variables—such as the added value of a particular course to a student’s personal and professional life in the long term—it betrays the students and leaves them, at best, as service-demanding customers or clients”.

The debate around students as clients has accompanied academia in recent years. In particular, institutions’ increasing investment in applied degrees, executive programs and professional trainings on account of research-oriented degrees was put to question. For Biderman, the dichotomous ‘research or applied teaching’ perspective is itself problematic.

“It is usually argued that semi-commercial, for-profit activity provides research institutions some sort of budgetary relief, allowing them to maintain their pure research work; an end justifying the means, a slight ethical sacrifice required to preserve research. Puritan opponents see these programs as a sign of ‘selling out’. Yet teaching and research are supposed to be driven by complex decision which have both an intellectual and moral value but also social value. Joining these dimensions must lead us to determine institutional priorities, for example: teaching and research can take place outside the traditional boundaries of academia. It may be wise to uphold this unique combination of academic and extra-academic considerations in the public academic colleges, thus allowing universities a greater teaching-free space for research”.

Academia is Undervalued, Students Demand Products

Sticking to research, highlights Biderman, reflects on the entire system. “Without quality there is no future for Israeli society”, and adds that quality academic research “is the obvious mandate of universities. However, what suits the Weizmann Institute cannot be the single standard for the entire system”. Despite that, all academic institutions—not only universities but also colleges, who were supposed to play a teaching-centered function—are trapped in a race for the production of more and more graduates with advanced degrees, even research-focused degrees, and their staff is spiraling in a race after professorship, which requires research. Biderman argues this race is unjustified, for “in the 21st century, some institutions should be different”.

To all that we must add another fact: “There are simply too many institutions of higher education in Israel. The system has grown uncontrollably over the past 20 years. No one had spoken about 70 institutions that would create a higher supply than demand. We need brave regulation”. For example, Biderman suggests the unification of smaller institutions into larger or regional ones. There are several implications to such a competitive market. First, “you will hear less and less the social or moral voice at the top priority of institutions who are busy thinking on how to survive, let alone develop, in the short-term”.

In addition, academic standards are impacted. “When supply is larger than demand, standards fall, because without students you receive less budget, and for a private institution—without students you can close shop. This leads to a certain de-valuation and commodification of education. More and more academic institutions see themselves as for-profit centers. This does not impact the top tier of talented students, but it does harm two thirds of them. Sometimes students co-operate with this, because they see their degree as a consumer good and themselves as consumers. Education is looked upon more instrumentally than ever. Accordingly, when you put demands on students you stumble upon resisting attitudes, as if these demands harm students. There are more complaints of this sort nowadays. But if we look at the students not from their perspective, but rather more paternalistically—although I’m reluctant to do so—they come off worse, because we exist to teach and educate them”.

Ignorance is the Worst Thing, We Must Fight It

What Biderman suggests is a change in the system, based on a “recognition of different higher education goals and a less hierarchical organization. Recognizing, too, that making education accessible is an economic necessity, one which requires different ways of designing and budgeting institutions according to their different purposes”. He envisions a system in which separate institutions fulfill different functions, rather than attempt to do it all: conduct research, compete over students, satisfy students’ demands, and make profits.

Work should begin much before students arrive at the institution of higher education. “We don’t pay enough attention to what is expected of us to do prior to students joining the institution, or after they graduate”.

What Does that Actually Mean?

“We try to instill in students a sense that their ties with the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yafo do not necessarily come to an end once they graduate. We provide assistance with their professional transition and development. From the point of making education more accessible, we cannot focus on Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action implies that we admit a quota of ‘unsuitable’ students and do our best to support them along the way. Such Affirmative Action, I think, is unwanted and inefficient. Instead, academic institutions should and can work pro-actively in marginalized, disempowered communities. They should boost the education of children and youth, from a young age until they graduate from high-school, by providing tools that allow them to make the best out of their abilities. For example, our college, in collaboration with a non-profit by the name of Psagot, operate ‘academic’ classrooms in Jaffa, which are attended by students for ten years (from the third grade), three-four times a week in the afternoon. The achievements of our graduating cohorts have so far surpassed our expectations in every scale. These high school graduates will not require Affirmative Action”.

You suggest that different institutions will be measured by different criteria. Some people would call it ‘tracking’—a stratifying system channeling some people to better institutions and others—to worse. Isn’t it unequal treatment?

“In order to make higher-education accessible, Israeli society could benefit from having community colleges, as they exist in the U.S: preparatory institutions that do not grant degrees. At the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yafo we have a program—’An Academic Touch’—for 40-50 year old residents of Jaffa who are recognized as having potential, and who are admitted into our undergraduate programs and receive personal tutoring along the process. This could have been achieved, on a much larger scale and more efficiently, if community colleges operated in Israel. Is that not unequal? Of course it is not equal. But neither is secondary education nor elementary education today, not after all the privatization they have been through. If we’re talking about betrayal we should mention the betrayal of the state in its citizens”.

In the U.S. people go to the higher-education institutions at the bottom of the pyramid, take huge loans, and leave with a degree but also with unpayable debt, so they lose more than they gain.

“Maybe, but ignorance is the worst thing, and it is that we need to fight it. Knowledge is not a guarantee for anything. You never know what happens with your knowledge or how it might be exploited. But ignorance is abhorrent, and in today’s world it might be disastrous, especially in the hands of fundamentalists—and the more ignorant you are, the more you lean towards fundamental perceptions; you are sheltered by your belief, your ideology, your community and your spiritual guides. You can live in this ignorance, and use it take over others, too. We see other societies go in this dangerous direction, and Israeli society is under an ever growing threat of ignorance”.

I try to ask Biderman for the source of this threat. When was ignorance first turned into a value? He answers sharply. “1967. this is my guess, based on a psycho-cultural, half-charlatan analysis. Since 1967 a few walls have fallen, new technologies developed, the world changed, new centers replaced old ones, but we are stuck with the same concepts and same discourse as we did in 1967, still discussing the relevance of the Temple Mount, uncritically chanting slogans whose connection with reality runs thinner and thinner”.

What is the role of academics in such a situation? What voice should they make heard?

“This is 2015. It’s going to be difficult to re-constitute the status of the intellectual as a leader. Times have changed. How can you be an intellectual in the classic sense in the age and society of internet, Facebook, shaming, gossip, no secret and no hierarchy? You cannot. Nostalgia will make no difference. We better think of a different model of an intellectual, who is influencing within academia, who is influencing the students”.

Prof. Shlomo Biderman, MTA President

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