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The end of the Age of Enlightenment

Reducing the study of geography and expanding studies of the Land of Israel will make it difficult for school graduates to understand the world in the 21st century

Too much Land of Israel

By Yitzhak Shanel

It was recently announced that the Ministry of Education is uniting the subjects of Land of Israel Studies and Geography in the middle school curriculum. In response, hundreds of teachers signed a petition against the harm to the geography profession and teachers.

Concern for teachers' jobs is not the main issue for discussion. Given the processes of globalization, the subject of geography is extremely important in the curriculum today. Without knowing the world, it will be difficult for school graduates to understand the weather forecast on television, the background for understanding international conflicts or natural phenomena presented in the news. The teaching of geography also serves value goals, such as love of the homeland, recognition and appreciation of different and foreign cultures, responsibility for the environment and developing sensitivity to the economic disparities between the first world and the third world. Hence, even in countries such as the United States, where there was a retreat in the study of geography in the 80s, the studies of the profession were strengthened in the last two decades.

As the president of the Israeli Geographical Society, I have been struggling for about two years with attempts to reduce the teaching of geography. Many at the top of the Ministry of Education share the opinion that it is important to deepen and expand the teaching of the profession. I agree with their opinion but also believe that there is no need to expand the teaching of the Land of Israel within the geography teaching, since more than a third of the hours are already allocated to the study of the Land of Israel. Beyond that, studies of the Land of Israel include many hours of history, which has already become the dominant subject in the history curriculum, after undergoing a similar process of deepening the teaching of studies of the People of Israel and the Land of Israel at the expense of the teaching of general history.

The intention of a speaking committee to reduce the number of subjects and expand their content is correct and worthy of support. Indeed, I proposed to the Ministry of Education to build an integrated program that would include geography, environmental studies and Israel studies in one expanded subject, where Israel studies would remain a quarter of the scope of the overall program, alongside environmental studies (a quarter) and basic knowledge of geography with more advanced knowledge (half). This subject will address a series of topics that are central to a relevant general education of a person in the 21st century. Therefore, this extended subject must be part of the core program and the main subjects in the curriculum.

The Ministry of Education probably agrees with this assessment, because the subject of the environment has recently been included in the curricula, and it is a good thing. But a dream come true, the Professional Committee for Environmental Studies commissioned a textbook from writers who are geographers by profession, and it plans to provide training to hundreds of teachers who studied biology in seminars and universities to teach a geography subject in which they were not trained. At the same time, the ministry is laying off geography teachers due to the reduction in the teaching of the subject.

Why, then, is the subject of geography united with Israel studies? It seems that there is a nationalist trend here, the result of pressure from political parties, to direct the students to study the Land of Israel at the expense of a general education in history - and now also in geography. The person behind these positions is Prof. Yaakov Katz, head of the Pedagogical Secretariat at the Ministry of Education. One must ask, if he acts from professional or political motives.

We must be careful of educating a generation that lacks a general education, that does not know and does not understand the world beyond the borders of the homeland. The middle east has been a mandatory field in middle school geography until today. Is it conceivable that the residents of Israel will not learn anything about the region in which we seek to integrate?

Already today we are suffering from a setback in the teaching of geography. A study that examined the geographical knowledge of 270 high school graduates in Israel shows that their grades are lower than the average grade of students in Europe by about 12 points on average. Students who studied geography in high school obtained grades similar to the grades of students in Europe, but most students only studied geography until middle school, and these obtained low grades by about 20 points (out of 100) in knowing the world and understanding basic concepts in geography.

Beyond the concern for the professional future of the geography teachers, we should all be concerned that under the scepter of the head of the Pedagogical Secretariat in the Ministry of Education, a curriculum is taking shape that will educate narrow-minded graduates, to national values ​​only. The ministry's meager budgets were spent on retraining biology teachers to teach geography. Does an advisory committee propose organizational changes to advance these goals? I am satisfied.

Prof. Shanel is the head of the Department of Geography and the Human Environment at Tel Aviv University and the President of the Israel Geographical Society

Avirama Golan also addressed this issue in a personal column in which she writes, among other things, that geography teachers and professionals in this important field were shaken by the intention of the heads of the Ministry of Education, as published last week, to soon unite the subject of general geography with the geography of the Land of Israel. They fear that it will be swallowed up by the entire profession and that the universal concept of space will be lost in the lessons of the "homeland", until the concept of "geography" is erased from the world of associations of school graduates in Israel.

"The Ministry of Education claims that the fear is not justified. The chairman of the pedagogical secretariat at the ministry, Prof. Yaakov Katz, said (Haaretz, 23.2), that the unification of related fields - such as chemistry and biochemistry, general history and the history of the people of Israel - creates a logical sequence in the curriculum. The reasoning sounds convincing. The unification of the two branches of the history subject, for example, caused an uproar, but in the eyes of many historians it was justified: before the unification, in high school they studied the Holocaust separately and the Second World War separately, as if they were two different periods, whereas after the unification the history of the Second World War was studied in an integrative way. "

However, as true and justified as it may seem, the result of unifying the fields of history is a reduction in the study hours of the subject. A similar fate awaits the studies of literature, which will be united with the fields close to them, language and expression, into one field, which will be called "Hebrew".

The students will soon receive less general literature, less history of the world and citizenship and less geography (and actually also less "Knowledge of the Land"). In short - less of everything defined as "humanities": less general education, less cultural connections, less linguistic richness and less engagement in cultivating intellectual curiosity.

What will the students get instead of all these? What most parents want, apparently, and the Ministry of Education is quick to give: more calculus, more English, more economics, if possible. More practical and technological basis and more sophisticated tools that will allow them to acquire a lucrative profession. The education system - from kindergarten to university - thus defines itself as a provider of skill services, which has no responsibility for the education of its "consumers" or their non-physical design.

Some argue that Israel cannot now deal with trifles such as literature and geography when its most urgent task is to catch up with the dizzying pace of high-tech development and the global market. The Israeli student, for example, the Minister of Finance, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been claiming for years, must - if he wants to survive - be equipped with the most sophisticated skill set. Only then will he be able to compete in Finland or South Korea, for example.

This is a mistaken assumption: it is possible to study advanced English and not know who Shakespeare is, to memorize mathematical formulas without being exposed to the wonderful magic of the history of scientific thought, to recite economic models without understanding social history, and to hear a brilliant lecture by an advertiser on leadership without knowing leaders in general or Jewish history. It is also possible to excel in the matriculation exams without going into the depths of the contexts that distinguish an ignorant technocrat from a broad-minded cultured person.

But skills disconnected from education and broad thinking cultivate narrow-minded people, whose abilities do not rise beyond what they were trained to do. Even if you agree, for the purpose of the discussion, that it is possible to give up education for humanism, liberalism and democracy, senior officials in high-tech and the business world are already accepting, even before the reduction of education and spirit in the education system is completed, about a lack of young people with imagination, boldness and creative thinking. And most of the Israeli science and high-tech geniuses grew up in the old education system, which forced them to memorize Bible chapters and medieval poetry in Hebrew and Rudyard Kipling in English, and to weed weeds in agriculture classes.

The Ministry of Education is eager to correct the position of Israeli students in the international achievement tests, but it does so while crushing the status of the teacher and eliminating the humanistic spirit and thought. No chart of achievements will be able to measure the damage this will cause to Israel, the country of the people who brought the book into the world.

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