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A liberal arts student in the Start Up Nation

Science and tech are very important to Israel's future, but so are the thinking skills students pick up in the humanities and social sciences

“What are you planning on doing with your degree once you graduate?” people ask me. All. The. Time.

And I guess it’s a fair question since I’m a student at Israel’s first and (currently) only liberal arts college, majoring in philosophy and Jewish Thought.

My answer is always the same: I’m debating whether to hang it in the bathroom or in the hallway but I have two more years to figure it out so there’s no rush.

But point taken.

This question is common and not only to students at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Liberal Arts degrees constantly fall subject to critical assault from the practically minded and the fiscally concerned.

Courtesy of Shalem College

In Israel, the concept of liberal arts is even more of an underdog. In a country that has adopted the European system of higher education, where prospective students apply not to a university but to a specific major, Shalem College is an anomaly. The Start Up Nation does not know what to make of the broad, liberal arts curriculum which does not attempt to train students in a specific profession.

Israel is home to some of the world’s best universities and these schools produce leading experts in numerous fields. Rarely, however, are these experts exposed to anything beyond their focused field of study while in university. The reason for this is clear. By the time Israelis make it to degree programs (after 2+ years in the army and a trip around the world), their academic approach is almost exclusively pragmatic. Although understandable, Israel’s compartmentalized education is very different from the concept of liberal arts.

From my personal experience, however, I have begun to realize that not only is there not a contradiction between Israeli culture and liberal arts education, the former is actually lacking without the latter. I am not arguing that liberal arts should replace the academic system of higher education in Israel but I do believe that liberal arts needs to be an available alternative to the purely vocational system currently reigning supreme in the Start Up Nation.

Degrees are important for many careers but specific degrees are necessary for only a few professions. Thanks to educational inflation, even many of the more academically demanding professions don’t care what undergraduate degree applicants hold and now require MAs and PhDs. It also can’t be ignored that on-the-job training is often barely related to what young professionals studied in school, making the most relevant degrees the ones which grant their students a broad education that can be applied to numerous fields of professions; an education that teaches them not what to think but rather how to think.

Courtesy of Shalem College

This kind of education is intended to orient its students historically, culturally, intellectually and, hopefully, morally as well. Orientation of this nature is generally ignored in the majority of scientific and vocational degrees. While this is perhaps justifiable in fields like physics, chemistry and biology, it doesn’t work too well in the arts or the humanities. The sciences find relevancy only in what is cutting edge but the arts and humanities are inherently connected to and influenced by historical sources. These fields are in constant dialogue with the past and must therefore contextually orient their students in order to continue the conversation.

A nation’s culture is not like a technical science that is only interested in the most recent and advanced developments. A nation’s culture is deeply rooted in history and tradition. Culture must develop but it is impossible to build onto foundations to which one is oblivious. Like the arts and humanities, progressive cultural narratives demand the orientation of a liberal arts education.

It is precisely this orientation that is slipping away from modern Israeli culture. The Jewish Nation of today is largely directionless and caught in political and cultural stalemates. Whether with regards to the peace process or overcoming the religious/secular divide, in modern day Israel, progress seems to be stuck more often than not. This lack of progress isn’t surprising and can be ascribed to the adolescent growing pains of a young country, caught in a tumultuous region and trying desperately to understand numerous contradictions within itself (Democratic vs Jewish, Eastern vs Western, Religious vs Secular, Traditional vs Modern, etc.).

But I think much of the directional confusion of the young Jewish state is symptomatic of a failure on the part of the educational system.

The end to the “post-Zionist” panic will not come with time alone, and simply improving tactics is no replacement for a lack of strategy. Real change that will address the nature of Israel’s future will only come through the influence of proper educational orientation that doesn’t dictate a specific solution but provides a more effective approach to understanding issues and addressing conflicting narratives on both sides of any divide.

Now I’m going to be honest, it is not always easy to study liberal arts and it is not always so moving an experience as The Dead Poet Society would have us believe (no matter how many times you call your literature professor “my captain”). Over the course of my degree, I constantly swing between two opposite extremes. At times, I feel remarkably educated and accomplished; enriched by the “Great Books” I’ve read cover to cover and the big questions I’ve spent time considering and discussing with my peers. At other times, I feel incredibly disillusioned with the humanities and fall into the temporary anxiety that I’m wasting four years of my life studying subjects that are disconnected from practical reality. But I think this tension is the unavoidable byproduct of educational awareness that can be dizzying at times but ultimately grants one the ability to choose what is important and where to search for meaning.

So I’m not sure what I’ll do once I finish my degree at Shalem College. But that’s okay. I’m not bothered by questions.

About the Author
Hayim Ezra Ani was born and raised in Baltimore, MD. He moved to Israel in 2008 and is currently studying philosophy and Jewish thought at Shalem College in Jerusalem.
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