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Leave politics out the classroom

A teacher's job is to create intellectual space for students to arrive at their own conclusions

“A true teacher defends his students against his own personal influences”, wrote teacher, writer and philosopher, Amos Bronson Scott.

I was reminded of the words of this great educational reformer of the nineteenth century when I heard about the recent furor surrounding Adam Verta, a civics teacher at Kiryat Tivon’s Ort Greenberg High School. Verta was recently accused by at least one of his students of making derogatory, and perhaps inflammatory, statements about the IDF and the State of Israel.

The Ort education system summoned Verta to a hearing and gave him a stern warning against repeating his classroom behavior. Ort representatives said that such statements have no room in the classroom. Unfortunately, Verta has been presented by his advocates and ideological fellow-travelers as a victim of an infringement of freedom of speech and thought.

Actually, the opposite is true.

Having been a teacher for more than 15 years and, until recently, the Deputy Director of the School of Education at Bar-Ilan University, I am proud to say that I never allowed my students to recognize my political or ideological leanings in the classroom. I saw it as an achievement that students frequently told me that they felt that they did not have a thorough grasp of my personal opinions on controversial subjects.

The job of a teacher is to create intellectual space for the student to choose his or her own path, and arrive at their own conclusions on complex and frequently controversial matters such as politics, the relationship between a citizen and the state and the peace process. Their role should not extend beyond providing students the tools to make informed decisions for themselves.

The educator can invigilate open discussions on any given subject and assist a student to explore and develop their personal understanding of an issue.

However, the teacher who dispenses their ideological or political worldview is failing their students and their chosen profession in a number of areas.

Firstly, a teacher is a trusted figure and if they claim a point of view on a particular subject it will have undue influence on the student, and frequently the student will not be presented with an alternative position, thus rendering an intellectually dishonest space in the classroom.

Secondly, those students who hold a contrary position may feel intimidated to enunciate it in class or describe it in their work for fear of receiving low marks or failing.

Thirdly, there can be a very thin line between teaching and indoctrinating. Many students may be presented with issues which they are not intimately familiar with and will take the ideological and political views as statements of fact as they would other areas of an educational curriculum.

Thus, as opposed to those who claim that the action taken against Verta is a form of “silencing”, the contrary is true.

Verta’s actions are a form of silencing informed debate, imaginative, broad and open discussions and are a dispensary of intellectual dishonesty.

For too long, in parts of Israeli academia, especially at the highest levels and particularly in the social sciences, there is a general atmosphere of intimidation against those who do not hold a particular worldview.

A striking example of a “thought police” atmosphere permeating academic circles was the decision by the University of Haifa to veto an honorary PhD to Nobel Prize Winner Prof. Robert Aumann, because, according to Ha’aretz who broke the story, he holds right-wing political positions that contradict the university’s values.

Even more recently, as a member of the Knesset Education Committee, I called for an explanation from Haifa University officials when it was reported that its legal clinics are used disproportionately for those accused of acts of terrorism and nationally-motivated murder.

What this, the Professor Aumann case and Verta’s indoctrination have in common is the lack of a free and unfettered intellectual space in some of Israel’s educational institutions. That this is spreading to Israeli high schools should be deeply concerning to all of us regardless of our political views.

Unrepentant political and ideological views have no place in a teacher’s educational curriculum. They are free as individuals to espouse any view they desire outside of the classroom with their peers. However, while they are in the classroom they have a specific mandate and that it is to educate, not to indoctrinate or intimidate.

Even if one student feels that they are alienated because of a teacher’s political diatribe, then that teacher has failed their profession. This is what happened in the Verta case and this is what we should be protecting our children against.

About the Author
Shimon Ohayon is a Member of Knesset for Yisrael Beytenu and Chairman of the Knesset Caucuses for the Struggle Against Antisemitism and the Rights of Jewish Refugees from Arab Countries.