A top-notch higher education system that promotes critical thinking is a must for an advanced economy and society. It is a prerequisite for advanced scientific research and technological expertise, both of which are crucial for economic growth. But what is a good university? What kind of education should it offer and at what cost?
"Will Dropouts Save America?," asked Michael Ellsberg in a 2011 piece published by The New York Times, a paper that reveres universities and is considered the flagship publication of the American liberal Left.
Ellsberg said most of the high-tech entrepreneurs and the drivers of the Internet economy -- from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg -- were college dropouts, having realized that they were wasting their time in class.
"American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees," Ellsberg wrote. "But we don't have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren't traditional professionals, but startup entrepreneurs. ... No business in America -- and therefore no job creation -- happens without someone buying something. But most students learn nothing about sales in college; they are more likely to take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil."
Things are much worse in Israel. Universities help shape a radical view where entrepreneurship is frowned upon. The ethos they espouse is diametrically opposed to the Zionist vision that touted hard work as the linchpin of a merit-based society. Liberal arts programs focus on "redistributing wealth" rather than on pursuing a successful career, as if wealth just descends from the heavens and simply needs to be distributed "fairly" (whatever that means).
The Naftali Building, at Tel Aviv University. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/David Shay)
What's worse is that students are told that profit is a product of exploitation and therefore any transaction is a zero-sum game. But that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Israelis students come out of university determined not to be suckers; they make sure their clients and business partners will forever be at a disadvantage. Human capital is Israel's most important asset. But in academia, the social sciences and humanities are dominated by a group of postmodern neo-Marxist zealots who shun anyone who is not like them, anyone who does not adhere to their radical economic and political principles or subscribe to their anti-capitalist ideology. They have devoided higher education of any critical thought that is grounded in reality. (Remember that dissertation that accused Israeli soldiers of racism because they wouldn't rape Palestinian women?)
Hundreds of thousands of young Israelis enter universities because they want to get a better job, only to be systematically brainwashed on dogmatic principles. They graduate from universities without the proper skills, having been denied useful information or analytical tools for what lies ahead. It is then that they realize that their hard-earned diplomas have no real value on the job market (the accumulated annual expenditure on tuition -- which is state-subsidized in many cases -- amounts to millions of shekels). Their peers might be impressed by their ability to quote Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Zizek, but that is no way to make a living. The demonstrators who took part in the social justice protests in 2011 lamented that their degrees have led them along an uncertain career path. Their concern is shared by others all over the world and it has had an adverse economic impact on Europe and the U.S.
The lack of real pluralism in Israeli universities poses an existential threat to our economy and society. Wouldn't the massive subsidies that help students obtain useless degrees -- which have no vocational value and create an inflation of hundreds of pseudo-academics -- be better spent on vocational training and real know-how?
Daniel Doron is founder-director of The Israel Center for Social & Economic Progress (ICSEP), a public policy think tank, and a fellow of the Middle East Forum.