Teaching History in Israel and the World
Prof. Yoav Gelber
Translated by Elisheva Hecht
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For years, Israeli society has been in a state of bewilderment. It has been experiencing conflict over its identity, sources of authority and ethos. The line of division is the Six Day War – the elimination of the existential threat eroded the ethos of one for all in favor of self-fulfillment.
Under market and political pressures, educational institutions – universities, colleges and schools – speculate over the quality of their national purpose (and if they even have one), over their social function and over their academic and educational direction. The public controversies over the teaching of history in universities and schools reflect the Zionist movement's loss of direction. Historians consider the contradictions between the extent and profundity of scientific work on the past and their desire to influence the present by means of participation in debates in the public sphere. Often the submission to the constraints of the media lowers the level of historical discussion and confines it to the framework, language, time and scope of television talk shows and newspaper opinion columns.
In academia, the discipline of history has been split into a number of sub-disciplines, to the extent that it may be becoming too eclectic. Despite the scope of the disciplines and the variety of their subjects, the position of the discipline of history in Israel is on the decline. The number of students is dwindling, and the relative ease of acceptance is often what persuades students to choose history, and students are met with the postmodernist, post-Zionist and relativist approaches of some of their educators, who are intolerant of other approaches. These trends tailor the character of high school history teachers to be less qualified and more conformist.
In an era of mandatory education, when history classes are obligatory for at least some years, the entire population is exposed to the curriculums, syllabuses, textbooks and teachers of history. Schools in general, and specifically history classes, are a key tool that influences the "collective memory" and instills it in our youth.
Since the nineties, post-Zionist academic scholars seeking to destroy the Israeli "collective memory" blamed the public school system for indoctrinating students (as they claimed), and instead of instilling values originating from national history they emphasize the postmodernist view which presents different narratives and their political functions. However, unlike universities, schools must educate their students, not provide them with disciplinary training. The dubious contemporary Israeli practice – concealing national history by merging it with world history – reverses the proper order in which things should be done.
A curriculum must present the few basic concepts that a society wishes to instill in (or teach) its future generation, and not what students (or their parents) wish to acquire (or learn). There will always be discontented teachers, parents and students. Teachers will adapt the curriculum to their personal approach to teaching and to history, and to a certain extent this is legitimate. Certain parents will always be critical of the curriculum and they have the means at their disposal by which they may and even should be able to partially influence it. Better students will not be satisfied with what their school has to offer and may be directed to additional sources of information beyond the textbook. Other students may have difficulty grasping the basic concepts presented in such a curriculum, but the large majority should fall between these two extremes and should be the target population the curriculum attempts to reach.
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