The Internet is a great boon, and great rival, to contemporary education. It is at the center of a debate that comes up every year at the start of the school year -- is it the school system's job to equip students with knowledge and information or merely to help them form opinions? Does it have the ability to educate for values or not? (Writer and politician Yizhar Smilansky, aka S. Yizhar, believed the answer was no.)
Educators who call themselves progressive argue that teaching the nitty gritty details is unnecessary. Former Education Minister Professor Yuli Tamir falls into this category, as does the current Education Minister Shai Piron. They want to enhance students' understanding of the material. And if students need particular facts, they can always look them up on the Internet.
But the more conservative view is that a student's opinion is worth bubkes if it is not based on thorough knowledge of the facts.
As a member of this conservative school of thought, I envied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday for summing up many of my thoughts in a single sentence. "Before teaching a young person to think 'outside the box,'" he said, "they need to know what 'the box' is."
The progressive school of thought is based on the idea that if we don't force students to take standardized tests and matriculation exams, classroom learning will be a joy. This is a romantic, unrealistic approach. If there is no history test on the canonization of the Mishnah, or geometry quiz on the congruence of triangles, high school students are unlikely to tackle these subjects on their own. Instead, they will pursue the latest entertainment or temptation that the Internet has to offer.
People cannot fully develop culturally when they believe the Internet is always there to make up for their lack of knowledge. To be the kind of person who can "think outside the box," you need to internalize a broad base of facts and only use the Internet to add another layer to your knowledge.
Israel invests huge sums of money in education and receives relatively little in return. There are three necessary remedies for this, from the easy to the difficult.
Elevating schools' status. This would require improving discipline. On the day when well-to-do parents stop taking their children out of school in the middle of the year for ski vacations, the process will be underway. The problem is that there are apathetic teachers as interested in doing nothing as the students are.
Students must internalize the logic required to prove the quadratic equation step by step before pattering on about the meaning of algebra in life. And they should be able to recite Haim Nahman Bialik's poems about abandoning the halls of Torah study -- by heart ("Everyone was carried away by the wind/ everyone was enthralled by the light") before opining on the significance of the Jewish Haskalah movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Opinions are worthless without knowledge.
There is also a need for ideological education based on our national consensus. For instance, not just to talk about the importance of strengthening our connection to the land, but to actually create a norm where yerida (emigration from Israel) is looked down upon, morally and ethically.
This debate revives at the start of every school year and will not end for a long time. In the meantime, welcome first graders. Welcome all students.