For a few hours last week I lived on the same street as a Nobel laureate. My pride in our joint achievement quickly dissolved. I soon discovered that, though he still owns an apartment a few houses down from mine, the celebrated chemist decamped years ago to California.
My reaction seems to have been shared by the rest of the country. Our national media quickly claimed two of the Nobel prize winners as Israelis. But just as quickly we turned them into symbols of the brain drain and our declining education system.
This reaction seems like a strange case of not having our cake and eating it too. I can understand pride in the achievements of Israeli chemists. I can also understand disappointment at the failure of our universities to retain their talents. But both pride and disappointment at the same time?
Our bipolar attitude to education in Israel is not limited to Nobel prizes. Alongside profiles of the Nobel laureates, last weekend's newspapers carried reports on an international study in which, of 21 countries surveyed, Israelis had the lowest opinion of their teachers. But, paradoxically, we did not have the lowest opinion of our education system. In the words of the report: "Israel believes it has a good education system but does not trust teachers to deliver it."
These mixed emotions are a symptom of unrealistic expectations. Israel's education system is neither the world's best nor its worst. It contains pockets of excellence, still capable of nurturing exceptional talent. But, as in many other countries, these pockets are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the socially and economically disadvantaged. Public education used to be seen as the great leveler. Today, it manages at best to reproduce, and at worst to reinforce, existing gaps.
To address challenges as complex as these requires precisely the kinds of ingenuity, boldness, attention to detail and tenacity that produce breakthroughs in science. Instead of bemoaning the brain drain and our struggling education system, we should harness our best minds to closing Israel's educational gaps.
My work at the Mandel Leadership Institute brings me into contact with hundreds of applicants each year from academia, hi tech, law, and the military who want to contribute more profoundly to society and believe they can achieve this via education. And they are ready to give up better paid, higher status careers to do so. I am sure that there are many more such Israelis, here and overseas.
As the "centers of excellence" and "returning scientist" programs demonstrate, Israel's government is capable of building frameworks to bring academics home. But these and similar initiatives focus on academics' existing qualifications. What if we focused instead on the superior analytic and problem-solving abilities that underlie such qualifications, and redirected our brainpower surplus to addressing complex social problems of national importance?
We have the talent. Do we have the imagination?
The above was published in Hebrew as an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper “Yediot Ahronot” on October 23, 2013