It was 30 years ago this month that Dan Shechtman first spotted something that science considered impossible: crystals with a five-sided shape – “material with pentagonal symmetry.”
Undeterred that he was seeing something that everyone else was telling him, often derisively, simply wasn’t there, Shechtman, quietly indomitable, refused to be swayed from his conviction that he had discovered quasicrystals – refused, that is, to doubt the evidence of his own work.
Gradually, he prevailed over the skeptics. And last year, finally, came the most resonant of vindications when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – remarkably becoming the third Technion scientist in seven years to be so honored.
In his address to the Nobel banquet in Sweden last December, Shechtman declared that scientists have an obligation “to promote education, rational thinking and tolerance.” True to that conviction, the laureate has used his new-found celebrity in recent months to plead for reforms in Israeli education – to ensure not only that the very best brains get the nurturing from which he benefited, but also that entire sectors of Israeli society, notably the ultra-Orthodox, receive the basic education vital to becoming a productive part of society.
Tel Aviv-born Shechtman, 71, seems quite unchanged by fame. He remarked in a video address to a Technion-related event in the US last year that he couldn’t walk down the street in the weeks after the award without being stopped every few paces by Israelis offering congratulations … and seemed both surprised and delighted by the experience. He answers the phone with a cheery, “Shalom, Danny speaking.” And he’s still seeing things that others might want to insist aren’t there – specifically, in this interview, the dangers of Israeli society fracturing because of lousy education and fundamental inequalities.
You’ve been very critical of Israeli education. We’re on the eve of Independence Day. Constructively, how can we make it better?
I’m always constructive. I see the root of the education crisis in the primary and secondary schools. Academia is doing a fairly good job. The root of the problem is the teachers. Some are great. But too many of them are not capable of being good role models. They can’t control the classes. They lose too much time trying to create a learning environment.
So what is to be done?
Salaries are low and will stay so for the foreseeable future. Some Arab sectors have good educators, especially in chemistry. They can’t find jobs, so they become teachers. In some religious schools, they see teaching as a mission and so they’re not so worried by low salaries. But overall, this current system with colleges for teacher training is faulty. The government funds teaching training colleges per capita. If a college can attract 300 students, the government says, we’ll fund 300 students. So, of course the college will do everything to get 300 students. There are too many colleges and there’s competition for students. They accept everybody. And I mean everybody. That means low-quality entrants. The graduates can’t teach because they were not chosen properly.
And the solution?
The government should fund quality, and not quantity. It should create a bar – a standard – and below that bar there should be no government sponsorship. The bar should be based on final examination results in high school and psychotechnic tests.
Will there be enough teachers that way?
We’ll see. Colleges will try to get the good students. That’s the way to go. When I chaired my department of Materials Engineering at the Technion in 1990, we started a program for which we set the bar very high. It was the highest at the Technion, above electrical engineering and medicine. Everyone said, ‘You’re nuts. You’ll only get five students.’ I said, ‘Ok, if it’s five, so be it.’ We actually had 15 and now there are 70. And they’re all good. If you open a program for all, you don’t get good and bad, you only get bad. The good people look for challenges. When teaching becomes a prestigious profession, then you’ll get good people.
In the Far East, some small countries – Singapore, Taiwan – select one in 10 candidates to be teachers. We should learn from that. Israel, in general, should learn from other nations. We have a tendency to teach the world. In many cases, we should learn from the world, because they make advances.
You’ve also said that the government should fine those schools that don’t teach a core curriculum.
Yes. Schools that don’t teach the basic curriculum required by the Ministry of Education should not be funded by the state. You don’t teach what the state wants? Then you pay. We won’t.
And if a parent prevents his child from obtaining an education that would enable him to obtain a profession in the future, this is child abuse. Not teaching the child, not giving him the chance to feed his family in the future, parents that do this should be punished.
That’s not up to me. But it’s idiotic.
It’s the state that has allowed this abuse.
Absolutely. For political reasons, the state made terrible mistakes, one after the other. And the people who demanded this, their power is growing all the time. We have more and more ignorant people, who want their people to be as ignorant as they are.
Let me explain this in terms of percolation. Take a metallic conductor, a bar of copper, let’s say. If you put a bubble in the center, conductivity will go down a little. Add more and more tiny little bubbles, and conductivity goes down and down, a little at a time. And then, at some point, it goes to zero. It doesn’t approach zero slowly. It goes gradually down and then, whump, to zero.
I believe societies fail in the same way. You don’t feel we’re declining. There are indicators here and there, but it doesn’t feel catastrophic. And then whump.
You can imagine what will happen to our society when the productive Israelis say “We won’t take this anymore. We want to provide for our families and not everybody else’s.” It will break society. There’ll be clashes internally. The law should be enforced equally on everyone. You can’t do whatever you want and be supported by everyone else.
Do you realistically see this changing?
It has to be stopped, but the system is such in Israel that I don’t see how it can be stopped.
Have you raised these concerns with Israel’s leaders? Do they listen?
Yes, they do. And they say, “1. You’re right 2. We’re working on it 3. But there are political constraints.”
Have you spoken to Education Minister Gideon Saar?
I speak to them all. The president, the prime minister and ministers. Nobody says, “Danny, you don’t see the whole picture.” But, they say, “The system moves slowly. And more and more Haredim do take part in the economy.” Which may be true.
The phenomenon that I described with percolation also reflects what’s happening in the Arab world. Before, there was some trouble and then, total failure.
So, the Arab Spring is a disaster?
Well, I don’t see that it’s good for the Arabs. I do not see that the new regimes will be better than the old regimes. I’m still waiting to see something good coming out of it. There is turmoil in Libya and Egypt. Living standards and GDP are going down dramatically. It’s bad news for now.
Sixty-four years from now, will Israel be around? Will humanity?
Yes to both.
Phew. Great. I can look at my kids with more confidence tonight.
Yes, tell your children that Danny said so. There’s no other choice. But we have to correct our ways in education and in (equality before the) law.
And as for the world?
Yes, it’ll be here, but it also needs to change its ways. Now. Take oil for cars, for example. I’m told there’s enough for 100 years. As we move toward the end of that period, prices will go up. Poor countries won’t be able to sustain their standards of living — especially those countries that are selling their natural resources now. African countries — they’re selling mainly to China and they have short-term increases in standards of living. But it will stop one day. People will fight for the remaining resources. Countries are artificial arrangements. They will disintegrate. People are generically tribal.
This really is a bleak view.
Yes, we’ll see caravans of refugees moving north to Europe, to the successful countries. It’s already started. The refugees flowing into Israel today? It will continue. The phenomenon is here to stay.
Since we’ve covered so much depressing ground, I might just as well ask you how worried you are about the Iranian threat to Israel.
My feeling is that the Iranians and the Israelis will be friends. When they get rid of the ayatollahs — and they will — we will be friends.
Will there need to be military intervention first to stop the regime getting the bomb?
I don’t see the whole picture. Don’t ask me things that Netanyahu can answer.