This is just one in a series of ongoing posts on the educational innovations in Israel. You can see additional coverage here.
In the United States, youth have become what school critics like John Taylor Gatto refer to as infantilized. Their days and activities are structured by what adults tell them to do. They view their work as disconnected from them, having little relevance or meaning in their lives.
In many cases they are right. Their responsibility is to hand in work that most of the time an adult told them to do. Their final accomplishment is represented not by a body of work that is meaningful to them and shared with with others; instead, it is represented by a one-page transcript that encapsulates years of testing, assessing, and work that was “turned in.” This work has no real audience and almost never sees the light of day beyond the classroom or school.
While in school, these students have little responsibility beyond themselves, and have only limited control over where they go and what they do. Unlike previous generations, the percentage of employed teens has declined significantly from about 36% in the 90s to about 16% today for high school students and from about 60% in the 90s to about 47% today (Source: Child Trends Data Bank). Students move from the doors of high school to those of college where their first two years are usually prescribed. Majors are often chosen without much contact with what the course of study entails, and without meaningful experience that could help them make an informed decision.
About half of those who enter college exit without a degree. Of the half of those dumped out on the other end are unemployed or underemployed. Those who graduate often don’t pursue careers related to their field studied in college. Those who do generally assimilate to the company culture operating as they have their whole lives. They do what they are told, how they are told to do it, when they are told it should be done, moving to and from their cubes under florescent lights. They go through the motions, unfulfilled. Just another cog in the machine.
To remedy this it is not uncommon for the unemployed, underemployed, and unfulfilled to go back to school. This makes sense, as many professions that previously required only a bachelor’s degree, now require advanced study. This extends the dependency of young people on school well into what had traditionally been early adult life. Individuals are prevented from taking up their own important work until a relatively advanced age. As a result, what we regard as adult maturity and independent life happens late. This affects schools little as they are not usually reviewed based on student employment. It affects students as potential candidates though. Back in the workforce, employers are left looking at candidates without much meaningful experience and little to show for all the time they’ve spent under a school’s umbrella. Employment rates for graduates is one concern. Finding work that is fulfilling is another. (Sources: Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, Money, USA Today)
Does any of this sound familiar?
What if there was a way to change this scenario?
During my #VibeEdu Innovation in Education Tour organized by Vibe Israel, a non-profit focused on improving how people think about Israel, I discovered an undercurrent: Service in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is credited for being one of the most effective strategies for preparing young people for college and careers. As Saul Singer, author of StartUp Nation explained over a dinner which was part of the tour, given the choice, companies would prefer to hire a 20-something who has served in the IDF over a young person who has not. This is due in part because serving results in a culture of young people who are capable, think logistically and thoroughly and are problem solvers. The other important factor is that the IDF ensures both businesses and colleges know how to read a military resume.
#VibeEdu dinner with Saul Singer.
That's the back of my head in the front left of the photo.
Saul doesn’t just write about it; he lives it. He moved from America to Israel because he felt it was a better place to raise children. His, like most Jews in Israel, served in the military. During my stay in Israel I met many parents who brought their children to the country for the same reason. I also met several citizens are or have been Lone Soldiers. These are youth who come to Israel from other countries looking for the direction, discipline, guidance, and the leadership and other experiences one receives when serving in the IDF.
As an American in Israel, seeing uniformed teens walking around the country with rifles is chilling and uncomfortable. For Jewish Israeli adults not only is this the norm, they each had the experience of carrying a weapon themselves, and learned to fire it. They understand that there is a world and society that is bigger than themselves, and it is their job to be part of it.
Not only that, because Israelis serve in this way, they get another 2 or 3 years to mature before they begin preparing for the “real life” of college and work. This maturity and experience provides them with a more developed perspective as they pursue their future. What’s more the people I spoke with conveyed that not serving in the IDF was a marker of having failed to pass a crucial step similar to not graduating high school. There was a sense that those who didn’t have the opportunity to serve were locked out of opportunities. Many of the schools we visited had a mission to place young people on track toward service.
These disadvantaged students who are studying marine biology at Mevo'ot Yam Youth Village
Life in the IDF may not be, as one expects, on a battlefield. While this may be where some spend some of their time, much of the time soldiers are gaining experience in a wide variety of areas. The army is the breeding ground for STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math). While in Israel I met young women from the military at MindCET, one of the world's leading educational technology accelerators, who were coding programs to support engaging and interactive learning experiences. I met young men at the Mevo’ot Yam Youth Village with plans to enter the navy to pursue marine biology. Many go into the area of intelligence. Young people are provided with an arena to do real work and accept responsibility.
When they have completed their service, unlike in the United States where many who served in the military struggle to find careers as civilians, young Israelis are coveted for their skills and experience. This is because the country teaches universities and employers how to read a military resume.
So should other countries require all citizens to join the military?
Saul Singer says no. But he advises that there is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t find other ways to challenge youth in situations where taking charge is a must, results really matter, and they are doing work that requires them to see the world as bigger than themselves. In the U.S. there are many teens who would like to do their part to help others, improve communities, and make a difference through meaningful work. There are opportunities here through the military, but not all want to join the military. What if all teens had to do something that helps their country and their communities? What would be the result?
Interested in learning more about Vibe Israel’s #VibeEdu Tour? Check out the tour site here or follow their work at:
Photo credit: Amit Shemesh - www.amitshemesh.com