Forward Thinking

Shimon Peres's Civics 'Class' That Wasn't

By Nathan Jeffay

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Shimon Peres / Getty Images

Israel’s President Shimon Peres has just secured his second appearance in the Guinness Book of Records. But he missed an opportunity when setting his new record yesterday.

I was excited to watch Peres — who is already in the book as oldest head of state — teach the largest ever civics class, using videoconferencing to connect with 9,000 students from across Israel’s ethnic divides. And he started well, talking about the importance of knowledge. He said that money “comes and goes” while knowledge endures, and if we all read three times a day like we eat three times a day, we would be in a good position. Even at his age, he said, he’s still learning.

In a country where teachers all too often talk at students, this looked promising. The President was becoming a teacher for the day.

Not many people of his age would have the charm, vision and appeal to address such a huge number of youngsters, and it was moving to see him do so. But he could have done much more with the opportunity.

Instead of engaging with the challenges of teaching, instead of engaging with the kids, and instead of engaging with the civics curriculum, he went on to do exactly what he does nearly every day — give an address in which he delivered his thoughts on wisdom, coexistence, technology etc. The style, the ideas, and many of the words were the same. Why is it that when other people try a new job, such as the kids who become mayors for a day, they try to learn about the profession and jump into the mindset of the people who hold that job — while Peres, instead of becoming a teacher, was just his normal president self?

Had this been billed as a chance for kids to watch an amazing old man deliver insights for life, it would have been great. But it wasn’t. The kids were promised a class and got the equivalent of a Sunday afternoon listening to their (admittedly wise) grandpas. He took only a handful of (rehearsed) questions and didn’t exploit the two-way communication that videoconference facilitates for listening as well as talking. If it resembled a lesson, it was only because of the worst aspects of the Israeli school system — frontal teaching with a lack of creative interaction between teachers and students.

Peres gave a good speech, just like he does for politicians and business leaders. But was it really a class? The Guinness Book of Records says yes. I would beg to differ.


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