Wednesday, April 28, 1999

Secular Education

A foundation with a splendid record in Jewish education wants to upgrade secular studies in yeshivas and day schools. Since these institutions need all the help they can get, the new initiative is welcome, although to be effective, the essential character and mission of Jewish schools needs to be respected.

Education is one of the two key functions of Jewish schools. The other – often more important – function is religious socialization, the process whereby young children are taught to understand and accept the principles of our faith. This role transcends courses and curriculum and explains why all who care about Jewish continuity now place so much hope in all-day Jewish schools, institutions that for nearly the entirety of the American Jewish experience were treated as unwanted leftovers of a Jewish past.

If Jewish schools produce graduates who go on to elite colleges and successful careers but who abandon religious commitment, they are failing in their mission.

This does not mean that educational performance is to be neglected. It cannot, if only because, after all, these are schools and what they do mostly during the hours they operate is to impart knowledge and develop intellectual and other skills. Parents would be up in arms if schools did not maintain educational standards, if subjects were not taught properly, if assignments and exams were not taken seriously, if student performance was not graded.

Jewish schools and especially yeshivas confront potent and largely immutable difficulties as they carry out their responsibilities. They have a dual program, which means that starting from a very young age, children have to be taught two sets of subject matter, almost always in two or three languages. In most places, Jewish education occupies the first half or more of the school day, with the secular program consisting primarily of basic courses and little more.

The problem of maintaining a dual educational program is intensified by the financial crunch at most Jewish schools. It costs about $10,000 a year to educate (such as it is) a public school student in New York, about double what yeshivas spend to teach Jewish kids religious and secular subjects. Our schools are, with few exceptions, badly underfunded, a condition that is reflected throughout the educational program. Libraries, labs and nearly all of the other accoutrements of a good school are inadequate or non-existent. Funds are not available to offer electives to gifted students or to provide additional attention to special students. Extracurricular activity can consist of nothing more than recess. On the secular side, the faculty is invariably made up of stringers or unlicensed seminary graduates.

In short, all of the ingredients for educational failure are abundantly on display in nearly all Jewish schools. Somehow, though, our schools manage to do a credible job and even more than that, including in the secular area. This is one of the primary findings of an ongoing study I am conducting of yeshiva and day school student performance on standard New York State examinations. The results are uneven, so that girls perform better than boys and students at chassidic schools do not do as well as those who attend elsewhere. There is, as is true of all human contrivances, a measure of failure and more than a little room for improvement. Overall, the record is laudatory.

Why this is so may be a mystery to outsiders who cannot see how a strong performance can emerge in schools that operate under such severe limitations or, more likely, have come to believe the worst about yeshivas. People who are familiar with the workings of our schools, including admissions officials at first-rate colleges and professional schools, know that for all of the time and financial pressures they face, Jewish schools produce exceptional graduates.

One reason for the unexpectedly strong outcome can be summed up in a single word: commitment. This is manifested when underpaid teachers, in both the religious and secular program, devote long hours at home to prepare their lessons and find ways of reaching out to students beyond the ordinary classroom experience.

There is a culture of learning and study in our schools that compensates – not entirely, but in large measure – for programmatic and even attitudinal shortcomings. Students in Jewish schools are, in the aggregate, serious-minded. They are not distracted by outside elements and certainly not by the social pathologies that have harmed too many bright students in elite secular schools. When students in Jewish schools set their mind to educational tasks, including subjects that may be regarded as of lesser consequence, the outcome invariably is impressive. This affinity for serious study stands yeshiva graduates in good stead when they enter the job market or take graduate and professional training, often after they have concluded their seminary study.

This picture of yeshiva education is not the one that we usually get. We are told of corruption – which must be severely criticized and never condoned – in a small number of schools, as if this is the pattern everywhere. We read of writers and people of accomplishment who look back with disdain at their yeshiva education, without any thought being given to the possibility that the skills or discipline acquired during the yeshiva years had anything to do with their later success. Worst of all, we are given a distorted and invariably ugly description of how yeshiva graduates fare financially. They are depicted as parasites in language that comes dangerously close to the language used traditionally by anti-Semites.

The truth is that nearly all adult Orthodox men, including those who are referred to as charedim, work, as do many of the women. They are lawyers, teachers, communal employees, accountants, computer experts, technicians, doctors and medical personnel. They work at large firms where they are regarded as devoted and trustworthy employees. Among chassidim especially, there is an entrepreneurial instinct which already has an important bearing on the economic profile of the community.

The further truth is that despite their hard work, many have difficulty making ends meet. Those in communal positions, including teachers, are badly underpaid. Family size is a critical factor, as is the cost of living an observant life, specifically tuition but other expenses as well. Residual job discrimination takes a toll, as does their nearly total lack of geographical mobility. As a consequence, many of the Orthodox take a second job, wives work (usually part-time), parents help out and there is a measure of reliance by a minority on communal and governmental benefits.

None of this alters the basic picture of hard work or the extraordinary ongoing value of their yeshiva education. Of course, more Orthodox Jews are poorer than the non-Orthodox, but instead of seeing the dignity – indeed the spirituality – of thousands of people who struggle constantly to make ends meet and who go daily to their jobs and do them well, the goodness of these people is denigrated, at times by know-nothing writers who employ the mantle of sociology to transmit their hate and bigotry.

What I write here will have no impact. We are far from the point when the cascades of hatred flowing toward the Orthodox will cease. It is remarkable how so many secular Jews who claim to embrace tolerance and enlightenment can display so much prejudice toward their fellow Jews. As yet, there is no way to stop those who traffic in hate, especially since it masquerades at times as scholarship.

Still, the effort must be made and the truth must be written. At long last, is there any decency left in our community? Are we incapable of stopping the bigotry?