Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Jewish Textbooks

The primary test – perhaps the only test – to determine the suitability of a textbook is whether it does the job, whether it provides students with the knowledge and skills that are required to go up the educational ladder and prepare for adulthood. Judged by this standard, the literature books developed by Mosdos and ArtScroll have succeeded. They are attractively produced, itself a critical factor to determine whether a textbook is an appropriate educational tool, and they contain challenging material.

They are not Jewish texts, although they are the product of what might be regarded as Jewish creativity. They are intended, in any case, for a considerably larger audience than can be provided by Orthodox institutions. If they do not succeed in penetrating this extended market, their economic viability is certain to be compromised. Just the same, it is to be hoped that a sufficient number of day schools and yeshivas will place orders, for this basic source of support is needed to provide encouragement to the visionary people who give birth to projects that are difficult to pull off and which until the very recent period would have been regarded as entirely outside the reach of the Orthodox community.

The literature textbooks – and I have looked at them – are quite selective, which is both intentional and inevitable. Whatever the economic goals that spurred their creation, there was from the outset a distinct ideological motive. Too many of the texts that are available for elementary and high school literature classes contain questionable material, not merely for religious Jewish youth but also for pre-teens and teens in public and non-public schools.

As for selectivity, that is the fate of all anthologies and literature texts. The roster of works that may be considered for inclusion dwarfs by far the number that can be included. Editors are required to make decisions. As much as they may want to avoid or deny it, their choices are influenced by personal tastes and their outlook.

It should be sufficient that what is included is suited intellectually for the intended grade level and that the accompanying material – as, for example, questions posed to students – are of sufficiently high intellectual caliber. Here, too, I believe that the two literature texts produced so far have met the mark.

Incidentally, I know that even in literature there are certain basic expectations and perhaps rules regarding inclusion, such as Shakespeare’s plays. However, elementary and high school students are not expected to master the Shakespearean canon; even here, there is room for selection and discernment.

This isn’t to suggest that the choices that are being made or, more precisely, what is being left out cannot be challenged. It would require thick blinders to be oblivious to what is occurring throughout much of Orthodoxy in the ever-greater distancing of the community from the host culture. While much of this can be easily defended in view of what the host culture now offers, there is a lamentable tendency to be too afraid, to think that the zones of exclusion have to be constantly expanded, lest we be accused of laxity. I doubt that it is necessary to exclude stories that simply refer to a boy and a girl or to non-Jewish holidays. While my reading of the textbooks leads me to believe that they are not informed by an over-developed penchant to exclude, the risk is there and we ought to be mindful of it.

This recognition raises cautionary questions about similarly sponsored textbooks in other fields, notably history and the sciences. These subjects are inherently different from literature in that there is core material that must be included and mastered. While there is room for interpretation, the curriculum requires that specific ground be covered in the texts that students are given.

History and science texts that are developed initially for an Orthodox market tread on sensitive ground. In history books, there is a need to treat such diverse subjects as the growth and importance of other religions, civil rights, Middle East conflict and the spread of freedom in the Western world. In science textbooks, especially biology, there are ethical and other issues that may raise serious difficulties for persons of an Orthodox point of view.

I would strongly caution against an exclusionary attitude. While I recognize that the question of how to treat evolution and what has been called creationism might best be left to competent Rabbinical authority, overall I would urge that our textbook writers not be overly sensitive.

I also am not enamored of the effort being made in more modern day schools to develop curricula that attempt to integrate Judaic and secular material. There are good reasons why these two parts of the educational program are separate and ought to remain so. Besides, on the evidence that is available so far, the integrated approach leads to a slighting of the Judaic material and to what I regard as an inadequate teaching of secular subjects.

It is difficult to know what lies ahead, for we are in the infancy of a new development. What we have seen so far is exciting and deserves to be encouraged.