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September 18, 2014 / 23 Elul, 5774
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An Ignorant Student

It isn’t only important how hard a student studies, but what he studies.
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It is almost as if he were responding to my post from yesterday. Rabbi Yonason Goldson who teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis agrees that there is a problem with Jewish education. But he seems to be going in the opposite direction of what I have perceived to be the problem.

In an article on Beyond BT he laments the fact that there are so many students who have gone through “the system” ( including a year of study in Israel) at an estimated quarter million dollar expense – and yet feel that they are ignorant of Judaism (as was reported in the case of one student written about in a Jewish Action piece).

He ultimately blames this phenomenon on the “dumbing down” of Jewish education by lowering expectations. Here is how he puts it:

Unfortunately, Jewish schools and educators have not been immune to the lunacy sweeping the educational enterprise—suppression of competition, safeguarding students’ feelings at all costs, promoting self-esteem over academic achievement and dumbing down coursework to the level of the least-capable student. What has been lost is the insistence on excellence, an aggressive curriculum of core subjects (both Jewish and secular) and devotion to hard work.

It is quite surprising to see that kind of evaluation of Jewish education in light of so many educators who have published articles lamenting just the opposite: That there is too much emphasis on academic achievement, too aggressive a curriculum, and too much hard work.

And yet I think I understand where he is coming from. So how can there be such a contradiction? How can we on the one hand be overly aggressive and competitive to the point of allowing less intelligent or motivated kids to fall through the cracks and become at great risk for going OTD or worse? And on the other hand dumbing down education to the lowest common denominator?

I think it depends on the school and the environment. The OTD problems that occur because of the pressure to excel definitely exists in both the Charedi world and the Modern Orthodox (MO) world.

It is a rather well known phenomenon that Charedi schools are becoming ever more selective in who they accept leaving out a great many students who are relatively bright but simply do not measure up to the highly competitive standards of the school. And these schools are constantly pushing the envelope of Torah learning in an effort to “outgun” the competitions as the top school in Limudei Kodesh (which consists almost exclusively of Talmud study).

The same is true of many MO schools where the push for excellence in secular studies puts tremendous pressure on students – many of whom simply can’t hack the pressure. And yet parents push their kids to the limit – and beyond – so that they will qualify for entry into a prestigious ivy league school or the like.

There is no dumbing down in these schools. Just a lot of pressure.

But I understand that there are parents who do not want their kids to be so pressured. I cannot count the number of times I have heard a parent complain about their child’s long day in a Yeshiva High School… saying it is too much for them… that they should be given a little more free time – perhaps eliminating night seder so they can relax and be more refreshed for the next day.

School administrators are not deaf. Especially in smaller towns. If the majority of parents want a lighter day and/or curriculum, they will respond to them. Or close.

Rabbi Goldson must be experiencing this kind of school. Cities with relatively small Orthodox populations do not have the kind of pressure cities like New York and Lakewood have. The parent in St. Louis does not feel the need to compete with or outdo the “the school down the block.” Because there is no school down the block.

But I don’t know that any of these paradigms sufficiently explain why the student described above felt he was ignorant of Judaism. While I agree that dumbing down education is a bad move and can contribute to that student’s feelings. I don’t think that explains it.

Making the curriculum harder and more competitive without examining what the actual curriculum just means that a Charedi school for example will increase the amount of time their students will study Gemarah.

In the MO school it might mean increasing the secular curriculum and/or workload. In my view both scenarios will not give the student in question any better insight into his Judaism. It isn’t only how hard one studies, butwhatone studies.

What needs to be done in both cases is to broaden the curriculum to include the study of Judaism itself, not just Gemarah or secular studies. Yeshivos need to introduce studies like Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and Jewish ethics. Mussar, Navi, Machshava, and Hashkafa, are sorely understudied in most institutions if they are studied at all. There ought to be some time taken off from Gemarah study in Charedi schools and from secular studies in MO schools to make room for these very important parts of Judaism.

This is what is lacking most in the academic life of that ‘ignorant’ student. I doubt that it had as much to do with his curriculum being dumbed down as it does by what his lack of a fuller Jewish curriculum. I doubt for example that he did not spend his year in Israel in intensives study. But it was probably exclusively Gemarah if his experience was typical. So he may end up knowing a lot about the amount of damages one must pay if his ox gores another ox. Or how to return lost objects to their owners. But when it comes to the meaning of Judaism he will be the one who is lost.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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One Response to “An Ignorant Student”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think girls in beit yaakov schools here in Israel get more of what the author is suggesting.

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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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