I oppose forcing beliefs down the throats of others. If you don’t like the way your neighbor is behaving, persuade him to act differently. Don’t use the state’s police powers to force him to submit to your will. I therefore categorically oppose the state requiring parents to teach their children math, science, history, and English.
That said, I do believe a basic liberal arts education is valuable for most people. Why? Not because it will necessarily increase their earning power. Many people who have never attended a proper school earn plenty of money. Business, in particular, requires little more than street smarts, and there’s no shortage of street smarts in the frum community.
But the point of education is not to earn money. None of the great rabbanim of the past who discussed the value of a general education stressed its financial value – not the Rambam, not the Vilna Gaon, not Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. They stressed instead its intrinsic worth.
What intrinsic worth could a general education have? Perhaps the following:
Math: Galileo said, “Mathematics is the language with which G-d wrote the universe.” My father, a”h, pointed out that Sefer Yetzirah makes the very same point. In its opening paragraph, it says the world was created with “s’far (numbers), sipur, and sefer.”
Yes, math can occasionally be useful in daily life, but – much more importantly – math is a universal language that describes how the world functions. A simple equation like E = mc2, for example, pithily encapsulates a relationship that is so central to nature that the Allies used it to build an atom bomb and end World War II.
Is learning math (beyond the very basics) necessary for daily life? No. But anyone who knows math will better appreciate Hashem’s universe and, kavayachol, gain access to Hashem’s mind.
Science: Science is another discipline one can largely live without. A person can drive a car and log on to a Zoom meeting without understanding how either one of these modern miracles work.
But Hashem gave us brains. Animals walk through life oblivious to everything beyond their need to survive. People aren’t supposed to mimic them.
Hashem created an unbelievable world with unbelievable wisdom behind it. I’m not a scientist and find even science-for-dummies books difficult to understand. Nonetheless, one would have to be spiritually dead not to be curious about the world Hashem created. Not to mention that the Rambam writes that knowledge of the physical world leads to love and fear of Hashem.
English: A person thinks in words. The more words he knows – and the more he can logically and rigorously arrange them (hence grammar) – the more he can precisely formulate a thought and share it with others.
Vocabulary and grammar also enable a person to make a better impression on others, which is always helpful – whether he is making a business pitch, delivering a dvar Torah, or apologizing to one’s wife. Sincerity in all three instances is worth even more, but language is the main vehicle through which sincerity is conveyed.
Literature: Unfortunately, many otherwise valuable works of literature contains themes or passages that are inappropriate for young unmarried men. Some are inappropriate for everyone. But kosher literature has value in that improves your English and also helps you think about crucial matters in life.
Take Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example. Perhaps no work better captures the insidious evils of communism – and cancel culture – than this short, clean, and brilliant book.
One can arguably gain similar insights by reading the Netziv’s commentary on the story of the Tower of Bavel, but reading a novel in one’s native language over many hours has a greater effect on one’s psyche than reading a peirush in Hebrew over 10 minutes. Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it does.
History: If you don’t know where you come from, you lack perspective on where you’re going. A person can have an opinion on American politics even if he doesn’t know any history. But he can form a more educated and informed one if he does.
If a person knows nothing, for example, about the history of the Soviet Union or the philosophical basis of the American Revolution, how can he properly judge the wisdom of introducing socialism in this country? And how is he supposed to convince his fellow citizens that he’s right if he can’t cite relevant examples to make his argument?
Does one have to know every detail of Napoleon’s life or every last line of Thomas Jefferson’s letters to make informed historical arguments? No, of course not. But one should have a basic understanding of the history of the West, America specifically. One should know where one stands in this world. Not knowing the history of one’s country is like not knowing the history of one’s family, community, or shul. It’s strange.
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Proponents of a classical education hardly exist anymore on the Left, which is why most American schools today (run by leftist educators) barely teach anything. They are too busy making their students feel good and teaching them “how” to learn. Actually teaching them facts – stuffing them with knowledge that will broaden their horizons and give them a reservoir of information for life – is passé.
As Newt Gingrich has said, liberals believe “that you don’t have to learn; you have to learn about how you would learn so that when you finish learning about how you learn, you have self-esteem because you’re told you have self-esteem even if you can’t read the word self-esteem.”
So I’m not suggesting that yeshivos adopt the curriculum of mainstream American schools. They shouldn’t. They’re almost better off teaching nothing than teaching what public schools teach.
I am suggesting, though, that they provide at least a minimal classical education. Not because students will make more money that way. Some will, some won’t. They should do so because we’re human beings with brains who were designed to do more than cleverly figure out how to “make a buck.”
One last point: Everyone is different. Hashem created businessmen who can get by without an education. But He also created people who were born to be doctors, engineers, accountants, etc. and these people – for very practical reasons – need an education if they are to fulfill their divine destiny.
With an education, these individuals will, as adults, be able to return home from work every day happy and fulfilled, having utilized the talents Hashem gave them. They will be able to use the money they earn to support a large family and give tzedakah to many worthy institutions.
Many frum Jews today, however, never get this opportunity (unless their willpower is extraordinary). Lacking an education, they are forced to work in the business world, focusing on tasks they have little interest in. They struggle, unhappy and unfulfilled,
Hashem did not intend such a life for them. He created people to fulfill every station in society – from nuclear scientists to carpenters. Indeed, a Torah state – which is what Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt to build – is impossible without Torah Jews filling every station in society.
So let us provide an education to all so that every individual flourishes, not just born businessmen, and the Torah illuminates every corner of society, not just Wall St.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the entire editorial board of The Jewish Press.