A determined push to better educate Hareidi children in secular studies has attracted media attention recently. This movement has pointed out that without healthy secular knowledge students will be unable to enter real world responsibilities as they get older.
According to some reports many Hareidi students are not taught any secular subjects beyond a third grade level. This issue is not unique to Israel or the United States, but is a common problem wherever yeshivas, even non-Hareidi yeshivas, restrict a broader and proper education. In some communities, this deficit is implicitly acknowledged by the fact that there are now vocational training opportunities for graduates of these schools so that they can have some skill to enter a work force.
From my perspective, withholding proper knowledge, even secular knowledge, is not only unhealthy but irreligious. After all, “chochmah bagoyim taamin” — we are taught to believe that worldly knowledge is part and parcel of spiritual belief. A healthy knowledge base is imperative even if there are philosophical and religious limits for engaging with the world. There is, however, an additional component to helping students engage in the world in a healthy manner that must be addressed.
About 15 years ago, a series of studies reported that students in yeshivas were not getting enough exercise and were not ingesting a sufficient amount of calcium, a serious combination that could lead to osteoporosis. Children are entering adulthood, in the words of one of the researchers with “an alarming…bone mineral deficiency.” Not only is there the fear of having a limited education, but there is also a physical concern if students are not allowed to exercise appropriately and eat nutritiously.
At roughly the same time as the exercise studies were done, I was on the dissertation committee of a student who was looking into rates of anxiety and substance abuse among yeshiva students as compared to students educated in secular high schools. Not surprisingly, that study found that there was no significant difference between the groups on rates of anxiety nor on the percentages that reported alcohol and marijuana use. This was in line with a study done by the Israeli government in 1998, in which substance abuse rates, though not necessarily the types of substances used, were similar among both secular and religious teens.
Some additional interesting findings from both the original study and several follow ups indicate that religious students were less likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors than non-religious ones despite the fact that they reported similar rates of high-risk substance use and that family relationships act as a significantly more powerful buffer against substance use and delinquency than religious observance or type of yeshiva attended. So while school is clearly important, time spent in a loving and supportive family is even more so when it comes to healthy child rearing.
More extensive research is emerging that indicates school, whether public or parochial, as it is presently structured, is making our children stressed, depressed and even physically ill. According to some researchers there is an “epidemic of school related stress.” The demands of our own yeshiva educational system are even more difficult. We expect students to memorize by rote volumes of information beginning very early in their educational careers and are subjecting them to stress and pressure to perform not just in school, with workloads that last from eight in the morning often until 10 or later at night but on Sundays as well.
In a large study undertaken by the American Psychological Association one in three teens reported that they were stressed and depressed — the greatest contributor to their anxiety and mood was school. In my own practice, I am seeing 12 and 13 year olds with school-related migraines, stomach complaints, and nocturnal fears all related to school pressures. Just as low rates of calcium in childhood can lead to osteoporosis in adulthood, there are long-term consequences of childhood stress. These include reduced life-span, depressive disorders, heart disease, even cancer. We see many students who, because of their depression and anxiety are more susceptible to being sexually abused. They seek comfort with someone who plays into their fears, but instead ends up abusing them.
First and foremost, children need warm nurturing and compassionate homes. They need to be shown love and understanding. Children need to be encouraged to exercise and eat healthy and learn how to care for themselves properly. Children also need supportive schools. This includes teachers who understand that each child is unique in how they learn. And schools need to be more flexible in the structure of their time and the demands of a proper curriculum. With the appropriate foundation, today’s children will live longer than their parents did. Schools must take that into account in how they deal with their charges.