There is something seriously wrong with some aspects of the formal education students are receiving in school nowadays. After fourteen years of both formal and informal teaching, I have witnessed some major lacunae/holes in elementary, middle school and high school education. In some cases, the children themselves may not be able to retain certain information that is being taught, and that is perfectly understandable. However, where I see a major flaw is stressing things that are “unimportant” while leaving some essential areas of information untouched. Some examples will suffice to illustrate this idea.
As I sat down with one of my private students a few years ago to help him prepare for a test, he took out his materials and laid them on the table. I looked at his review sheet and was astounded to see what he was required to know for this test. His class had been learning Sefer Bamidbar in school and one of the main areas he had to be knowledgeable in was how many people were counted in the census BY TRIBE, when all of the Tribes of Israel were counted. Let us be clear, that there is not one iota of Torah that is unimportant. No pasuk is more holy than another. Yet, what is the EDUCATIONAL benefit to this 13-year-old boy to know how many men between certain ages were counted in the tribe of Dan or Zevulun?
And what of the eleven-year-old boy who for his test needed to be proficient in where the blood was sprinkled on the altar for various types of sacrifices? Or his need to know the different locations in which they were to be slaughtered and the various types of sacrifices. Again, yes, this is all Torah, the Holy word of G-d and yes, all of it is important. No one can deny that point.
However, a school has a finite amount of time in which to educate its students. I have never been involved in a single school that did not bemoan that fact that they do not have time to teach certain “important” subjects. And to them I say: NONSENSE!
Many students go through years of Jewish education with merely a superficial meaning behind the words they utter when opening a Siddur to pray. Many do not recite the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) because, it appears “too long” and “why can’t we just say “thank you” for what we ate. After 12 years of education, many walk away not knowing the names of the Hebrew months; what occurs in each of those months; the names and order of the Parshiot of the Torah. It is unconscionable that someone can learn Gemara and Mishne for so many years and not even know what it is, where it came from and why it is important to learn! And what about Middot/proper character traits? With a huge stress on teaching rules of Lashon Hara, where is the stress on when it IS appropriate to speak up and say something and that it is not Lashon Hara?
Instead of spending time making a child memorize (because he is merely memorizing and not “learning”) how many people were in a particular Tribe, why not answer some basic questions for them: How do we know Judaism is “correct”? How do we connect better with G-d? How can I better relate to my fellow human being? How do I get beyond the “mechanics” of serving G-d and begin to internalize a FEELING of serving G-d. How do I understand the words in my Tefillot/Birkat HaMazon and know what I am saying?
A few months ago, I was teaching a young boy one of the narratives of the Book of Shmuel. He turned to me and, in all sincerity, asked me who was the President of the United States when Shmuel was a prophet! There is a disconnect between the students’ knowledge of the books of Tanach and the world around them.
Shlomo HaMelech says in Mishle: חנוך לנער על פי דרכו that we must educate a child based on his path. We must begin to structure a curriculum that takes advantage of the finite number of hours that students are in school to instruct them in areas that will guide them in their future as committed Jews. We must never negate a single word in the Torah and (G-d forbid) relegate it to a level of being unimportant. Yet, at the same time it must be recognized that there is a priority in what needs to be part of that formal education process so that they will grow up to know more about the enactments of Ezra the Scribe than how many Jews were in each and every Tribe.