Right now, there is a discussion going on in both the US and Israel on the education of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In the US, the New York Times published an investigation that some are calling unfair into Ultra-Orthodox educational practices for accepting state funding yet not meeting state mandated standards. A parallel conversation is going on in Israel where Benjamin Netanyahu, in a attempt to be Prime Minister made a guarantee to the Ultra-Orthodox that he would fund their schools without having to meet educational standards.
I have to admit, I am extremely conflicted on this issue. My mother was the President of a Public School Board District in the US. I personally sent my children to private school in the US while paying taxes to fund public schools. I often question how a “free” society will only pay for the one form of education, that is public education. I am reminded of what H. L. Menchken once said, “The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda – a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make ‘good” citizens, which is to say docile and uninquisitive citizens.” I agree with this indictment of public education.
Should I not get a voice in stating what my children are taught? If I do not agree with Critical Race Theory, do I want it to be a driving philosophy in the educational curriculum if that is what the local school board has decided? But then let’s take it to the extreme, if I believe that the earth is flat, do I wan to insist that is what is taught in school?
I have always thought the best model is one which mandated subjects are funded by the government, and then other subjects that I wish my children to learn are funded by the private sector. However, even this is controversial. What if I disagree with a public mandate. Or as in the case of the Ultra-Orthodox, what if they do not want them spending time on subjects such as science, math, history, English (or Hebrew)?
And then there is the consideration of the rights of the individual versus the greater good of society itself. If Ultra-Orthodox refuse to educate themselves in subjects that can prepare them to earn a living in the future, we are creating a class of people that will require social support. At some point in the near future, this is an unsustainable model!
My personal belief is that all knowledge and wisdom comes from Hashem (G-d). So it is not a waste of time to study Calculus just as it is not a waste of time to study Torah (the Bible) or Talmud (The Oral Law). It is also not a waste of time to expose students to ideas, at the proper time, within the proper context, that may be controversial.
The proper time and context is a very important concept. The way science was taught to me early on was that it was absolute truth. It was only later in life, when I began to understand the scientific method, and read treatises such as “The Structure of Scientific Revolution,” by Thomas Kuhn, I began to understand Scientific Truths are always subject to scrutiny and potential change.
Every morning religious Jews recite the 13 rules Rabbi Yismael laid out for studying the Torah. The last rule states in the case of two verses (in the Torah) that, on the surface of things, appear to contradict one another. In such a case, a third verse is used to clarify the matter. I believe this can be applied to the study of religious and secular subjects too. In the case where a religious dictate seemingly appears to be in conflict with a secular assertion, I would challenge both the teacher and the student to strive to identify a third source which can clarify and rectify the matter.
So perhaps I am not so conflicted on the issue. First, I believe the parents do have a right to have a say in the education of their children. And for those personal choices, the parent should be responsible not only for the content, but for the funding. I also believe that the state has a right, for the greater good of society, to mandate certain education and fund that as well so that the student may become a functioning citizen in the community. Recognizing that these two may sometimes be in conflict, I believe we should apply the teachings of Rabbi Yishmael to seek new concepts and ideas to bridge the conflict.