The “Do It Like the Public Schools” Fallacy

Somewhere in a box of books I have an early 1950’s book on Sunday school that tells teachers (and or principals) to go to the “public schools” and learn how to be educational professionals. Teachers are told to watch the way they conduct lessons, manage their classrooms, and organize their days. The paradigm that “true education” takes place in the “public” and now “private” schools and what we do in Jewish education is a pale imitation.

The “do it like the public school” fallacy assumes that education is universal and all we add as Jewish educators is some Jewish content. So we hear, “they use filmstrips, we should use filmstrips, they use overhead projectors, we should use overhead projectors, they have computers in every classroom, we should have computers, and they have smart boards so we should have smart boards.” The fallacy rests in the outcome. The goal of the secular school, whether stated or not, is now to get kids into college, since a high school diploma is now good for nothing else. The goal of Jewish education is to create the next generation of Jews who will continue to educate their children. We can add do mitzvot, self-actualize as a human being, develop an understanding of the Divine, redeem the world, and a lot of other things to this list.

The foundational question here, taking the gift of good “backwards planning” from the “Educational Leadership Torah” is “do our goals really suggest the same methodology?”

Here is What I Hear

  • They still use textbooks but we are not supposed to use textbooks because they are the primary reason that Hebrew schools suck.
  • They give homework. We are not allowed to give homework.
  • They test. We are not supposed to hold our students accountable.
  • We may use some measurement tools, but our evaluations are designed to build self-esteem.
  • They have gym, many of our school sessions are too short to even give recess.

Here is What I Know

Bahya ibn Pakuda teaches “the Torah cannot be learned except among friends” and we are taught in the mystical tradition that the real goal of Torah learning is dibbuk haverim, friends that stick together.

My bottom line is this quote from Avot d’Rabbi Natan:

A friend is someone with whom you eat and drink. A friend is someone with whom you study Torah (God’s word) and with whom you study Mishnah (ethics and laws). A friend is someone who sleeps over or at whose house you can spend the night. Friends teach each other secrets, the secrets of the Torah and secrets of the real world, too.

And echoed by these:

What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so in turn you can help him. Thanks to him you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it. (Elie Wiesel, Gates of the Forest )

If it has any value at all, friendship must be understood as a tentative… step towards a meaningful and creative use of the space between birth and death that each person knows as life. (Jacob Neusner, Fellowship in Judaism)

I can’t say more than this, “I have a core belief that Jewish learning is centered in relationship (sleep softly Martin Buber) and the future of the Jewish people is rooted in the friendships we build.

To my last blog posting I got this response from Michael “Zaydie” Scolnick:

“My mind goes back to last year when I was teaching Jewish cooking to 12th graders. They were in and out of the kitchen, cooking (or just schmoozing with other Jewish kids) and, at the end, when the latkes were made (the BEST latkes the world has ever seen) carrying them around to other classes to share them.”

That simple post tells the whole story.

What Secular Schools Can’t Do

As Jewish teachers we need to center our work on the things that secular schools don’t do.

Schools that get to real life issues and real life questions and make Judaism an important tool in the way that their students deal with reality — they go on the list of the impactful. When Judaism becomes a resource is answer the questions posed by ultimate issues or when it becomes a guide in resolving ethical choices the student wins and the school is a winner. When Jewish content becomes a way of coping with the reality of death or motivates involvement in human need the school that made that possible has made a difference. And, we should add, when students find prayer an important personal too for self actualization — we have made a difference. Lots of schools make these things happen. More should.

When a school gives a student a hands-on experience in redeeming the world, when tikkun olam becomes part of their world view, we have another check in the victory column. When students and their families commit to make acts of g’milut hasadim an ongoing commitment in their lifestyle — that earns a gold star. When learners make a difference in the world we have made a difference in their lives. That is our job.

And most of all, when students become teachers the school that made that happen deserves a standing ovation. Virtually all schools in this country have madrikhim and tutoring programs. Not all of them are great, but all of them begin the process. The more they create a sense of value in their participants, the more they provide training and learning, the more they enable the transition to real teaching jobs in college, the better they are. These schools move to the successful list.

When schools get their students to Israel they have also won for themselves a place in the victory circle. This is another criteria for victory.

I was taught that Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: “Everyone reaches in three directions, out to find others, in to find themselves, and up to find God. The secret of creation is that when one grasps in one direction one grasps in all three.”

As we write and actualize our school mission statements, we need to center them on helping students grasp in all three directions.

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3 Responses to The “Do It Like the Public Schools” Fallacy

  1. Jerry Isaak-Shapiro says:

    Gris – brilliant and brilliantly timed, given that we, like most of our colleagues, are in the midst of our staff orientation before another year begins for Agnon. While the public schools are fast-tracking their students into the mainstream, day schools are racously counter-cultural – or at least they should be. We encourage and applaud G-d-talk and make sure that our students (and their parents – also something decidely non-public school) wrestle with values and Life Concepts – not just prep them for higher and higher SAT and AP scores. Part of the agenda is absoltuely knowing the capitol of Burundi and when the War of 1812 was fought; but the real difference in our schools is that we make sure that the ‘why’ is as important as the ‘what’ – and that their role in their communities and in the world is as important (OK, far more important) than knocking out that great job after college. Doing good and doing well. Our goal can never be, “Be a better public school” – it has to be, “Be a different school.”

  2. Bunnie Piltch says:

    Great quotes! I teach in 2 settings: religious afternoon school and university. Univ students register for Hebrew for these most common reasons: they plan to go to Israel on Birthright; want to reconnect to their Jewish heritage; and haven’t continued their formal education since their bar/t mitzvah and feel they need to study more. There is a sense of yearning for learning and yearning to connect to Jewish heritage. I am glad I get to have a second chance, since the first time around is clearly insufficient. I wish it were true for more. You nailed some very critical issues.

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