Thursday, March 30, 2017

How to Address the Problem of Inadequate Secular Education among Haredi Jews

It is well know by now among those who observe or study haredi Jewish practices that Haredi school children receive an inadequate secular education to their parochial schools, especially the boys. For the girls' education, the curriculum seeks to avoid only the heretical, such as biology and prehistory. But for the boys' education, the goal is immerse the pupil as full as possible in the word of God as contained in the scripture, Talmud and their commentaries, and to expose them to rudimentary secular studies only --that which is absolutely indispensable to function in adult American society, such as basic literacy. By the time a boy reaches Bar Mitzvah age (roughly 6th grade), he will have graduated from the secular curriculum altogether.

The problem here is that such an education does not prepare them for the rigors of occupational life in America. A common refrain among education experts is that our economy has complexified to the point where there are fewer and fewer good jobs available for merely high school graduates. Moreover, it is argued, even a Bachelor's degree is no longer what it used to be --most professional jobs now requiring a Master's degree or more. That assertion, as framed, is arguable in my opinion; there may be an undue bureaucratic obsession with credentialism that is out of proportion with the actual skills and knowledge masters in formal educational programs. Nevertheless, it is inarguable that haredi pupils are grossly undereducated. They emerge from high school with no ability to carry on a conversation in English, the lingua franca. Their English vocabulary is very limited as is their ability to read and write anything longer than a simple declarative sentence. Most importantly they have no occupationally applicable skills upon "graduating" from high school, nor are they ready to go to college to pursue a profession.

The result of this lack of secular education is financial stress and anxiety. Haredi men often resort to some form of hustling to make ends meet. Many become car service or bus drivers, others peddle insurance products, still others are fancy themselves Amazon merchant entrepreneurs. Hosts of community organizers, activists and fundraisers roam about community neighborhoods looking for a way to fleece whoever has or is willing to part with their hard-earned money "for an important mitzvah".

Perhaps when America's ranking in the global economy was stronger, during the Cold War epoch, it was easier for haredim to get by on such a regimen, given the ample opportunity for riding the tails of successful merchants in a burgeoning economy. Now with the Cold War over and global economic competition at its height, mercantile and business pursuits do not yield much and professional careerism should be much more attractive, thought out of reach due to lack of education and training.

The solution?

YAFFED, an organization started by a former friend of mine, Naftuli Moster, advocates pressuring governmental authorities to exercise their statutory duty to ensure that all pupils in the state receive a sound education -- one that is "substantially equivalent to the instruction given at the local public school" (NYS DOE website

I used to be very supportive of this effort and I still am. But there is an ideological discrepancy in this interventionist approach. As a liberal-progressive organization, as are virtually all NYC-based non-for-profit advocacy organization, it affirms the value of diversity and multiculturalism as much as it believes in the power and propriety of government forcing its solutions on its citizens willy nilly. Thus, the liberal-progressive acknowledgement of the right of an ethnic group to assert its lifestyle and values on its own people conflicts with its urge for government to get involved to "help" that ethnic group, especially when such help has the effect of attenuating the ethnic cohesion of the group.

It appears to me that YAFFED's inability, as of yet, to move the needle in its otherwise commendable activism, ultimately stems from a deep-seated, reflexive aversion on the part of liberal-progressive local governments to interfere in the way ethnic groups choose to conduct themselves. It is quite apparent that the city's "investigation" of haredi schools' curricula is a sham; such an investigation shouldn't take more than a year, which it is, and the corrective action is simple and straightforward: require schools to teach a real and rigorous secular education to all pupils on pain of shutting it down and/or arresting and charging its principals. What isn't obvious to Moster and others who wonder about the schools' obstinacy and the city's laxity in enforcement is the ideological inconsistency noted above which cannot be easily reconciled.

So, I shall first lay down number of precepts and then I shall endeavor to find a practical and ideologically consistent solution.

1. Libertarianism.

Deep down inside of me I am a libertarian. I believe the starting point for any discussion about how to arrange ourselves socially should always be: can we allow people to decide matters for themselves at the most local social level possible (even at the individual level, if appropriate)? Consistent with this ideal, I affirm the right of the haredim to conduct themselves in the way they do and I understand their concern that secular studies are a threat to their fundamentalist, insular way of life. And so, when it's all said and done, I am against using sheer force to compel the haredi sector to start instituting full secular studies for boys.

2. Multiculturalism is wrong!

The benefits of smashing together people from radically different backgrounds and let them exchange ideas are not what they are held up to be by the liberal-progressive elites. Theoretically, the resultant eclectic menagerie of ideas leads to the best possible one rising to the top and society being all the better for it. In practice, it is hard to point to such benefits in a city such as New York, presently the world epicenter of multiculturalism. Without elaborating too much on this (which is beside the point of the topic at hand), let me just mention what the eminent moralist Jonathan Haidt argues on this: people are tribalist and groupish by nature. When you bring people from different groups together "social capital" declines --the willingness of people to trust one another diminishes, collaborative enterprise becomes difficult, and everyone suffers as a result.

The alternative to multiculturalism is monoculturalism: it is the adherence to classical moral precepts as propounded and practiced for centuries by classical scholars in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. In a conservative society, one that cherishes a single way of life above many ways of life coexisting alongside each other, the currently thriving haredi subculture would not have been cultivated by our societal elites. And without such sanctioning of by its host culture, haredi judaism as we currently know it may well not have existed.

And yet, the promotion of a monocultural traditional polity does not require the trampling of anyone's personal liberties. I will always and forever shudder as the notion of haredim or any other ethno-religious group being literally forced to abandon their way of life against their will. But that doesn't mean that we ought to give them fertile ground to flourish in; the larger society should feel free to crimp the haredi lifestyle if such a policy is determined to be in the best interests of the majority in the population. To determine exact parameters of where to draw the line between inconveniencing an undesirable subgroup and persecuting it, wisdom and discernment is required. For that, honest, dedicated, capable, classically educated politicians are necessary, but, alas, are in short supply.

To our point, it is the right and duty of our democratic society to organize itself in a manner that promotes the virtues of secular public education espoused by the majority. Politicians, pundits and scholars should openly and actively condemn the haredi lifestyle as driven by blind tradition, ignorance, darkness, indigence and despair. There is plenty that NYC and State officials, journalists, and others can do to show indifference, even disdain, toward a community that thrives on educational ignorance and parochialism, without violating its right to deviate from acceptable societal norms.

3. Charter Schools.

The legal-theoretical concept of a "charter" goes back centuries, e.g. the Massachusetts Bay Colony received a charter from the king of England to set up a colony in New England in the 17th century. A charter is a contract between a sovereign and a subject who seeks to engage in some enterprise. It specifies the essential objective of the enterprise, the rules by which it would operate and the protective prerogatives granted it by the sovereign. In the context of parochial education a "charter" school operates under rules specified by the charter, e.g. what the curriculum and testing regimen should be, and the school in turn is fully (or nearly-fully) funded by the state.

The problem here is that, akin to haredi dogmatism toward its heritage, Americans are likewise dogmatic when it comes to the "separation between church and state" doctrine. The doctrine is codified in the first amendment to our constitution, which reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The amendment's intention was to protect the several states from the possible tyranny of an Anglican majority in Congress, keeping in mind that within states freedom of religion was unheard of at a time when laws were openly and expressly enacted according to the principal religion of the states, e.g. blue laws. Regrettably, as with many other constitutional amendments, activist courts have not only interpreted them far more broadly than originally intended, but they also have decreed them to be binding on the states as well.

In any case, scholastic and populist zeal for church-state separation is exaggerated and disproportionately idolized relative to other civic interests. There is no plausible fear, in any reasonable person's mind, that the state would, for example, eventually outlaw Judaism if we allow it to fund local churches', mosques' and synagogues' civic activities. If the government gives to all religious denominations equally, especially for a program that is meant to promote a civic objective within the religious community, not a religious one, then this can in no reasonably honest way be interpreted as "respecting an establishment of religion".

Liberal-progressive opposition to parochial charter schools stems rather from its aversion to all things religious, rendering its adduction of the First Amendment post hoc rationalization. It should therefore be exposed as a partisan political position, not a universally agreed-upon foundational one. County and municipal governments, particularly in large cosmopolitan cities like NYC, should encourage the formation of community-affiliated charter schools and fully fund them. The present practice of not allocating any educational funds raised from property taxes toward private schools is unfair to private-school-patronizing families and untenable.

4. No Federal Grants.

Federal grants of money to states and districts on the condition that they follow prescribed best practices is counterproductive, wrong, and unconstitutional. Just because the U.S. government isn't saying to the states "you must do so and so", saying merely "you can do whatever you want but if you do so and so we will give you a monetary grant", doesn't make this a constitutionally sound intervention of the U.S. in the affairs of states. Education is a state-reserved political domain that was clearly never delegated to Congress to control, and no amendment has ever been enacted to change that, nor should there. The U.S. government has no right to tax people and then distribute such funds to states in order to promote an agenda within a field that falls outside its constitutionally enumerated powers.

I suspect that, given that haredi parochial schools do avail themselves of such federal educational programs as Head Start, School Lunches and Pell grants, among others, they do not feel the financial pinch as much as it would if it received no government funding at all. As it stands, haredim are willing to turn a blind eye toward the gross injustice of their county's not funding their schools because they buy in to the church-state-separation argument and are content with their federal gleanings. They shouldn't!

Based on the above political precepts with respect to education, the following course of action should be pursued, one that is legally, morally and practically sound.

1. Societal movers and shakers ought to speak up against Haredi separatism (as well as other separatist groups), making it clear that it is a renegade, deleterious movement that is not beneficial to mainstream society. This duty of protest falls especially hard on liberal American Jews, haredi coreligionists who are thus best in position to criticize a religion of which they are a part.

Reform Jews should make it clear that even as the value of speaking Yiddish may be upheld, this should never done at the expense of speaking a fluent English, the lingua franca. They should declare that Jewish-distinctive dress may be appropriate in the synagogue, where one's particularistic heritage is expressed, but it is not appropriate in a universalistic setting, such as at work and in the Subway. Jewish Studies are wonderful as supplemental knowledge or even as a coequal plank in a larger platform of civic education, but they are not acceptable as a substitute for secular education. And the list goes on.

2. NYC DOE should launch a charter program (with the acquiescence of state law if applicable) wherein public educational funds are allocated to haredi charter school companies willing to subcontract the public duty to educate its citizenry. Such companies would be compelled to follow state minimal requirements of secular education as a condition for their funding, while being allowed to foster a distinctly haredi milieu suitable for current haredi sensibilities, however distasteful they are.

The financial incentive to the community of such a scheme is too great to resist en masse. I predict that at least some haredi sects would utilize such a program if it were to exist, notwithstanding the major reforms they would be forced to institute as a condition for funding.

Depending on where the winds blow in the future, the secular studies requirement in such charter schools could be expanded or contracted. If there is fierce resistance, for example, to the study of American History, it can be dropped or swapped with a similar civics subjects. Conversely, if the state detects that the community is within the zone of proximal development (to borrow a Vygotsky psych term) of a new civic breakthrough, then it should encourage the school to make that foray into new territory by adding additional or more rigorous courses.

3. Ultimately the essential libertarian ethos is indestructible

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