Monday, February 28, 2011

Because Someone Has to do It

Last term we were going over a piece that needed a lot of editing. I asked the students to identify the errors. One student, in coming across the word thee, made the comment that the word was Bible English and didn't exist in anything we needed to know about today. I asked him how he could make that statement given that My Country 'Tis of Thee is still used and known. What I got from the class as a whole was a wall of blank stares. A few had sort of heard of the title but had no idea of what the words were to the song--not even the first line!--and couldn't understand why I would care.

I assigned a quiz--and yes, I gave it and counted it--on the complete history of the song. This term, in using the same correction sheet, I ran into the exact same problem--not one person actually knew any of the words or history of the song. Yet again, all of my classes will be having a quiz next week. What I found of interest was that in one class a few of the students said "What did you expect Professor? We all went to yeshiva. Why would a yeshiva teach that stuff?"

Hmmm, why would a yeshiva, located in the United States, and authorized by the State as an alternative to the public schools as long as curriculum goals set by the State are met, teach the history and culture of the US? Perhaps because it's supposed to? Perhaps because in addition to being religious Jews we are also citizens of the US, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails? Perhaps because this country moreso than any other country in the world's history excepting Israel has allowed us not only to live here but to be counted as full citizens? Perhaps because..........you fill in the blanks.

A quicky question to one of my classes also brought this to light: in that class not one student had ever been to the Statue of Liberty, and when questioned, only 3 students could identify where the Statue came from. I probed a bit more and asked who or what the Kosciuszko Bridge was named for. Not one student had the foggiest idea.

And while I'm bemoaning the lack of knowledge of a whole slew of yeshiva students about American history and culture, let me add this one. Although I haven't actually stated at which college I teach I'm sure that my readers have a pretty good idea. Now, where did the name for that college come from? When I asked my students, and students in other classes as well, NOT ONE had any idea. Again, a pretty sad commentary on yeshiva students' knowledge of American history and Jewish American history.

So yes, I'm now going to try and figure out how to add in some basic bits of American history and culture to my English classes. At some point before they leave their formal schooling behind I'm determined that my students will be exposed to what Joe Average American is supposed to have been exposed to.

Note: ironically enough my students can name the national anthem--The Star Spangled Banner. And they all added to their answers that of course they know it because it's played at all major sports events they watch. Pretty sad when television is giving students a better American cultural education than their yeshivas are. As to when this song became the official anthem, see yesterday's Tidbits in History. And guess what song The Star Spangled Banner replaced as the anthem?

In case you're a bit rusty on your history, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Country,_'Tis_of_Thee
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star-Spangled_Banner
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadeusz_Ko%C5%9Bciuszko
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Touro
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah_Touro
For info on Jewish heroes and heroines of the US see
http://www.fau.edu/library/brodytoc.htm

16 comments:

Rae said...

Welcome back! I think you're going to see the problem more with the boys coming out of yeshiva then with the girls. The girls schools in general do a better job of teaching history and Jewish history. I guess they have the time available because they aren't teaching gemorrah. Re the Statue of Liberty, my girls' schools took the students to the Statue on a field trip but my son's school didn't.

Seems like a male/female divide.

Anonymous said...

What is the story with that bridge you mentioned? I know a lot of American history (and the words to My country Tis of Thee and a lot of other patriotic songs), but have not heard of the bridge. Please englighten me.

Anonymous said...

What types of careers are your students headed for? When some of this ignorance of U.S. history and cultural icons shows up in the workplace, sadly it will make these young people look stupid, not just ignorant and poorly educated, even if he/she is well-educated in the particular field in which they work. This is not the type of person with whom you entrust your important clients, customers and contacts if there are others available.

Anonymous said...

Anon No. 1 here. Ignore my question about the Kosciuszko Bridge. I missed your wiki link. Very interesting. Lafayette gets all the glory when it comes to foreigners fighting for the continental army.

The Professor said...

Welcome back! Of those students who knew what our national anthem is, you would probably be shocked how many of them dont know the lyrics. Even worse, you will occasionally meet people who think that G-d bless america is our anthem!

As Americans, we have a proud heritage, which we should know, respect and love. The parents of kids who study in a school with no secular studies, should at least make sure their children know the basics.

(Also, as unfortunate is it may be, the US is a better place to live as a frum jew than Israel!)

Life On A Cotton Ball: Role Models

Yossi said...

Back many years when I was in elementary school all of our secular studies teachers were public school teachers taking on a second job. We learned all the American history and about the culture.

Today most of those secular studies teachers, specially in the frummer schools, are frum themselves and products of the yeshiva system and probably don't know that American history. What is worse is they don't seem to care.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links. I monitor my kids homework closely and they have learned none of this. Going to share it with them tonight at dinner.

Anonymous said...

Good for your for taking this on, ProfK. Does the unnamed college you work at have rquired courses, besides course requirements for one's major -- i.e. 2 English clases, 2 math, biology, chemistry, 1 american history, 1 world history? I hated those requirements when I was in college many years ago, but quickly saw the wisdom within a few years after graduating.

JS said...

That's really, really sad. America is hands down the best country Jews have every lived in. I would even argue it might be better for some religious Jews than Israel. But, whether or not you agree with that last contention, the amount of freedom we have here, the financial opportunities available, the educational and professional opportunities available is just mind-blowing. The fact that the vast majority of us have been here only 2-3 generations and have so quickly risen up the ranks of American society is awe-inspiring.

And yet, it's "modern" to praise America and be a proud citizen. Many shuls won't say prayers for the safety of American soldiers or prayers for the American government. Some yeshivas won't teach American culture or history and won't emphasize English language and literature.

Forget about the need for these skills in the workplace, how about some hakarat hatov? How about just recognizing how wonderful this country is and how lucky you are, as a Jew, to be living in this country and at this time in its history? It's such a shocking lack of respect and gratitude. It's so upsetting when you see frum Jews arguing over whether it is "appropriate" to celebrate secular American holidays like July 4th, Thanksgiving, or holidays that honor our soldiers or presidents.

And despite how wonderful this country is, you still have those who think this is the "treife medina" - even though this country has allowed for more Torah study than has ever existed in any time or country. These ignoramuses long for the "alter heim" where apparently they don't realize the sections of Europe they idolize where full of poor, persecuted Jews who feared for their lives and were mostly ignorant of the finer details of their own religion.

If you want yeshiva and American history and culture, you need a MO school. At least I hope that's still the case. It was when I was a kid.

Allan said...

I agree with you that our frum kids don't learn enough about American history and culture. And yes JS, some of it is a matter of hakoras ha'tov and they should be learning it.

I would just add though that one reason, if maybe not the major one, is TMI--too much information. The last 4-6 decades have brought with them such a vast amount of history and cultural changes. Unless we're planning on increasing the school day to 12 hours there just isn't enough time to cover everything anymore. Our students are better versed in the more modern cultural information than in the historical information.

Ask your students what a url is or what LOL is and they probably could tell you, even the more frummy ones, because that is part of their lives now.

For most of us The Pledge of Allegiance was part of our American cultural historical heritage. It probably won't be for our next generations as the courts debate whether or not the Pledge is unconstitutional and should not be recited in schools any more or anywhere else.

Miami Al said...

I'm going to oddly defend the Yeshivot here. I attended some of the finest public and secular private schoolsi in Florida. I could tell you the first two lines of Country Tis of Thee and that's it. Some of it is regional, some of it is generational, those of us that were brought up after the Vietnam War simply had Patriotism play a much smaller role in our childhood than before. In addition, the growth of multiculturalism has resulted in much more tolerance for those keeping their cultural heritage, but also a decline in that unifying American culture.

One of the things that truly saddens me is just how non-American Orthodoxy Jewry is becoming. The difference in the kids now and two generations ago is startling. Some of it is changes in America, some of it is our unique changes.

How's this though, I'm constantly shocked that I know British history better than a friend that grew up and attentded Yeshiva in London.

It's the little things that just display ignorance... the MO Schools here proudly fly the US Flag, but they don't take it down at the end of the day (and they are NOT shining an illuminating light at it), they don't take it down in the rain, etc. So they proudly fly the US Flag and disrespect it. I was at a MO Dinner where they sung the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah before the dinner, and nobody took their hat off OR covered their heart during the Star Spangled Banner -- both requirements under US Code.

These weren't people being intentionally disrespectful, these were people that simply are ignorant of American culture or their role in it.

Participating in American culture isn't watching a ball game on TV, it's about participating in this country and its institutions.

I've been to the Statue of Liberty twice.

hi said...

To be fair, one of the hallmarks of being a true New Yorker is living in the city your entire life but never actually visiting any of the landmarks :-)

Rita said...

Sure I think it's great that you are trying to do something about your students' lack of knowledge but shouldn't the bigger question be why our schools, or most of our schools on the elementary and high school level aren't already providing the information?

I found the Touro biographical links quite interesting--never knew this before. But ironically I can see why some of that information in the biographies would cause some roshei hayeshivot to come down hard on forbidding their students to go to a place named for the Touros--some actions that are definitely not in step with what today's yeshiva leaders want their students exposed to.

Anonymous said...

"I was at a MO Dinner where they sung the Star Spangled Banner and Hatikvah before the dinner, and nobody took their hat off OR covered their heart during the Star Spangled Banner -- both requirements under US Code."

(1) I am not aware of there being any such legal requirement. A citation would be appreciated. I prefer to stand silently (or singing along) at attention, facing the flag (or the music if there is no flag present).

(2) Removing the hat as a sign of respect is a distinctly non-Jewish mode of expression. (Read the story of how Uriah Phillips Levy refused to "swear uncovered" when the British captured him during, if I recall correctly, the War of 1812.) While it may sufficiently unobjectionable from a Jewish perspective that one might do so at a secular event, I don't see anything wrong with avoiding that particular gesture at a yeshiva dinner.

ProfK said...

Anonymous,
Not a lawyer here but info about the flag code was pretty easy to find.

"The United States Flag Code establishes advisory rules for display and care of the flag of the United States. It is Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code (4 U.S.C. § 1 et seq). This is a U.S. federal law, but there is no penalty for failure to comply with it and it is not widely enforced — indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punitive enforcement would conflict with the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. (A Flag Desecration Amendment has been proposed from time to time and, if ever passed into law, would override Supreme Court rulings on this matter.)

This etiquette is as applied within U.S. jurisdiction. In other countries and places, local etiquette applies."

"Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem
When reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, all present should stand at attention facing the flag with their right hand over their heart, with the exception of those in uniform who shall salute.
When the national anthem is played or sung:
Designation: The composition consisting of the words and music known as the Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem.
Conduct During Playing: During a rendition of the national anthem:
When the flag is displayed:
All present except those in uniform should stand at attention.

Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder,

Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present and not in uniform may render the military salute.
Individuals in uniform should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note; and
When the flag is not displayed, all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed.
The musician or musicians performing should sit or stand as they ordinarily would to perform on their instrument or voice."

Miami Al said...

Who is wearing a hat at a Yeshiva dinner without a Kippa on underneath?

They would not have their head uncovered, but would be showing respect for the Flag under which we live.

It is absolutely a non-Jewish sign of respect. Last time I checked, we live in a non-Jewish nation that is tremendously respectful of its Jewish inhabitants.

Even if you want to take issue with the hat, can you explain the not covering one's heart and standing at attention?

Am I the only one that's seen Yeshivot flying their flag at night? My secular schools all had a flag raising before school started and taking it down after school. In high school, I seem to remember there being a group or club that took care of it every day. I also remember learning in grade school how to fold a flag, pretty sure non of my Yeshiva educated friends have ever folded a US flag properly.