Monday, February 20, 2012

On Planned Ignorance

At least in New York State, private schools, a group into which yeshivot fall, must meet certain minimum requirements as set down by the Board of Education and the State and City. Students are required to be in school until they are older than 16 years of age. There are certain subjects that are required to be taught, and there are State examinations that must be passed for a State-issued Regents Diploma.

Once upon a time both male and female frum schools adhered to the State requirements in a way similar to the public schools. As regards high school, there were 4 years of secular instruction, covering all the subjects required by the State and then some. And yes, that was a full school year of that secular instruction. It was not uncommon for the high schools to offer AP courses or other advanced topic courses. No, not all students took these AP/advanced courses, but a large number of students did.

And then the male frum high schools started fooling around with the system. Why should the students--all the students--be "forced" to spend an entire senior year learning secular material? And so the first "adjustments" starting reducing the amount of time spent on secular studies in that senior year. Some schools simply shortened the amount of time in a day allotted to secular studies and increased Judaic studies to take up the slack. Other schools reduced the number of days during the school week that secular studies would be given, and again the slack was taken up by Judaic studies.

Time marched on and some of these male schools found new ways of changing the school secular studies structure. In some cases, if a subject was not going to be on an Regents Exam, the subject was no longer taught. Why give senior year math/science/history etc. if they didn't need it for the test. Other schools opted for a different solution. All the courses necessary would be given, but they would be reduced to 1-3 week "intensive seminars" that would cover all the material needed for the exams. Sometimes those "seminars" would be during the school year, and sometimes those seminars would be during the summer time, some of them taking place in summer camps.

So basically, the more to the right boys high schools don't have a senior year of secular studies. That year is devoted to learning limudei kodesh only. Yes, a few boys whose parents may insist and whose families are "dear" to the school will be offered some AP course type of instruction. It is not for the amount of time that a full-year school course would be offered, and almost without exception parents pay for what amounts to private or semi-private tutoring for these tests during school hours. A few of the schools will offer, again not to everyone and sometimes for an extra charge, "tutoring" for the SATs.

Now, what happens when you start fooling around with the senior year of high school? For one thing, schools look at the results and think to themselves "Well, there was no fallout or no major fallout from what we did, so maybe we could adjust some of the other years as well." And we see courses having their hours and days shortened, we see material not being taught at all. These boys yeshivot have taken "teaching to the test" to a new height of absurdity. Most of the schools don't eliminate secular studies altogether--not enlightenment on their part but a desire to keep getting the funds given to them by the State for various programs, money they wouldn't get if they weren't a "real" high school. But a lot of those schools also hire as secular studies instructors people who represent the "frumkeit picture" they want their students to see without any of the qualifications necessary to actually teach a subject. A lot of those instructors do not even have a college degree to their credit.

Note: elementary schools look at what the high schools are requiring from their students and they, too, "adjust" what they are teaching to their students. After all, if the high schools are not going to require certain courses, or are going to cut those courses to little bits of skin and bones, why should the elementary schools bother teaching material that the students won't need to get through high school?

What does this all add up to? Hundreds, no thousands of male students graduating high school without the knowledge, skills and attainment they need. To say that they are under-prepared to go out into the general working world is a gross understatement. To say that the majority are under-prepared for "real" colleges (as opposed to online diploma mills) is a doubly gross understatement.

Once upon a time, the frum community prided itself on the knowledge and brightness of its students in the secular studies arena. Sure, there are still some students and a few schools where that pride is not misplaced. But we can't say any longer that the majority of our male high school graduates are solidly educated in both limudei kodesh and limudei chol, because they clearly are not. And for this situation the blame must solidly fall on the schools, and then on the parents who continue to support these schools. No parents, you are really not getting what you pay for, and your children are going to pay the price down the road. Take off your "entitlement-colored glasses" and really see what is going to happen to your under-educated, under-prepared sons.


tesyaa said...

Once upon a time, the frum community prided itself on the knowledge and brightness of its students in the secular studies arena.

At some point, people forgot that this level of achievement came about through excellent education and began to think if was inherent in every "frum" boy. Many people realize their sons are receiving a subpar education, but they think their kids are smart enough to "make up the work on their own". I often hear about kids who plan to take the AP exams without taking the actual class. I don't know how many actually do and what their level of exam success is.

Sure, a few kids may be sufficiently smart and motivated to succeed without a proper high school education, but most are not.

Allen said...

Also leaves us with a strange situation that the frummier schools haven't yet figured out. When the majority of experts in the science and technical fields are going to be coming from the MO sector, then those are the people rabbanim are going to have to contact to get any info when they have to give a psak dealing with those areas. It's their blessing and their curse.

If they are going to use these experts then they have to keep MO alive so they have people with knowledge to use as sources. If they don't use these experts then you end up with the mess they had about Shabbos elevators just a little while ago, and their ignorance and the psak given based on that ignorance was brought out for everyone to see.

JS said...


I think you're too hopeful. They'll find their own people to give expert opinions. The flock just follows, they don't actually care if it makes scientific or medical sense. And I'm not just saying that about the more RW - just look at electricity. It was poorly understood when the technology emerged so the consensus became "ban it" even though the reasons were lousy and some more "with it" rabbis like Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wanted to allow many uses on Shabbos.

It's a lot easier to ban than to allow. In fact, I'd say people tend to prefer it. It makes them feel like they're sacrificing for Hashem and that's bound to make Him happy.

JS said...


The attitude that a frum "learner" is more capable than his secularly educated peer is a real disease in the community. I don't doubt that these frum boys are very smart - in any population you're going to have very smart people and, who knows, maybe we do have a larger proportionate share of smart kids. But, intelligence alone can only get you so far.

I see lots of frum boys with mediocre secular education and no, what I'll call for lack of a better term, secular social skills - getting along in the "outside world." Maybe they do excellently on the LSAT or even the MCAT, but only a very small percentage can overcome the setbacks of their educational background. The "real world" is about a lot more than these stupid entrance exams.

I'm not saying people from these communities don't succeed. Some do. But they do it in spite of their background, not because of it. And they rely on other frum people giving them help and assistance along the way - a frum partner giving the person a chance, a frum doctor giving guidance. If that support network dwindles it will be even more difficult.

JS said...

I'll just add that eventually it will come time to pay the piper. You can't have an absurdly expensive religion that makes it next to impossible for the next generation to afford that absurdly expensive religion.

It may be more apparent in the RW world where they're actively denying their children a secular education, but the same problem exists across Orthodoxy for different reasons.

It will be interesting to see who blinks first in this game of chicken - I'm betting the MO. The RW schools are cheaper and the population is much less likely to rebel.

Miami Al said...


Disagree, the RW is more likely to rebel, and historically have.

The MO don't need to rebel, they just drift... You just slide into the LW, switch your observance to more social (i.e. go to Shul, don't carry your phone, work from home Saturday afternoon, etc), the schools don't ask about the home life because they can't.

The RW crowd NEEDS to rebel to get anywhere. A MO Jew that takes off his Kippa is relatively indistinguishable from a Reform Jew in that regard, almost all MO Jews have Americanized names that they use. They speak standard "white English" even with silly expressions like "eat by" thrown in.

If you can't afford tuition, you have fewer kids... I know plenty of LWMO families with 2 kids, 3 is increasingly a lot, 4+ is unheard of. It's way easier to keep the social part you like and ditch the restrictions you don't in the MO world.

I'm not saying most LWMO families aren't observant, I have no idea. I'm saying that LWMO families that don't want to be observant but like to be quasi-observant can do so, with little problems.

I don't think they'll be a blinking.

The only interesting thing to me, if the Hebrew language charters keep gaining traction in the Israeli population, is if there will be a regrowth of the traditional middle... 50 years ago that was the core of Orthodoxy, 20 years ago the core of Conservative Jewry, now it's been wiped out, you either flip out or go OTD, it will be interesting to see if it returns.

frum single female said...

miami al,
you are really oversimplifying things. when one is shomer shabbos and shomer kashrut no matter what you label yourself- yeshivish, modern orthodox or chassidush you are VERY different than reform jews. trust me. i grew on left wing modern orthodox in the midwest. it is only easier for the modern orthodox to be less religious because they do not dress as differently as the chassidim do and they probably had a better secular education. even in the midwest you get the same party line about how secular society is so bad and everyone in public school is on drugs.
if you stop keeping shabbos it is no so simple . if you stop keeping kosher it feels foreign. the mores of secular society is very different if you are secular than if you are othodox.

Yona said...

Is it really only the boys yeshivas that are giving less secular education? What about the girl's schools? And if the girl's schools are giving all the senior year courses, why is that secular education okay for them but not the boys?

I'm thinking that maybe it's not so much secular education that the boy's schools are against as much as them wanting to give the boys lots more Jewish studies.

abba's rantings said...

i heard recently on the news about a proposal to make it mandatory to remain in school until 12th grade (or 18 y/o?)

just to point out, very often 12th grade is to a certain extent a waste, particularly the second semester (acceptance letters have been mailed, senioritis, etc.). hence the year in israel used to be the second semester of 12th grade.

Lakewood Falling Down said...

I don't have to worry so much until next year when my son is in 8th grade. My wife is nervous because I'm promising to start each interview for HS with
"Why should I let YOU have the privilege of teaching him?"