Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yeshivos Have A Duty To Teach Secular Studies To Our Kids

Rabbi Horowitz has a new article in Mishpacha Magazine touting the value of secular education in our community. While most yeshivos in the United States offer a program of secular studies, the attitude in many of them is that secular studies are a waste of time and not important. The kids pick up on this idea to the extent that when the school administration pays lip service to the importance of secular studies, the kids know it's a joke and, for the most part, learn next to nothing over the course of twelve years. In many schools, I'm positive that yeshivos would completely abandon secular studies in a heartbeat if they could get away with it.

Of course, if secular studies were something that could be easily dispensed with in today's society, then it might not be such a tragedy.* However, in today's society, in order to make yourself attractive to employers, you simply have to have certain skills, chief among them being a decent command of the English language, mathematics and basic computer skills. If you do not have those basic skills, you are going to find your options on the job market are very limited. Limited job options lead to limited pay and a greater likelihood that even when you are fully employed, you may still find yourself near or below the poverty line. And while being near or below the poverty line is bad for anyone, for an Orthodox Jews, it's far worse -- just imagine trying to pay yeshiva tuition for multiple kids on a salary of under $30,000.**

A significant part of the problem, in my estimation, comes from the fact that work, itself, is discouraged and looked down upon. Who cares if basic skills are needed for the job market if you never intend on looking for a job to begin with? I've commented in the past on how the very idea of working for a living is denigrated in our yeshivos (sometimes to the point where working fathers are denigrated in front of their children). So, since working for a living is deemed "unworthy" for a ben torah and life skills such as English, math, etc. are needed only for that purpose, the kids very quickly get the idea that the English classes are unimportant.

On top of this, you have to add the fact that computer skills are needed in today's environment as well. However, the hysteria over the (very real) dangers of the internet have caused some schools to shy away from computer studies at all -- even in an off-line environment. I don't have any definite examples, but it would not surprise me to find schools that restrict comptuer use, even off-line, in people's homes. As a result, some kids may try to enter the workforce without the slightest idea of what a word processor or a spreadsheet is. In fact, Rabbi Horowitz makes that point in this article:

A close friend of mine owns a business in an area with a large charedi population and is always looking to provide avrechim with jobs. His ‘entrance exam’ is rather simple. He gives prospective applicants a pad and paper and asks them to write two paragraphs in English expressing the reasons they would like to land a job in his company, and then to turn on a computer and type those lines. His thinking is that if an applicant cannot perform those two tasks, they are useless to him in his business.

That's it. Turn on the computer and write two paragraphs in English about why you want the job. Lest you think that this is not a difficult task, Rabbi Horowitz tells us about the results:

Suffice it to say that this would probably be my last column in Mishpacha if I shared with you the percentage of applicants he turns away because they cannot do that.

Unfortunately, the "learning only" model of the Jewish community is on the verge of bursting. Thousands upon thousands of people are learning and not working, and the signs have been apparent for a while now that this is a situation that cannot be sustained indefinitely. At some point, many of those people currently sitting in kollel are going to have to go to work. The real tragedy isn't the fact that they have to go to work (although, from a religious point of view, that is bad). The real tragedy is that many people are being thrown into the job market with few or no marketable skills. They've been told by their yeshivos (either explicitly or implictly) that obtaining job skills is a waste of time, and now they are paying the price for listening to authority figures they trusted.

People need to understand that yeshivos today are not the same as they were back in the shtetl. Yeshivos today need to serve a dual purpose. The first and foremost purpose is to teach Torah and instill Torah values in our children.*** But the second purpose is to provide a basic secular education for our children, to enable them to be able to enter the job market or puruse higher education when and if they choose (or are forced) to do so. If a yeshiva does not provide this basic education (and make sure that the students are sufficiently motivated to acquire these skills) then they are condemning the vast majority of them to a lifetime of poverty and struggle. And that, in my estimation, is probably a greater spiritual danger to them than anything they might encounter in a book, magazine, blog or college course.

The Wolf

* I, personally, believe that secular knowledge does has value in and of itself, but that can certainly be put up for debate.

** Poverty level for a family of 6 in 2008 is $28,400 in the contiguous 48 states.

*** When we went looking for an elementary school for Walter many years ago, there was one school that seemed good and seemed to fit us in a number of areas. However, for the younger grades, they had secular studies in the morning and Judaic studies in the afternoon. It was purely a scheduling matter, not a statement on the relative importance of the subjects. Nonetheless, we felt that it was important that Walter understand that Judaic studies were more important, and so we did not send him to that school for fear that the schedule would inadvertently send him the wrong message.


ProfK said...

Re your footnote about the reversing of the time periods for secular and Judaic studies, I taught in a day school where this reversal happened regularly depending on which grade you were in. And frankly, it's a model that more schools should be adopting. I taught English to a fourth grade in the morning and taught English and History to the junior high classes in the afternoon. The limudei kodesh instructors also worked a full day, teaching different grades in the morning and afternoon. It's one very real and practical way to cut down on the expenses involved in staffing a school. While our salaries were more because we were teaching a longer day they weren't double a single session. And there were lots less teachers to have to pay benefits for. Less staff also meant less administrators, another savings. Because there was less staff but we were there all day also meant that it was easier to locate other staff members for conferences about students.

And let's be honest here--there is nothing particularly "frummer" about the morning hours as opposed to the afternoon hours. Someone began things this way and they have followed along like this because "that's how we have always done it," not because it is some halachic requirement. If afternoon hours are such a poor time for students to be learning limudei kodesh then how do we justify boys schools that first begin secular studies after 3:oo pm? Isn't that at least 2 hours of "wasted" learning time? Or Beis Medrash learning that is from the morning until the evening?

BrooklynWolf said...


I understand your point, and, as I mentioned, I didn't think the reversal was caused by any ideological belief in the superiority of secular studies. It certainly was simply a scheduling decision.

I'm not suggesting that my approach is the right one. For Eeees and I, we felt that having Limudei Kodesh at the beginning of the day sends the message that it is more important (which, in the long run, it is). I understand that not everyone will pick up on (or even agree with) that message.

You certainly have a valid point about L. Chol starting so late in the afternoon. I'm wondering if perhaps there might not be another solution (i.e. having a shiur in the morning, starting L. Chol at an earlier time (12:30, maybe) and then having an afternoon seder after English. That may work, or it may not. I agree with you that the system needs improvement, but, for me at least, having L. Kodesh in the morning is very important.

The Wolf

ProfK said...

I would be the last person to say that you should not have your own opinion and choose a school that fits what you want, but perhaps we might also consider that "acharon, acharon, choviv?" It's usually not the first course or appetizer that everyone considers as the "real" meal but what comes after it.

Chaim B. said...

>>>They've been told by their yeshivos (either explicitly or implictly) that obtaining job skills is a waste of time,

I think the message being sent in some quarters is that yeshiva ed = job skills. I have gotten comments on my blog arguing that yeshiva study alone is the best preparation for the LSATs or whatnot. My wife has gotten resumes listing "overseas studies" in yeshiva as a qualification - and it is no wonder that the same resume was filled with grammatical errors. It's time for a reality check.

ProfK said...

Chaim B,
When I do resume writing with my students some of them put learning in yeshiva down under work experience. And some of them never come to understand that the outside world doesn't look at it that way. They think I'm wrong to remove it from where they put it. But then again, if they don't put the learning under work experience then they have nothing else to put there.

Anonymous said...

Just curious Wolf, but knowing what you know now, do you still think it would send the "wrong" message?

(Personally I don't think the scheduling sends a message at all because Walter would soon enough develop his own view of the importance of Judaic studies, and that would depend a lot on whether he was innately skeptical.)

What I question about your post is that here you are criticizing (validly in my opinion) those who have learned what you consider to be the right message about Judaic studies, but then you say that the scheduling would have taught Walter the wrong message. You put the choices as being between the "right" message and the "wrong" message. But then your post says that the "right" message gets easily transformed into an even wronger message than the "wrong" message.

So if that's the case, and the "wrong" message" might not even be perceived as a message at all, then aren't you better off sending a kid to the best school for him, and not worrying about whether the scheduling sends the "wrong" message. Don't you need to worry more about the "right" message getting taken too far?

(Not trying to call you on the carpet. It's just that I sense a contradiction between your post and the footnote about Walter.)

Ichabod Chrain

Mikeinmidwood said...

I wrote a post about this http://mikeinmidwood.blogspot.com/2008/09/yeshiva-high-school-drop-outs.html

The Rebbeim teach why not to learn secular studies and the teachers dont like how the kids arent taking the classes seriously and the kids end up paying the price.

Mikeinmidwood said...

Oh and many kids drop out.

Lion of Zion said...

just one little point:

"I've commented in the past on how the very idea of working for a living is denigrated in our yeshivos"

i assume you mean "our" in the limited sense rather in the general sense. there are many yeshivos--certainly the ones that all my friends send their kids to--that don't denigrate working for a living.