Monday, April 11, 2005

On Yeshivos and Minor League Baseball

This is a thought that I've had for a long time - since high school in fact. Since I only went to one high school, perhaps my experience was warped (hopefully) and this is not the norm. I invite everyone to comment and tell me if this is the case in the larger, Yeshivish world.

I went to a Yeshiva high school in Brooklyn. My perception of my high school was that they were interested in turning out only one type of student - learners. By learners, I mean those who will go on to Kollel and continue to learn for years and years to come. I was not such a kid. As I described earlier in this blog, I was the "square peg" that wouldn't be shoved into the "round hole" that was the typical student. I didn't share the same fundamentalist outlook that my schoolmates did, I had access to outside media and outside sources of information (books, such as history, science, etc. that would rarely, if ever, be found in the homes of my schoolmates), and had dealings with people in the non-frum world (as the vast majority of my family was not [and still isn't] frum). In addition, every single one of my schoolmates could speak and understand Yiddish - but not me. If I ever thought to say that there was some Midrash that shouldn't be taken absolutely literally, I was usually shouted down. The administration made one feel that if you weren't interested in learning 24/7 (well, you could sleep, of course) then you weren't really worthy to be a student there.

I don't know if you're familiar with Major League Baseball and the way the minor leagues work, but I'll give you a brief overview. There are two "major" leagues - the American League and the National League. These leagues represent the top level of play in North America (and probably the world). Underneath those leagues are several "minor leagues" where players of lesser quality play. In the olden days (before the 1940s) the minor leagues were independent of the major leagues, but since then, the minors have come under increasing control of the major leagues. Today, they exist for one main puropse: to provide a forum for developing players to learn how to play. There are players coming out of high school and colleges around the country who have the potential to be baseball stars, but need additional work on their skills. These players are sent to the minor leagues where they work on their skills until they are ready to be promoted to the major leagues.

The overwhelming majority of minor league players never make it to the major leagues. Fewer than 10% of players currently in the minor leagues have any realistic chance of playing in "the Show." What that means is that major league baseball spends money and resources on all the expenses of the minor leagues - including the salaries of all those players - just for the sake of the 10% who make it to the big leagues. The other 90% are really there only to give their prospects someone to play with. The main focus, however, is on the potential star.

That's the impression that I got from my yeshiva. Since I (obviously) wasn't going to be a learner or a talmid chachom (or if I was, not in their narrow, fundamentalist tradition) and so the program wasn't geared toward me. If my learning fell by the wayside, there was really no one who took an interest in helping me out. There was no one around to help nurture the ideas that I was trying to formulate about Yiddishkeit. I didn't fit the mold - the program wasn't geared toward me - I wasn't a "prospect."

Was this experience unique to my high school? Or do other Yeshivish high schools have the same attititue (focus on the "stars" and the rest are there for background)?

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

I don't think your experience is unique at all and I would go a step further, among the boys that were really into learning and really motivated to make learning their full time "job" only the sharp minds, or excessively motivated student got the necessary encouragement and attentiont from the teachers to obtain such a goal.The less intelligent boys were just not "bachert" for greatness.....

Anonymous said...

Yeshivas were elitist institutions until, basically, after WWII. In its heydey just prior to WWII the vaunted yeshivas of Europe had approximately 5 or 6000 students. Out of 8 or 9 million people.

There is the well known Midrash Vayikra Rabba 2:1 that one thousand enters to mikra and one reaches hora'ah. Whether or not this particular proportion is literal, it does portray the attitude that was held until the present day when the yeshiva could finally became a mass institution. However the fact that it is now a mass rather than eltitist institution does not mean that educational methods have sufficiently been adapted to the present reality.

I've heard it said (favorably) about R. Yitzchak Hutner that when he came to America in the '30s people were tsk tsking about the sad state of religious affairs and how it would take a couple of generations to be able to establish real (read: European-style) yeshivas in America. R. Hutner said "No! We will do it now, with this generation!" and he did. La la la, the rest is history.

Except, of course, that his model was Slobodka, which catered to an elite. Not that Chaim Berlin claims to be or is elitist (I know; I went there for most of a decade) but the fact is that yeshivas today are modeled after those gedolim manufacturing plants of old, the East European yeshivas (with many modifications, of course).

High schools especially do not function as high schools. To illustrate the point, when I was in 8th grade we didn't learn anything more than an occasional Tosefos since our rebbe had a shittah that developing boys should gain proficiency in Gemara with Rashi before treading in sometimes confusing and distracting waters. First learn the vocabulary and peshat, then get into upshlugging Rashi, you know? Then next year I was in MYRCB and not only were we learning Yevamos with every Tosefos and Maharsha, but we were also learning R. Elchonons and R. Akiva Eigers. We were all of 14. Now that is not a curriculum designed for the kids who don't even know what Tosefos is all about.

AS said...

Ron you hit it on the head. Being a former CB high school student
myself I can honestly say it was not the way to go. They threw every
thing from the Stiepler to Rabenu Asher to Mordechai and everything in between. Good post.

The Hedyot said...

It's well known that practically all mainstream yeshivas (at least the black-hat ones) are focused only on producing learners. Everything else is looked down upon and considered an option only after you've served your kollel time (which by then is usually far too late to learn any serious profession). No self-respecting yeshiva guy would ever admit to not wanting to be a learner.