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.
* 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.