Some background: Both my children are in National Religious, or Dati Leumi educational frameworks in Israel, where they are taught a lot of secular studies, and will (hopefully….) stagger out the end of that process with a bagrut, or Israeli High School Matriculation certificate.
On the one hand, my daughters need some form of basic secular education to be able to pursue a career of their choosing in the future. But having seen how much damage ‘school’ has done to them, in a million different ways, I can’t help thinking there has to be a better way of teaching our children the bare minimum secular stuff they actually need.
But what do I know? I’m just a parent! So I decided to ask my children what they thought about their school experience, and what works and what hasn’t been working so well, and this article is the result of that conversation.
“Kid,” I asked my 15 year old daughter, “what do you like about your school, and what don’t you like?”
“They don’t teach for our generation,” she immediately answered back. “Most of my class is on Ritalin or Concerta because we can’t sit still. We’re a generation that does everything quickly, but they’re still teaching us like from the year 2000 (ooo, pre-historic!). They should stop teaching us everything with just questions and answers. They should make it interesting to learn.”
Anything else, I wanted to know?
“Yes, they should stop asking fake questions, like ‘what did you learn from this project’, and ‘why did you pick this subject’. I don’t know the answer, OK?!”
“Yes, they shouldn’t concentrate on stupid things. If you come to school with a nose piercing they get all upset, but if you’re not doing well in your life, no-one says anything to you. If you start messing around in class, they give you a punishment. But they don’t ask you why you’re messing around. Most of the girls can’t sit still because they are on Ritalin.”
This is what the 15 year old, who is in a ‘good’ Ulpana high school for dati leumi girls told me.
That 15 year old nearly dropped out of school this Summer. She wanted to go and work on a farm for a year instead, and to do something ‘real’ with her life. Honestly? I couldn’t really blame her. It seems to me that so many kids get depressed between 14-16 because they are effectively wasting their time in school, and spinning their wheels.
And they know it.
It’s obvious to me that whatever they learn for the Bagrut here in Israel, they could just as easily learn it between 14 and 16 , and then be done with school and get on with the rest of their life.
If that’s what they want.
And quite a few of them do want that, at least in Israel.
So now, how about the 17 year old?
What’s been her experience of frum Jewish school, the ‘National Religious’ way, in Israel?
In a word: prison.
Unlike the youngest, she went for the full-time boarding option for Ulpana, like nearly all her peers, and man, has she suffered for it.
Her first year, she was in an Ulpana which was in such a faraway backwater, the locals used to watch grass grow when they felt like doing something more exciting of an evening. There was one bus in and out a week – that’s it!
And to top it all off, the Ulpana offered very few extra-curricular activities, and there wasn’t so much as a makolet for four miles all around. My kid got so miserable in that school, there were days she couldn’t even get out of bed. Lots of days.
To top it off, a lot of the teaching staff were self-righteous types that talked a lot about what they expected from the girls in their care, religiously, but who weren’t exactly modelling great middot themselves.
There was a lot of talking about yiddishkeit, but every time my daughter asked what they felt was a difficult or awkward question, she got shut down and made to feel like a budding apikoros.
That summer, she also wanted to quit school, and she nearly did.
Except God had mercy on her, and opened up an amazing ‘experiment’ where the girls were going to combine agriculture with learning. They were going to get up at 5.30am every day, and go and pick oranges, or work the fields, before coming back for lunch and learning.
20 girls signed up for that school – my daughter was one of them – and while it was hard work, it was the very best year of her life.
Sadly, it must have been way too much fun for the students, as the traditional school that was sponsoring and hosting the experiment decided to pull the plug after just one year, leaving my daughter and her class totally in the lurch.
We scrabbled around to find her an alternative last minute, and she ended up in another backwater in the middle of nowhere, which happened to have an UIpana. Again, not even a corner store for miles…
But this school was still better than the first for a few important reasons:
- My daughter wasn’t trapped there all week – there are regular buses to Jerusalem every day.
- She went there with a small group of her independent-minded friends, so she didn’t feel as lonely and isolated as in the first place.
- The teachers have more nose and ear piercings than the students – so at least no-one was giving her any self-righteous, ‘pious’ mussar talks about the right way to serve Hashem.
Growing up, I never went to a Jewish school, and I think that’s part of why I’m such a committed Jew today.
If I’d had to cram for a test on the Prophet Shmuel (again, for the 18th time…) I don’t think I’d ever have picked it up and read it as an adult without shuddering.
And let’s not even talk about the bullying that can happen, and the clique-ness that can occur, and the expectations to fit the mold precisely and exactly, even though no two human beings are really created alike.
My four other siblings all went to Jewish schools. Every single one of them will tell you that going to an orthodox Jewish school was the main thing that put them off religion. It’s literally taken years for some of them to find their way back, and it’s still a work in progress.
So, when my kids tell me how bad ‘school’ is – both because of the secular studies, AND because of the Jewish studies, AND despite the best efforts of some of the amazing people who work there, and who even try to teach them something useful – I sympathize profoundly, and I let my kids know that I’m on their side.
That doesn’t mean undermining their teachers, God forbid (unless their teachers happen to have some serious bad middot problems. And I know we’re not meant to say this, so let me whisper it: some of my kids’ teachers really have been class ‘A’ psychos.)
But it does mean that I will do everything in my power to lighten the load that is ‘school’, and to help my kids find shortcuts to answering the fake, dumb questions, and to commiserate with them about just how ridiculous the modern, ‘secular’ education system really is.
“You’ve got six months left of your sentence,” I tell my oldest one, when she tells me how bad she feels about having to go back to school post-shabbat. “Just get your bagrut, play the game enough to get that, and then you’re free! No-one can ever make you go back to school again!”
Because real learning can and does happen every single day, and every single moment.
So much of the secular stuff we learn in school is ultimately pointless. I truly can’t understand why high school has to drag on for so many years, or why we aren’t just cramming all the relevant stuff into two years instead of four, then turning the students loose in the classroom of life.
Why aren’t we coming up with a better format for school, that doesn’t require most of the students to take Ritalin just to make it through the day? Why do we think we have to copy the non-Jewish format for school, and for ‘secular studies’?
Why can’t we take the best bits, and then ditch all the pointless rote learning of dates for history, and algebra equations that hardly anyone uses once they matriculate? If you need algebra for the job you want to do, great! And if not – why force it down everyone else’s throat?
(Yup, you guessed it: I’m really bad at math.)
The point is: there has to be a better way. There has to be a way of teaching enough of the secular stuff required to get a job without falling down the rabbit hole of confusing the ikker of Jewish education (like learning the Torah and developing good middot) with the tofel of endless exams and grades.
And BH, maybe the Jewish orthodox community – in all its glory, in the very widest sense of the words – is on the cusp of discovering it.
After I wrote this, I thought I should also set down for the record some of the good stuff that is coming out of the dati leumi school system, because there is also a lot of good.
Like, the broad emphasis on loving Israel, and being prepared to sacrifice your time, energy, effort – and sometimes even your life – to serve a higher ideal.
There is also a lot of sincere idealism in dati leumi schools, although that doesn’t always translate so well into the real world, where it can be skewed around to naivete, or wasting time ‘protesting’ bad – literally – when I can’t see that ‘protesting’ really changes much.
But the point is, it’s definitely not all bad, and there definitely is a lot of good. But there’s still some significant room for improvement.