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Imposing ignorance October 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education.

Under the headline “Coercive imposition of Western culture,” Yitzhak Levy, a former education minister of Israel, criticizes the attempt by “academics, public figures and the courts” to enforce the study of “core curriculum” subjects in state-funded schools (including Haredi schools):

The country’s “Western elite” has decided that in order to earn a living and compete in the labor market, 10- to 18-year-olds should study mathematics and English. Many believe this to be a self-evident truth. However, it can be shown to be untrue on several grounds.

The first, and most important, argument is that there is no need to study mathematics and English for eight years in order to gain mastery of these subjects in a way that opens the door to various types of jobs, even in high tech. Private institutions that prepare students for matriculation exams, as well as pre-academic courses in higher education institutions, have proven that one can attain a high level on matriculation exams in these two subjects as a result of studies that last a year or two, and are undertaken at any stage of a person’s life. Since this is the case, why should studies in these two areas be forced upon those who are not interested in them for such a lengthy period?

First of all, notice that in that last sentence Levy conflates parents and their children as if they were a single person. It is Haredi parents who are not interested in having English and math taught to their children. Levy is not suggesting that we let children decide for themselves what they want to study. (Can a kid in a Haredi school decide that he is not interested in studying Bible or halacha?) There are indeed many things we do not allow children to decide for themselves, and parents are usually those responsible for protecting the interests of their children — but the rest of us have the right and the obligation to make sure parents are not abusing their power and harming their children, physically or mentally.

Now, even if it’s true that some 18-year-olds can acquire a complete math and English education in a 2-year program, there are certainly many who have neither the opportunity nor the capability to do so. In the best case, such a person faces enormous barriers and is starting out from a severely disadvantaged position. The fact is that close to 70 percent of Haredi men do not work, and education is surely a big part of the problem.

In any case, though, Levy misses the main point of education. Being able to get a job is important, but it is not the most important thing in life and it is not the most important function of schools. Until our children are mature and informed enough to choose their own goals in life, we have an obligation to give them the best available knowledge and the best known tools for learning and thinking. We don’t study math just so we’ll be able to make change at the supermarket, but in order to develop abstract and logical thinking and give us the tools necessary for further learning (mathematics is “the language of science”).

We live in a democracy, where the power belongs to the people, but democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Imposing 18 years of ignorance on a child cannot be excused by the fact that afterward he will theoretically be free to learn whatever he wants by himself. By age 18, a person’s interests, learning habits and worldview are largely solidified. An 18-year-old who’s never had a history lesson in his life could theoretically go read a history book on his own, but does that excuse us from teaching all our children about World War II and the Holocaust (for example)?

Levy’s attempt to frame the issue as “trying to impose Western culture on Jewish culture” is especially ludicrous. Like it or not, English is essential nowadays for virtually all knowledge-based enterprises — the majority of scientific papers are published in English, and it is the most popular language on the World Wide Web, to name just two examples. And how exactly is mathematics “Western?” There is only the math that works, and Levy relies on it every time he uses an airplane or an elevator. Does Judaism offer its own alternative biology and astronomy and medicine? Well, actually, it does — but they’re wrong. If Levy got leprosy, would he go to a Western-educated doctor or to a priest? Is the idea that the Earth orbits the sun a Western imposition on traditional Jewish geocentrism? Whatever is actually true about the world is independent of culture and nationality.

While democracy depends on an informed citizenry, religious indoctrination depends on ignorance. A broad education is intended to empower children and ensure that every option is open to them, so they will be free to choose their own life. Haredi parents, however, are bent on forcing their own belief system and way of life on their children by cutting off all other options. I do think that every child, certainly in Israel, should learn about the basics of Judaism, and parents who wish to can supplement extra Jewish studies. But no parent has the right to disable his child by imposing ignorance.

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