Friday, May 24, 2013

Why is it So Important For Chareidim to Learn Secular Subjects?

You know that famous book, "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? While the book does have an important message, it turns out not to be true. In order to lead a successful, professional life, most people will need to know a bit more than they could ever learn before they reach grade school.
Mind you, I firmly believe that many of the life skills we learn in kindergarten are critical for a child's future development. But it's not enough. You need to have knowledge and skills. Which is why there's such a huge debate about whether Chareidim should be required to teach their boys (Chareidi girls already study this stuff) basic subjects like English and math.
Chareidim claim that in order to properly educate their sons for Torah greatness, the study of any other subjects would distract from their development. Moreover, should a chareidi wish to enter the workforce, he can easily pick up the subjects that he missed in a few short months.
It sounds good. After all, most Chareidim do spend much of their time studying involved and intricate Talmudic texts. They are by no means stupid. How hard could it be for them to pick up computer programming, or engineering, or accounting, or so many other possible professions? Actually, it's quite hard, because advanced study assumes a number of basic skills that an average college takes for granted as prerequisites for admission.
English: Many important texts are in English, including engineering and computer texts. "So they'll learn English," you say. "How hard could it be?" Actually, when you think about it, it's much, much harder than it sounds. It might be relatively simple to learn basic aspects of a language. But remember: these students don't need basics. They need to be able to read and understand advanced texts describing complex issues. The study of the English language compounds over time, growing increasingly advanced. It's nearly impossible to learn a sophisticated language quickly. It takes many, many hours of study, practice, and most importantly, use. That's why Israeli schools teach English from grade school. Unless you start early, you'll find yourself hopelessly behind later on. It's not a subject you can just "make up." While Americans often don't realize it, English is an incredibly complex language, with myriad rules and innumerable exceptions to those rules that make it quite challenging to pick up and master.
Math: This one I think is easier. You can learn math quickly, and move from subject to subject at a pretty rapid pace.
Yet, there's another critical aspect to core education independent of any particular discipline.
Basic study skills: Yes, it sounds funny, but Chareidim - who spend all day every day learning Torah - lack basic, critical study skills.
A neighbor here in Yad Binyamin teaches at Machon Lev, a well-known College of Technology in Jerusalem. On a number of occasions, he has described to me some of the challenges that he faces with chareidi students he teaches.
For their entire lives, they have been taught that the most important aspect of Torah study is, what's called, עמלות - "the toil." During every siyyum marking the completion of a major text we declare:
שאנו עמלים והם עמלים. אנו עמלים ומקבלים שכר, והם עמלים ואינם מקבלים שכר
For we toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, while they toil and do not receive reward.
Yet, everyone knows that the rest of the world toils and does receive reward. It's called a salary. Why then do we insist that they do not? The most common answer offered is that in the study of Torah, results are not a critical measure of success. Of course it's better to understand what you're learning and study on an increasingly sophisticated level. But even if you don't succeed in Torah study, the עמלות - the toil itself is what's important.
It's a beautiful thought and a wonderful idea communicating the value of Torah study as an end to itself. But if you're raised on this value, then you never learn or internalize that in the outside world - to "them" results count. No one cares if you tried. They need you to get the job done.
My friend said to me the other day: Forget math. Just give tests. Give tests in Gemara for all I care, but make children accountable for their work, because right now, they're not. They study all day, but they don't have homework that needs to be checked and graded. Imagine spending your entire childhood in a system that made no measurable demands of you, and then you entered a course that required homework, studying, tests and evaluations. And carried with it the possibility of failure. It's simply unfair, unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that young man to simply "pick up" those skills instantaneously.
These aren't skills you can learn in a course. If you had them because you spent your childhood acquiring them, then you could relatively easily learn more advanced skills in a short period of time. But without them, what are the odds that you'll be able to study towards a career, and, when the time comes, complete tasks, meet deadlines, follow through on projects - with all the critical skills essential for success in today's workforce?
The odds are low. Which is why it's so important for young Chareidi boys to begin early - before they grow up and it really is too late.