Monday, July 24, 2006

School Learning system

The biggest complaints frum teenagers have today - even more than about their parents - are about their schools. Not about too much homework, or mean teachers, or the typical "teenage" complaints. Rather, they express anger, bitterness, disbelief, shock, and even tears, over what they feel is an abandonment of their needs by their schools, in favor of what is more beneficial for the school's public image. Teenagers are losing faith in their role models because they feel they are not cared for by them.

In this, teenagers and adults are not at odds. Whenever I speak about chinuch, the audience never fails to express their dissatisfaction with our educational "system". They want Yeshivos to be better able to inspire the "average" student; they want Bais Yaakovs to be less straining; and they want all schools to lower their admissions standards, to accommodate the not-so-elite student.

Frustrations very similar to those expressed by the teens.

Whether their complaints are right or wrong, there certainly is a problem with our educational system. That is, control of it is not in the hands of the educators.

Over 50 years ago, the previous Bostoner Rebbe, Rav Moshe Horowitz ZTL, had suggested in a meeting with Rav Shraga Faivel Mendelovitz ZTL, that a Yeshiva be created where an easier curriculum of Gemora-Rashi, some Ain Yaakov, some Halachah LMaaseh, and Hashkafa is studied, to better accommodate those students for whom the intense Gemara B'Iyun-centered program is too much. Rav Mendelovitz replied, "You are right, Bostoner Rebbe, but what parents will send their kids there?"

More recently, in a meeting regarding the elementary school curriculum in his Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ZTL stated that in his opinion, starting Gemara in the fifth grade is too early. Seventh or eighth grade would be better, but there is a problem instituting the idea. "What will be," he said, "when a father of a 7th grader from another Yeshiva meets a father of a 7th grader from our Yeshiva, in Shul. ‘My son finished 20 blatt this year, and 10 blatt last year,' says the father from the other Yeshiva. 'My son, well, he's still learning Mishayos', says the father from our Yeshiva." There goes the Yeshiva's reputation, and, soon thereafter, the Yeshiva's students.

So our educational system has its problems, but the "educational system" is comprised not only of educators. The parent bodies, and the students themselves, also maintain power and say over what happens in our Torah institutions. They are the ones - not the Roshei Yeshiva - that create the reputations of the Yeshivas. It is their judgment - not that of the Roshei Yeshiva - that determines which Yeshivos will be successful and which will fail. The unprofessional and often unknowledgeable masses make their own demands of Yeshivos, demands which are often detrimental to the well-being of the student. Demands that are often based on standards that defy logic, experience, and Torah leadership. But woe be it to the Yeshiva that fails to meet those demands.

Mechanchim are choked by the fact that to be successful they have to satisfy the free-wheeling agendas created by people with no expertise in Chinuch. If you do what is right, you lose.

I remember, a number of years ago, when I was teaching Navi to 9th grade girls in a major Bais Yaakov, that my curriculum demanded I finish two seforim - Yehoshua and Melachim Bais - during the 4-period a week course, by the end of the year. This is an exorbitant amount of material for the girls to absorb. I asked the principal if she thought this was the best thing for the girls.

"No," she said, "but in so-and-so school [the major competitor of our school] they finish 2 seforim in the 9th grade, and if we don't, people will say the other school 'has better learning'".

The fact is, the girls' curriculum was not best for them, but the fact also is, that people would say the school has inferior learning if they did do what was best. Parents would certainly send their children to the other school, that does what's worse, but looks better on the outside, and the good girls suffer.

So there's a choice. Do what's best, or do what you need to do to survive.

We are gripped in the clutches of a Judaic "pop culture" which, like secular trends, is all fluff and no substance, but nevertheless is blindly complied with by thousands. We laugh at the mindless devotion of the goyim to fashions and fads, yet we have allowed purveyors of political correctness to create "designer chinuch", where it becomes fashionable not to finish more that 10 blatt of Gemorah a year, despite the begging and pleading of our Gedolim to speed up the pace. And the designers have as much taste for Torah education as those in Paris do for menshliche clothing.

And this is not only true with regard to teens. Adults, too, are subject to misplaced values in their own Torah learning. Thousands of laymen who do not know how to make tea on Shabbos according to Halachah, who have no clue as to whether you must wash and bentsch if you eat one slice of bread, will shortly be dedicating all their learning time for years to come to the study of how to write Gittin, how to perform Yibbum, and how to be makrev korbonos. Finishing Shas is an accomplishment, but so is keeping Shabbos. And, the Chofetz Chaim said, the only possible way to do that even once is by knowing thoroughly all the Halachos. But who wants to do what's right? We'd rather do what's popular. ("The Shach, Taz, and Drisha write that a Baal Habayis who only learns a few hours a day should learn Halachah, not Gemara. Every man must know Orech Chaim, and some Halachos of Yoreh Deah, Even Haezer, and Choshen Mishpat . . . but we see that if we will tell them this, they will not learn at all, because they only want to learn a daf of Gemara each day. Therefore, we should not disallow them to [learn daf yomi], and we hope they will do even that . . . " - Aruch HaShulchan 246:17)

We can change the system. We can improve it. But we can't do it by constantly pointing the finger at others. We need to employ a bit of sensibility when choosing Yeshivos: "What is best for my son", should be the question; "what is best for me", when choosing your own seder hayom. We should listen carefully to the direction of our Gedolim. And we should remember what our Rebbeim taught us in Cheder: Don't pay attention to fashions.

The teachers are not to blame. The "system" involves the parent body, the boards, the student body themselves, the donors, the politicians, et al, and all of them share control of the "system." The teachers, actually, have the least power of all of the above since they don’t support the school, but rather are supported by it. The supporter has the power over the supportee. The educators have tried numerous times to improve things, but the scope of their influence is ironically limited. Check out the following group of articles in the Shema Yisrael Torah Network:


It is wrong to play favorites, or to do anything that is not in line with Torah standards of Chinuch. There is no official template for Bais Yaakovs. Each individual administration runs their own school. Obviously there is one general direction that all BY's go, but regarding if they will play favorites and cater to those with money and grades depends on the individual school. Although it is true that we need our schools desperately, and that Yeshivas and BY's are holy institutions, that does not mean that any individual principal, Rabbi, or teacher is beyond reproach and is not capable of doing something wrong. Just because someone is principal of a BY does not mean they no longer have their Torah obligations, nor does it mean that everything they do is necessarily in fulfillment of those obligations.

There are too many kids that are "turned off" from Yiddishkeit because they believe that whatever happens in their school represents the Torah way. That is not always the case. Whereas in the secular world, schools are government institutions, in the Torah world, sometimes, Yeshivas and BY's are simply private institutions, and the Torah is not to be blamed for the actions of those individuals, any more than it can c"v be blamed for the actions of any Jew.
The BY movement was originally created because, due to the influence of Haskala and modernization, girls began to need formal Torah instruction in order to maintain their desire to remain committed or as committed to frumkeit.

The education of girls is not a goal in and of itself (it is by the boys) but rather a means to an end - to fortify and strengthen the girls' frumkeit. Teaching and doing whatever fortifies and strengthens the frumkeit of the girls is the reason for having girls Torah education. That is its goal.


One problem is that, due to tests, the Torah learning is not lishmah. The problem is, if you don’t test, then many students take advantage and don't learn. So it depends who you’re dealing with. Generally, in high schools they do test but post secondary schools don’t. And even when HS's do test, its often only "talking in learning" with the Menahel (that’s how it works in my son's Yeshiva). You as an individual need to find the school that suits the way you learn best. But there is still a need for the other types as well.


The cases in Nezikin really aren't the same. They look more and more the same the farther away you look at them, meaning, the less in detail. Kind of like identical twins. From far they look exactly alike, but the closer you get the more you can tell the difference. The trick here is to (a) believe b'emunah sheleimah that the cases are in fact very different and then (b) go deeper and deeper into the cases to find the differences. You should make this into a special part of your learning - to take the seemingly identical cases and find the differences, and determine why the differences in the cases make a difference in Halacha.

What you can do is, keep a special notebook for only this kind of analysis. A notebook describing all the seemingly identical cases and identifying the differences between them, and how those differences lead to Halachic differences.

This will be a beautiful project for you to work on, and will create a beautiful and very meaningful "sefer" for you to keep.

So where previously encountering seemingly identical cases were the low point of your learning, now it will be the most important part. Whenever you find such cases, work on them and ask people if necessary, until you have material for your notebook.



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