Posts Tagged ‘education’

Being unpopular

One of the things I find so challenging about being Jewish is that, at the same time that anti-Semitism has gotten a new lease on life (this time from the Left rather than the Right), Jews are told to sit down, shut up, and stop seeing every critique, assault, or massacre on them, their culture, and their institutions as anti-Semitism.  One of my favorite news blogs had a heated comment thread in which Rabbi Meir Kahane’s name came up, was predictably slandered, and the blogger’s rationale for practically banning discussion of his words and deeds was that Kahane was crazy (evidence: his belief that there could one day be a second Holocaust on American soil).  A high school classmate living in the Bay Area has hopped on the anti-circumcision bandwagon, and when I explained that this measure is a gross distortion of the procedure and a direct assault on the identity and practice of Jews and Muslims, she insisted that the measure, and the accompanying comics which portray mohels as evil, sinister, and fanatical, are not anti-Semitic.  And today I read that Yale University is shutting down its Initiative for the Inter-disciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism (YIISA).  Its reason?  The university claims that the initiative “has not borne the kind of academic fruit to justify its continuation,” according to Phyllis Chesler.  Chesler, who argues that the Initiative bore far more academic fruit than most academic departments and scholarly fora these days, sees a direct correlation between the shutting down of YIISA and the rise in financial contributions from Arab states and influence at the university of voices that promote Arab/Islamist/terrorist agendas.  She also perceives that the focus at YIISA on contemporary anti-Semitism’s warm home in the Arab Muslim world is unpopular in the current academic climate, which increasingly marginalizes voices which critique the messages of hate and blame that frequently come out of the Arab world’s despotic and/or Islamist regimes.

Even the Shoah, a watershed in the last century proving what inhumane depths Western civilization can sink to and the urgency of defending Jewish identity, culture, and mere existence, is under attack.  Holocaust denial by politicians and “academics” is given credence as “the other side of the story,” and infamous Holocaust deniers like Mahmoud Abbas, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Westerners like David Irving, are given the podium at universities and the UN to spout their “revisionist” history.  Those who vow “never again” are cheered and patted on the back, but if they support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against terror and mayhem, they are silenced as aiding and abetting “the Occupation.”

Those who claim to revere international law show a very vague understanding of it as it relates to Israel.  (The video below breaks down beautifully who the West Bank and Jerusalem really belong to.)

Here, too, ignorance seems to reign supreme.  Those who claim that Israel’s possession and settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem are violations of the Geneva Conventions have either never read the Geneva Conventions, or have no knowledge of the history of this region (or both).  They are ignorant of the fact that there is no precedent, historical, diplomatic, or otherwise, for earmarking these lands for Arabs to create another Arab state.  Quite the contrary, in fact; these lands belong to Israel diplomatically, historically, and in every other way.

One of the rabbis on my beit din made a little speech on the day they agreed to convert me.  He said, “The Jews are not a popular people.”  I’ve known that ever since I saw the mini-series “Holocaust” (1978, with a young Meryl Streep) on television when I was ten.  I knew it when I was told I was going to hell by a Christian classmate in Georgia when I was eleven.  And everything I’ve learned about Jewish history, from its earliest days to the present, has corroborated that statement.  That suits me fine.  I have never looked for popularity.  I’ve always been geeky, enjoyed having a small cadre of close friends and my solitude, and wouldn’t know what to do if I were suddenly sought-after.  Over the years, Jews have become more accepted in America, and this newfound measure of popularity has proved a double-edged sword: Jewish women pursued by non-Jewish men who find them “exotic,” non-Jewish women discovering that Jewish men make excellent husbands and fathers, and non-Jewish couples getting married under a chuppah because it’s a beautiful custom.  I don’t know if one sees that kind of attitude toward Jews in other parts of the world.  But if one isn’t popular, isn’t it possible at least to be accepted?  Or is the necessary opposite of popular, a pariah?  Must we be reviled, boycotted, sanctioned, and divested against?  Is it subversive for Jews to be in positions of responsibility and influence beyond their proportion in society?  Does it discomfit the world to see a Jewish state established in its homeland and able to defend itself, by itself?  Is it really so easy to believe that the Middle East’s only democracy, with freedom of press, religion, speech and all the rest, ranks with North Korea as the greatest threat to world peace?

I know that the Ahmedinejads, the Helen Thomases, and the Vanessa Redgraves don’t speak for all of humanity.  I know there are a good number of staunch supporters of Israel and Jewish life on the streets as well as in the corridors of power.  But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that Israeli Apartheid Week enjoys an increasing presence on university campuses every year (which makes me wonder whether the university community has abandoned holding students to any level of serious scholarship, or whether they stand aside and let these circuses set up every year to allow the students to blow off steam and exercise their rights to freedom of speech, even if it’s full of lies and hatred).  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the UN General Assembly invites Ahmedinejad to spew forth his wrath every year, and doesn’t rise and file out as a body while he’s speaking.  It’s hard to ignore the traction the idea of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state has gotten in the international community, when it is clear (at least to those of us living here) that such a state will not create peace in the Middle East or anywhere else, and will very likely create more war and bloodshed than ever.

So what’s a Jew to do?  Pandering is distasteful, and never garners popularity anyway.  Keep explaining ourselves?  While I may be overly pessimistic about this, I think those inclined to understand us do so already, and the rest can’t be bothered with the facts.  I remember a (Jewish) professor of mine in graduate school telling me to stick to my own path of scholarship on an assignment, saying “Don’t look left, don’t look right.”  Looking it up, I see it’s paraphrased from Isaiah 30:21.  “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk in it, when you turn to the right, and when you turn to the left.”

What matters is that we keep to the Torah, to our faith, and our ethical principles.  After that, as they say, יהיה מה שיהיה.

(Thanks to Ruti Mizrahi and Westbankmama for the video tip.)


Read Full Post »

Last year, I committed the very great heresy of telling my father that I would discourage any of my children from attending American colleges or universities.  (This from the woman with a bachelor’s and three master’s degrees from American institutions.)  My reason at the time was the overtly hostile attitude toward Israel on many American university campuses, but on further reflection, it goes much deeper than that.  It really spreads to the American academic culture’s attitude toward the West in general.

I don’t think it’s either realistic or necessary for everyone in academia to be pro-Israel.  A country so different from America, in such an incomprehensibly hostile neighborhood, and full of such internal and external complexity, is difficult to fathom for the American mind, nurtured in safety and isolation from immediate threat.  Yet those who would advocate academic boycotts against Israel overlook the fact that Israeli academic institutions, like those outside Israel, are overwhelmingly liberal in bent, and are some of the places most critical of Israel inside this country.  Those who advocate an economic boycott would be loathe to part with their cellphones, instant messaging, computer chips, and life-saving medical advances (the latter of which are made available even to Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, for free).  And those who criticize Israel’s politics seem astonishingly forgiving of the violently racist, sexist, and human rights-violating policies of the other nations in this region which don’t draw nearly the same fire from the West as Israel.

No, it’s really more the abandonment of intellectual honesty, search for truth, and acceptance of complexity in favor of one-sidedness, double standards, and oversimplification in the service of political bias that has really gotten my goat about American academia.  When I was in graduate school in English, my professor had us read the late Edward Said’s theories on “Orientalism” (basically an historically bankrupt accusation of imperialism by the West in its view of the rest of the world).  I told her I failed to see how this work bore any relation to reality, much less the literary theory we were supposed to be studying.  She asked if I had a text she could substitute for this one, and I said no.  How could I possibly justify replacing one profoundly flawed text for another?  A few months later, I sat in on a social studies class at Boston Latin school in which the teacher assigned the students an essay on capital punishment.  The students were given the choice at the beginning of class of which side to take, but then the teacher launched into a 30-minute tirade about the evils of capital punishment, its racial inequality, its brutality against the innocent, and the fact that Black men are disproportionately put to death because of it.  No information or perspective was provided about the views of those who support it, and by the end of the class period, there was little doubt in the students’ minds about which side they would be expected to take in their essays.  And when I neared the end of my teacher training and was applying for teaching jobs, I was grilled by a very irritable English department at a local public high school not about my teaching methods, my mastery of English and American poetry, prose, and drama, how I might implement the department’s curriculum, or how to deal with a class of students of different levels of ability, but which non-Western texts I would be prepared to teach in my classroom.

Not long ago, I read a very interesting article by Bernie Reeves (“Can Niall Ferguson Save Civilization?”) about the current state of higher education in America.  I was surprised at how sharply it homed in on exactly what has made me uncomfortable about so much of contemporary American educational culture.  The shift from being stuffy, stodgy places where the ancients (Greek and Latin) were read, memorized, translated, and sometimes even (gulp!) critiqued, to the current climate of anti-Western, anti-classical, anti-religion, anti-American, anti-anything-that-dead-white-men-would-have-done is documented, along with the accompanying abandonment of much of what used to constitute academic rigor and discipline.

I’m not saying that the good old days (long before I was ever in college) were the gold standard by which all education should be judged.  I recently read Yankee From Olympus, a delightful biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in which the author, Catherine Drinker Bowen, is positively withering in her description of Harvard College’s curriculum and teaching methods during Holmes’s era, which included rote memorization, discouraged debate, and shunned modern languages, sciences, and philosophy newer than the Romans.  In contemporary education, there must be a balance between the study of where we’ve been and the possible directions we may be going.  History must not hide the flaws of the past, but must focus on motivation and intention, not just misdeeds, and English must include the acquisition of skills such as close reading, vocabulary, structure and mechanics of prose and poetry, as well as a breadth of content which reflects the history, development of ideas, and experience of the English-speaking world.  I think non-Western works should not be avoided altogether, but must be chosen carefully and taught in appropriate context at the high school level, and explored in greater breadth and depth at the college level to show students with (by then) a strong background in Western civilization the ways in which non-Western though and experience differ.

One example of how not to teach non-Western experience was provided by a commenter on Reeves’s article, who reported how a child came home having studied a story about a Japanese child sick from nuclear poisoning following the US bombing of Hiroshima.  The teacher, it turned out, had not explained why America had dropped the bomb, or what would have happened if they had chosen not to.  Such incidents sow the seeds of anti-Americanism by erasing all context for the nation’s actions and focusing instead on the oppression of the powerless (civilians, children, foreigners, people of color) by the brutal, powerful West (America, Europe, and later on, perhaps Israel).  For people who teach this way (many of them, according to Reeves, 1960s campus radicals who later became college professors), history is about reading heart-rending accounts of racist atrocities, the evils of religion, the sins of the powerful against the weak, and the general revision of the way things have been taught in the past, as though everything our parents and grandparents learned were lies and whitewashes of the truth.  The belief seems to be that the side of the victors (i.e. those who write history) has already been told, and it’s time to hear the other side, but the fact is that the victors’ version has been pushed aside in recent decades, and the losers’ version is all too often the only version taught.  Those who teach this way seem more interested in dividing the world between good and bad, right and wrong, celebrated and vilified, than in understanding the sometimes complex truths behind what they see.  After all, it’s harder to feel strongly about one side or another if it’s gray rather than black or white.  It can be unsettling when things in the world don’t line up according to a binary system of good and bad.  It’s s embarrassing to discover that you know less than you thought on a subject.  It’s easier to discredit the side you don’t agree with than to suspend judgment pending understanding.  Reeves writes,

Since the new radical doctrine was incubated in socialist realism, the first objective was to manufacture equality via a perverse affirmative action initiative by elevating underdeveloped nations to equal status with the world’s greatest cultures. It was sold as ‘multiculturalism,’ and, consistent with leftist screeds, hid behind the skirts of a noble outcome – ‘inclusiveness’ – i.e. it is good to study and respect all cultures rather than emphasis on the big achievers. 

In this disguise, the real dirty work was undertaken: dismantling and de-emphasizing the achievements of the western world by dramatizing its sins in order to ‘apologize’ to the victims of imperialist exploitation and racism. To enforce the new credo on campus, the ‘politically correct’ police attacked and discredited those that dared defy the party line, labeling offenders as racist, chauvinistic, homophobic, or, of course, imperialistic. In the cloister of academic freedom, free speech was extinguished.

One need look no further than the intimidation of pro-Israel students in university classrooms, Israel Apartheid Week activities, and the booing offstage of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (himself a historian with an illustrious academic career) at UC Irvine to see the evidence for Reeves’s assessment.

It’s distressing to see so many intelligent, well-meaning people with their brains turned off.  Such people are unable to view the world the way it really is, and this leads to such far-fetched beliefs as Secretary of State Clinton’s that Bashar Assad is a reformer, that Muammar Qaddafi was a reformer (in between the Lockerbie plane bombing and the current civil war in Libya, long enough to put Libya in the chair of the UN Human Rights Council), and Israel is an apartheid state.  Reeves believes that “college graduates since the mid-80s are hopelessly clueless when it comes to comprehending current events . . .  see themselves as the cause of society’s and the world’s problems . . . and have no information or skills to frame or interpret, even as the information society serves up instantly accessible information.”  A year ago, I had an exchange with a reader following a post in which I commemorated the 90th anniversary of the San Remo Convention which established boundaries for a Jewish state to include all of what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Kingdom of Jordan.  (Jordan and its British-fabricated monarchy was set aside for the Arabs at a later date, reneging on the internationally recognized San Remo agreement.)  This can be found in multiple histories, and the map I posted was an accurate reflection of the outcome of the conference, but the reader couldn’t accept these facts as true 1) because the map was published by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (an instrument of oppression and disinformation, it seems) and 2) the reader apparently couldn’t grasp that anyone would really offer the Jews that much territory (a fair assessment in light of Britain’s perfidy in reneging on this and all subsequent agreements with the Jews, and the world’s acceptance of Arab aggression and numerous attempts to annihilate the Jews).

I would like to think that Reeves’s article (like many on the American Thinker site) is alarmist and an overreaction.  While I don’t necessarily share his belief that current anti-Western thinking in American academia is the result of Soviet-era, KGB-implemented “active measures,” my own experience—as well as what I continue to read in the press about America—seems to support his bleak prognosis.  (And I’m not even counting here the kind of talkbacks one reads at the end of online articles.)  It can be discouraging to someone who enters college hoping at last to gain a handle on the world and its workings to discover that it’s far more complicated and slippery than he or she had ever imagined.  But what’s the alternative?

Read Full Post »

Writing whoredom

I’ve done a spot of freelance editing for an agency that has tried to throw all kinds of strange projects my way.  Among the offers I’ve turned down are two to write undergraduate (i.e. college student) papers.  Besides my hesitance to write anything depending only on the Internet as a source (and the fact that, while the Efrat library has a good English fiction section, it probably lacks anything valuable in terms of  research except, perhaps, on the history of Zionism), I object on other grounds.

I remember college almost as though it were yesterday.  I spent a good portion of my time there engrossed in my studies, but certainly not all of it.  I spent time with friends, toured the cities of Boston and Cambridge, sang in the college choir, trayed down the snowy hill on which my dorm was perched, and was a coxswain in intramural crew.  I can only remember a half-dozen facts I may have learned in college, though I’m sure the academic discipline and methods of inquiry instilled in me are so ingrained by now as to be indiscernible from the rest of my education.

Looking back, I could have spent more or less time with friends, more or less time off campus, and choir, traying, and crew were strictly optional.  The one thing that was expected of me was that I produce the work products (a sterile educational term for tests, papers, and other grading instruments) necessary to earn decent grades.  (This became all the more important once a woman on my floor figured out that it cost $50 an hour for us to be there.)  That meant that if I didn’t hand in papers that were mine, then there was very little of my education that I could legitimately call my own, and my purpose for being at an academic institution could be called into serious question.

There was a recent debate on the CIWI chat list (Connecting Independent Writers in Israel) over “a standard per-page rate for upgrading the English of a 100-page MA thesis in Israel.”  The chatters were divided between those who have compassion for non-native speakers of English and people with great ideas but poor writing ability, and those who expressed their disgust with deteriorating skill and professionalism in a world where someone without the English or the writing chops can just hire someone to make them look good.  I could see both sides of the story when it comes to getting help to bring an important document up to high academic standards.

I have more difficulty with the notion of being a pen-for-hire for undergraduates whose only reason for being in college—besides discovering how much beer they can hold without passing out—is to study and to produce something of worth.

I never moralized about this to the agency that sent me the offers.  In fact, I was flattered that they thought I’d be good at it.  (See, kids?  Practice makes perfect.)  But I always politely declined.  I could never live with myself if I thought I’d helped a kid through college by doing his work for him.  The fact that in this competitive writer’s market, someone else is probably willing to turn those tricks without the pricked conscience, only makes it sadder.  (No wonder I can’t get any writing work.)

Read Full Post »

One of the most useful things I learned from attending public high school was sex ed.  It was taught to girls and boys separately (my first experience of single-sex education), discussed in an honest, factual, unabashed manner, and gave me all the information I needed about biology, pregnancy prevention, and sexually transmitted diseases, to make my choices in life.

My last two years of high school, and my year of high school teaching, were both in girls’ Catholic schools.  My high school (in Monterey, California) was unusual in that the seniors were given a day off from lessons in the spring to spend the day (including a posh luncheon) with a gynecologist imported from San Francisco.  She gave us a presentation about female sexuality, sprinkling her talk with humorous anecdotes from her private practice in The City.  She told us everything we needed to know, and then the floor was open for questions.  We were allowed to ask anything and everything we wished, and our questions were answered in full.  Recognizing that we would soon be off to college and devoid of adult supervision or counsel, the blessed sisters made an effort to provide us with as much information as possible to keep ourselves safe and healthy.

Contrast this with the year I spent teaching in a girls’ Catholic school in Newton, Massachusetts, where sex education comprised lectures about abstinence.  Please note that I was in high school in the mid-1980s, and was teaching fifteen years later.  But the school where I taught espoused the much more traditional Catholic attitude toward premarital sex and, since it was not acting in loco parentis (as my boarding school was), perhaps the administration did not feel at liberty to offer advice that might run counter to some families’ values and parenting.

But I still remember the students filing into my US history class grumbling about the abstinence-only curriculum.  “In two years we’ll be in college, and if we don’t know what we’re doing, we can get into trouble!”  They were angry at the school for denying them the information they knew they would need in order to make their own choices.  And given that one of my students (not in that class) was several months pregnant by graduation time, it’s clear that these girls were done a disservice.

All that came back to mind last week (as well as news of a 10 year old mother delivering her child in Spain recently) when a friend of the Cap’n’s who is a family physician sent him a link to a Slate Magazine article/slideshow on “The European approach to teens, sex, and love, in pictures.”  It is compiled and written by a physician who works for Planned Parenthood, and examines and contrasts advertising and attitudes toward teen sexual activity in America and Europe.  (In a nutshell, it shows that Europeans accept that many young people are sexually active and use humor to teach about condoms, encouraging young people to be prepared.  Americans view youth sex as bad, carrying a condom is perceived negatively both for girls and boys, and Madison Avenue prefers fearful messages  to sell condoms.)  It should interest parents, teachers, media analysts, psychologists and health educators, as well as anyone else who takes an interest in the next generation.

Click here to view it.  I’d be interested in comments from readers on both sides of The Pond.

Read Full Post »

Talboshet achida

Amid the filling out of forms, organizing notebooks, sharpening pencils, and other such school prep trivia, I have also been buying Beans and Peach uniform shirts (talboshet achida).  It seems Education Minister Gideon Saar has issued a proclamation that all kids in elementary and middle schools must wear uniform shirts: solid color t-shirts with the school insignia silkscreened on the upper left of the chest.  (Pants and skirts seem not to be an issue with the Education Ministry at this time.)

Having worked in schools for many years, I am aware of the many issues around children’s clothing.  There are the economic differences between wealthier and poorer students.  There are the fashions and fads that come and go.  And there are the clothes of questionable taste (slutwear, shirts sporting innuendoes, etc.).   Uniforms offer a low-tech solution to many of these problems.

As it happens, I am not thrilled at having to buy special shirts for my girls for school.  In the past few years, I have bought them beautiful long-sleeved cotton dresses to wear in the cooler weather that are more comfortable worn with pants and leggings than skirts are (with their two waistbands bunched together).  And the style of these uniform shirts is very little different from the shirts I normally buy for them, so now they have a closet brimming with two wardrobes worth of short-, ¾-length, and long-sleeved t-shirts, some with and some without insignia.

But even I can see an advantage in these uniform shirts.  I’ve never bought the argument that children (i.e. anyone under university level) MUST express themselves through their clothing.  (On the contrary, I think it leads to stereotyping and cliques much more than everyone wearing the same clothing but being viewed much more as individuals.)  And good riddance now to the phone calls from the rav at Peach’s school about the length of Peach’s sleeves.  Beans’s school, with characteristic ditziness, waited until I’d already bought short-sleeved shirts for the warm weather and long-sleeved shirts for the winter to email the parents and request that we buy only long-sleeved shirts for the girls.  At least the shirts are inexpensive, and I bought both girls at least a size or two bigger than what they really wear to avoid buying new ones every year.  They’re not of the highest quality, though, so we’ll see how long they last.  I heard one parent lament that the silkscreening is poor quality and that the insignia will wear off quickly.  Who cares? I answered.  They’re still the uniform shirts.  If they want me to bring them in and have the insignia reapplied, I’ll do it (as long as it’s free).  If not, I won’t, and they’ll wear them as they are.

So while I don’t necessarily share the Education Minister’s concerns about inappropriate clothing (at least where my own children are concerned), in principle I am supportive of uniforms.  In my last two years of high school, I attended a girls’ school where we wore uniforms.  We looked like 1960s hospital nurses during the warmer months and—with our red-and-green Dewar plaid kilts—like Christmas trees in winter.  But still, I loved not wondering what I would wear every morning.  I loved that while the rich girls may have had cashmere or lambswool sweaters compared to the other girls’ cotton or acrylic, at least from a reasonable distance we weren’t really distinguishable.  Geeks looked like the drama queens, who looked like the debutantes, who looked like the field hockey jocks, who looked like everyone else.  And I like the notion that kids should not judge others or be judged themselves by what they wear, and should express their individuality through their middot (positive character), talents, strengths, interests, and promise.

After all, uniforms don’t impose any roles or expectations on kids, do they?

Read Full Post »

Whenever the Cap’n and I go to a mall, one of the stops we always make is to a Steimatzky’s book shop.  The Cap’n likes to see what sci fi books are out in English (or Hebrew) that he hasn’t read yet, and I usually wander over the rest of the English language book section.  The part that always depresses me, though, are the several shelves dedicated to Middle East peace.

It’s usually three or four shelves full of books describing the baby steps, the photo-ops, the missed opportunities, and the myth-making that have gotten in the way.  When people talk about the many successes Israel has enjoyed in its young existence as a state, one of them is the publishing industry.  Israel publishes 6,866 books per year, compared to 3,686 in Lebanon, 2,215 in Egypt, 1,800 in Syria, and 511 in Jordan (based on this Wikipedia page.)  But of those books published, I sometimes wonder how many are about the failed peace process.   It seems that many more people have cashed in on the lack of peace here than have gotten their hands dirty trying to make some.

My father recently sent me the syllabus of a Williams College professor who teaches a seminar on “historical narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”  His books include such reads as Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows which claims to document the collaboration and exploitation of Arabs who sympathized with the Zionist cause, Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Sa’di and Abu-Lughod’s Nakba, and Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots, about how Israelis have taken the historical events of Masada, the Bar Kochba rebellion, and Tel Hai and transformed them from bloody defeats into heroic national narratives.  In other words, this course is dedicated to a “they said, they said” version of events (which at best, in the end, suggests they’re both employing myths, lies, and half-truths to serve their own interests).  Texts appear chosen for their polemical value on both sides (with Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel pitted against Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage) and are no doubt intended to “spark discussion.”  (This rationale, it should be noted, also contributed to Jimmy Carter’s insistence, despite others’ efforts to discourage him, on giving his recent libel the title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.)

As I wrote my father, I am deeply concerned about the sort of discussion that is likely to take place after reading texts that shed plenty of heat, but no light, on something as complex as the conflict here.  I’ve written before that anyone who seeks to understand the Middle East would do well to read fact-filled, coolly written books and articles in order to understand not only the claims made by the combatants, but also the events and deeds they neglect to mention when making their cases.  I like to think that higher education is in the service of teaching people to think, research, get the facts, and love and pursue truth.  Taking a class like the one at Williams does none of those things, and at a cost of  $39,250 per year (excluding room, board, and fees) is a colossal waste of money.

And like that Williams professor and his syllabus, all the books like the ones on the shelves at Steimatzky’s, and the journalists and professors who write them, seem more interested in rehashing the same tired claims, repeating the same old myths, rather than putting forward any new information.  Professor Shlomo Sand has made waves recently in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, by recycling the old, long-discredited claim that all the Jews are descended from the Khazars, and therefore have no historical claim to this land.  Academics Ilan Pappé and Neve Gordon both traveled abroad to encourage academics in America and Britain to boycott Israel.  And Haaretz’s editor, David Landau, told former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Israel “wanted to be raped.”  With media moguls and professors like these, I’m reading the Jerusalem Post and sending my kids to NYU!  (Not Columbia, which employed the great mythmaker Edward Said until his death and invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak.)

I will still go to Steimatzky’s with the Cap’n, but in future  I’ll stick to the sci fi.  At least there, there’s always something new under the sun.

Read Full Post »

Teaching teachers

My father recently sent me an article from The New York Times critiquing the way teachers are prepared for their profession in the US.

I have long believed that teachers are very poorly taught (after having gone through a well-reputed program myself), and have discussed this matter with other teachers.  I was pleased with this article because it validated many of the criticisms I and other teachers have of teacher training programs.  I and others believe that programs need to be more selective of the type of individual they accept, the programs must be free of charge, teachers need to continue their studies in the subject they expect to teach, student teachers need to be mentored more, with more time spent with cooperating teachers, supervisors, and fellow teaching students to analyze what happens in the classroom, including videotaping teaching frequently to review a student teacher’s performance.  And new teachers need to be supported through stipends and through hiring of other new teachers to create a supportive, energetic community of educators to keep new teachers from burning out quickly.

If this interests you, have a read of this article, and let me hear your comments on it.

Read Full Post »

National identity

Ilana-Davita recently had a discussion on her blog of the recent controversy in France (sparked by Switzerland’s ban on minarets) over what constitutes national identity.  This got me thinking about the dozens of discussions I’ve had on this subject, and inspired this post.  (Thanks, Ilana-Davita!)

I know the US has struggled with this for decades, trying to reconcile whether it sees itself as a melting pot (which takes a few generations post-immigration to effect) or as a smörgåsbord, where everyone lives side by side but maintains their own distinct cultural affiliation.

I think one can see both.  Catholics marry Protestants, Jews marry Koreans, and everyone eats pasta.  On the other hand, regional accents and culture often outlast that culture’s hegemony in a given part of the country, giving California a distinctly Hispanic and Italian flavor, the Northeast a cuisine and city names that mirror those of Great Britain, and the Midwest an obvious Germanic influence which has led to the custom of having cookie tables at weddings—besides the meal and the wedding cake—and not only for people with Germanic-sounding last names.

I know the fears that underlie some people’s asking what has happened to America’s national identity.  Some are afraid that the influx of immigrants from countries that do not share the American values of freedom, civil rights, and sense of fair play will erode the nation’s safety, unity, and standing in the world.  Certainly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were a slap in the face of freedom, since the attackers  availed themselves of many of the freedoms that America offers that their home countries do not, and used those freedoms to slaughter innocent Americans (as well as foreign nationals).  There is also a sense that attempts at cultural inclusiveness, particularly in public schools, are compromising the quality of education by sidelining Western history and literature, and including subjects and texts which may lack the educational value of the older curriculum.

I don’t really like this argument, and I don’t find I agree with either side wholeheartedly.  I agree that texts by Charles Dickens are much richer sources of English vocabulary than nearly anything else out there, but I also found Chinua Achebe’s simply but beautifully written Things Fall Apart to be as valuable in addressing human themes as anything Camus may have written.  If education is about acquiring cultural knowledge, then the bulk of the texts used in schools should reflect that attitude and introduce all children, no matter their background, to the sources of the values Westerners hold dear.  If, on the other hand, education is about acquiring skills first, and cultural knowledge second, then teachers should feel free to use non-Western texts that foster the teaching of those skills.  It’s a difficult choice to make for educators and curriculum directors, and one that I think has not been addressed successfully at a national level.

I am familiar with some of the arguments in favor of “multi-cultural” education.  The argument that children cannot relate to stories, pictures, and math problems that don’t reflect who they are is one of the main ones.  I’m afraid I’m less sympathetic to these arguments than most, and some of that stems from being Jewish.  Jewish kids don’t go to public school expecting to read Roth, Bellow, and Doctorow.  They don’t expect to encounter word problems in math about doing comparative shopping for tefillin or a set of the Babylonian Talmud.  They go to read Jefferson, Scott Fitzgerald, and learn about the Civil War.  They learn how to be Jewish at home, at synagogue, and—if their families have the desire and the means—at day school.  I think the same should go for kids of other ethnic and religious backgrounds.  (And I definitely think people who want to teach their children Creationism—or, more politically correctly, “intelligent design”—should do so at home and at church.)  Their native languages can be learned at home or privately, their religions from their families, and their own culture’s literature at home or at the library.  No public school is going to be able to take on the mammoth task of teaching every child every other child’s culture, nor should it have to.  Where a non-Western text reflects universal human themes, or a novel or story addresses the question, “What is an American?” it is clearly relevant to the curriculum.

It is true that children growing up in America, Britain, France, China, and the Congo are all going to be citizens of the world.  But it is also true that without a firm foundation in what it means to be a citizen of a country, or of a community, I am not convinced that being a citizen of the world naturally follows.  This too comes from being Jewish.  We had friends in the US who insisted, while living in our largely Jewish Boston suburb, on shlepping their kids to a more culturally diverse neighborhood to go to nursery school.  Their rationale was that while they may be Jewish, they wanted their children to grow up knowing kids from other, non-Jewish backgrounds.  While I understand their desire for their children to know people from other cultural affiliations, I wasn’t sure that that was an essential goal for pre-school-aged children, or justified the gas or time in the car to achieve it.  My attitude is that young children should first be taught who they are, and afterward (from 5th grade or so on) be taught about other people.

At the Crunch family dinner table, we discuss the children’s days, the holidays, the weekly parashah, Jewish history, and Torah values in general.  We also discuss the children’s secular and non-Jewish family, and how they are spending their holiday season.  We talk about Arabs, and their complex society and different religion.  We talk about what it was like to live in a predominantly Christian country as minority Jews.  We are confident that while our children will grow up with a firm identity as Jews, and while they may not see Christians or secular Jews or Japanese on a regular basis, they will not faint dead away when they do see them.

Besides being an issue of national identity, I believe it’s an issue of social cohesion.  America has a culture all its own (just ask the British), and immigrants who make their way there—as well as native-borns—should see that culture reflected in the country’s educational system.  As Daniel Gordis writes in Does the World Need the Jews?, the shared cultural values that Americans have are the glue that holds them together as a nation.  Not only does it establish an understanding of what America is about to its children, it creates a sense of unity and—potentially—peace among the adults who participate in it.  This does not mean that everyone must share the same political ideas, religious beliefs, or Thanksgiving menu.  It should mean, however, that everyone is agreed on what the country’s foundations should be.  In other words (to paraphrase a fascinating discussion in Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel), Americans need to decide whether America is diverse, or whether America is about diversity.  The former merely describes America’s cultural make-up; the latter indicates a mission to pursue diversity and make that part of the national agenda.

This is a complicated debate, and I have only given my two cents’ worth here.  What are your thoughts, readers?

Read Full Post »

All-girls education

I promised in a comment exchange on yesterday’s post to write about single-sex education, and here it is.

Until 11th grade, I attended mostly public, co-ed schools.  I liked school, was a good student, and both because of my success in school and because I was one of the older students in the class, I was often viewed as a leader in my class.

But over the years, I began to notice trends that I didn’t like.  I noticed that girls were often much more concerned with what they looked like (hair, make-up, clothes) than they were with their subjects in school.  Many wouldn’t raise their hand and participate in class.  At the same time, boys were louder, even if they weren’t as smart as the girls in class.  Most of the kids who misbehaved and disrupted the class were boys.  And it was impossible to ignore that a significant amount of the emotional energy of both boys and girls went into trying to appear favorable in front of the opposite sex.  I had friends of both sexes, but often found friendships with boys to be less stressful.

In 11th grade, I opted to try boarding school for my last two years of high school.  I was disgusted with the class sizes, budget cuts, and lousy faculty at my local public high school, and my parents were agreeable.  I applied to a small co-ed prep school and a slightly larger all-girls prep.  I got into both, but because I believed I should cultivate more friendships with other girls, I chose the girls’ school.

I was pleased with my choice.  There were girls I had nothing in common with, just as there had been in public school.  But in general, there was a greater feeling of comradery among my classmates (though I was given to understand that my class was kinder than average for the school).  I loved that there were no boys at the school, so bad-hair days were a source of mirth rather than humiliation.  Spirits ran high at the school, and pranks and fun were around every corner.  The faculty was of a high caliber, and they were there entirely for us girls.  I fell in with a group of girls who were also good students who called themselves the Geek Clique.  We were not the prettiest, or the wealthiest, or the most socially elite, but we stuffed the top slots in the class ranks and had a wonderful time.

I had a similar experience in college, where I chose a large state university because it was cheap, and ended up pining for the more intimate, serious atmosphere of a women’s college.  (I transferred to a women’s college in the middle of my sophomore year.)  And I had similar experiences in Jewish learning and graduate school, starting in co-ed and ultimately choosing all-women’s settings.

Early in our marriage, the Cap’n brought home a book from the library entitled All Girls: Single-sex education and why it matters by Karen Stabiner.  It was a fascinating read, and while I was already sold on all-girls’ education, the Cap’n lacked my first-hand experience and learned a good deal about the issue from the book.  In the end, we both hoped our girls would have access to that education at some point in their lives.

I know most of the criticisms of all-girls’ education.  It’s not the real world.  What are boys supposed to do if the girls go off and learn at all-girls’ schools?  Aren’t girls from all-girls’ schools at a grave disadvantage when it comes to functioning in the world of men?

First of all, school is about as far from the real world as anything can be, and it doesn’t matter whether boys are there or not.  The purpose of school is not to recreate the read world; it’s to do something to prepare children for it.  (Or, if you’re really cynical, to keep kids occupied while their parents are at work.)  School isn’t like a job; there’s no pay (except grades), no practical skills taught that could help one make a living.  In my view, it doesn’t really matter that it’s not the real world; the goal is to create the best environment possible for children to learn.  By eliminating some of the factors that distract or interfere with learning (such as the pressures that accompany the presence of the opposite sex), one gives girls the best chance at succeeding in school.

Never fear; there are not nearly enough all-girls schools to siphon off a significant portion of the female population, denying the boys what many claim is the “civilizing factor” that girls provide in co-ed schools.  There are enough parents and adults who remain convinced that co-ed school is more like the real world to keep all the girls from fleeing such schools.

And no, girls from all-girls’ schools are not at a disadvantage when functioning in the world of men.  Having been nurtured in an environment which is created for them—for their style of communicating, for their needs, for their extra-curriculars, for their ways of learning—they emerge with confidence, strength, and assertiveness.  They are accustomed to hearing female voices—voices which are often shouted down in the world of men.  They are in a better position to scrutinize the world and if they find it lacking, see where it needs to be improved.

I believe that girls educated in all-girls’ or all-women’s institutions see the world differently.  When I began graduate school in a large New England campus, I couldn’t help but notice that a large portion of the campus was dominated by a stadium.  And this stadium, I knew from attending women’s colleges that didn’t have them, was two things to the college: a large money-maker for the institution, and a monument to men’s sports (i.e. testosterone).  There were sports halls where women’s sports were held, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. sociologist to notice that the sports most people (especially men) turn out for are played by men.  I couldn’t help but think how primitive that is, how gladiator-like.

I have women friends who totally reject the value of girls’ education.  If they had the option, they would probably send their girls to co-ed schools all their lives.  (Religious education in Israel, however, rarely offers this as an option.)  But I believe these women are unusual in their personalities.  They are intellectual power-houses, outspoken, and blissfully unaware of some of the pressures girls feel when in school in co-ed environments.  They are not typical, in my opinion.

I no more think of myself as putting my daughters at a disadvantage by giving them single-sex educations than I do by changing Bill’s diapers.  It is true that in the real world there will be no one to wait on him hand and foot like I am now.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he needs this kind of care and nurturing now to prepare him for the challenges of the real world, just as it will be nice when Banana gets to girls’ kindergarten next year and doesn’t answer the question, “How was your day?” with “Good—no one hitted me, no one kicked me, and no one pushed me off a chair.”

Whether we will make the decision to send Bill through an all-boys track, or keep him with girls as long as possible remains to be seen.  I imagine it will depend on his personality, how he socializes with other children, and his own desires.

Read Full Post »

Those racist Jews

I used to bristle whenever I would hear people describe the Jews as a “race.”  Not a nation, not a people, but a “race.”  The fact that one cannot convert to a race (no matter how much I may want to be Nepalese, it’ll never happen) never seems to deter them from this bizarre notion.  Hitler y”s called us a race.  We all know what that led to.

And now a UK Jewish school admissions policy is “racist,” a court rules.  “Racist” here is used interchangeably with “religious” by English courts.  A 12-year-old kid whose mother converted via the Progressive movement in England was denied admission to the school, which only accepts students who are halachically Jewish.  A high court judge got the definition right—that it’s based on religious, not racial grounds.  But that ruling has been struck down in an appeal to another court that rules that (according to the child’s lawyer) “It is unlawful for a child’s ethnic origins to be used as the criterion for entry to a school.  Such a practice is even more unacceptable in the case of a comprehensive school funded by the taxpayer.”  On a good day, I don’t think most people in the world understand the Jews, and here Jews by birth and Jews by choice are being called separate races and ethnicities by a court of law.  In what appears a terrible miscarriage of justice, the British court system has seen fit to interfere with a religion’s right to define itself.

And yet.  On the one hand, I’m applauding Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s eloquent defense of the school’s admission policy.  But on the other hand, as an American who remembers the media hoo-hah surrounding the attempt by a woman in 1995 to gain admission to the Military College of South Carolina (aka the Citadel), I’m also brought up short in my support of the school’s policy.  A school that agrees to accept federal funding is also, whether it likes it or not, agreeing to accept federal intervention in how it runs itself.  It must comply with federal laws, and in the case of the Citadel, that involved the requirement to provide equal access to women in the traditionally all-male institution (discrimination on the basis of sex being prohibited by federal law).

As tempting as it is for religious schools to accept government funding to help defray their exorbitant costs, this is where accepting that funding gets sticky.  If this Jewish school in the UK accepts government funds, it becomes subject to the laws of the land, including the right of the not-so-pro-Jewish courts to meddle in its admissions policies (not to mention call it racist).  And the same will go for Jewish day schools in America if, as many Jews who support vouchers will find out, they too decide to let the government get involved.

Read Full Post »

It’s graduation season.  How many of us remember any of the graduation speeches given at high school, college, or beyond?  For me, high school was a yawn, college was a drag.  Graduate school was better—Anita Hill.  (Wish I had every word she said on paper to reread.)

Graduates are so giddy from delight at being finished with the long haul of studies, and full of emotion (delight at being through with exams, regret at the cessation of parties and late-night nacho fests, and perhaps fear at the more sobering future staring them in the face), that it’s usually impossible for them to focus on or remember what was said to them on that day.  I remember lining up for my college graduation, being handed a red carnation to drop at the feet of the trustees on my way to get my diploma (a gesture to protest the college’s investment in businesses that dealt with the then-apartheid South African government), and the popping sound as Irene Zuckerman, the last student to receive her diploma, uncorked a bottle of champagne and poured it on her head and the heads of those sitting near her.  And that’s about it.

So here’s a challenge: If you were to write a graduation speech that’s worth listening to and even more importantly, worth remembering, what would you say?  What’s required to keep the attention of kvelling parents, bored faculty, and spacy students?  Where does the correct balance lie between substance and humor?  (Yes, I said “humor.”  Let’s not take ourselves too seriously here.)  How short can you make it and still make you earn your imaginary honorarium?  What do you have to say that would be of use to a bunch of kids about to be unleashed on the “real world”?

Now write one.  Post it on your own blog, or email it to me at hashimshonit@gmail.com and let me post (part or all) of it here.  Pass this challenge on to other people, and post the challenge on your own blog, too.  Let’s get these things written by June 4 (two weeks from now).

Aaaaaaaannnnnnndddddddd, GO!

Read Full Post »