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Posts Tagged ‘education’

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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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