Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Dumbing Down of Our Children

One of the biggest problems facing Jewish educators today is the dumbing down of today’s youth. I’ve been told that young people who are in the upper grades in high school can barely read a page of Gemarah and have difficulty reading even an easy Tosfos - a basic medieval commentary on virtually every page of Gemarah.

This seems to be a common problem that runs throughout the spectrum of Orthodoxy, whether in Modern Orthodox Yeshivos or Charedi ones. I spoke to a Mechanech of big Charedi Yeshiva yesterday and he corroborated this. He added that there are a great many exceptions however. Some of those students are indeed quite capable and are budding Talmidei Chachamim – Talmudic Scholars. Some of those are even of such high caliber that may go on to be Gedolei Torah - if they stay on course. But there is at least a sizable minority - if not majority - of students that are woefully lacking basic knowledge or skills.

The question is why? Why has the student been dumbed down in our age? There are many possible reasons for this but let me suggest a few.

One reason that I believe this is happening is that there are just too many students. We now live in an age where going to a post high school Yeshiva is a must. It doesn’t matter whether one is modern orthodox or Charedi. This is what happens.

I am not saying this is wrong. In fact I support it. One should be able to study Torah full time for at least a year or two no matter what his capabilities. The more one learns the better off he will be. It will also keep him in an environment of religious peers longer and that will strengthen his observance. So I support it whole heartedly. But I think that helps explain what is going on a bit.

This is not how it used to be in my day back in the sixties. Not every student is capable of reaching great heights in learning. If not for the current ‘push’ to continue learning Torah post high school some of these students would have gone on to other endeavors such as college, trade school, or just finding a job – as they did in my day. The net result is that a lot of mediocre students end up learning in an environment that was formerly reserved for the best and the brightest- an environment that always had high standards and high expectations for their students.

That helps explain some of the problem. But it is more than that. The Charedi Mechanech I spoke to yesterday had a different spin – and I think he’s right. He believes that today’s world just has too many distractions. It is in overload in that department. Growing up in it lessens the time one spends developing proper learning skills. This is true whether one is a genius or not. The distractions that exist today are in some cases mind blowing! And very time consuming.

When I was growing up, it was basically television and an occasional movie. Today, there are not only those choices but there is cable, and pay per view. There is far more variety of entertainment to chose from in exponentially greater numbers. The technology has advanced to produce things like HDTV and big screens. Adding to that is the seven speaker ‘Dolby’ surround sound. And all this technology is becoming more affordable every day – notwithstanding the poor economy we are in. This has made the attraction even more enticing.

In my day, if you wanted to listen to music, you basically had two choices. AM radio or the phonograph at home. Today the radio gives you a multitude of options: AM, FM, satellite; with choices of music or talk of every possible genre. Then there is the I-pod. This has redefined portability. It gives you the ability to listen to high quality sound of just about anything imaginable at will – available for download on the Internet.

One of the biggest problems is the Internet itself. Aside from the typical problems associated it, even the most kosher material can take up huge amounts of time in a person’s day. And need I mention the enormous amounts of time spent on computer games with forever improving graphics - making them more enticing than ever?

It is obvious to me that no matter how sheltered one is, these distractions take their toll to one degree or another. If a student is very bright he may suffer a bit but will easily catch up to where he is supposed to be in learning. But most people are not like that. They need to spend the time it takes to develop learning skills to advance in Torah learning –or any learning for that matter.

I don’t have any solutions. One thing I do know is that isolation does not help much. The numbers of students that have these problems in Charedi Yeshivos gives lie to that as a real solution. Sticking one’s head in the sand and denying it won’t change anything. Everyone encounters one or more of these pitfalls in some way at some point in their lives. It’s just a matter of degree. Besides - there is an upside to modern technological developments- so avoiding them completey is not a good idea anyway. How do we handle it? I don’t know. Parental control is where to start. But I have no particular advice as to how to effectively change the current dynamic. But it is pervasive and too important to ignore.