Thursday, September 23, 2021

Even Though the Constitution Guarantees Religious Freedom...

The debate seems to never end. There is yet another article about the conflict between the government and those religious schools that refuse to offer a secular curriculum for part of their school day. The title of that article says it all: Religious Education under Secular Assault 

In a somewhat lengthy article, Rick Plasterer rehashes the issues and suggests that there ought to be room to allow some schools to not offer any secular studies and devote their entire day to religious studies. And in any case the government should not be dictating how religious schools educate their children as a matter of religious freedom. He notes that the skills learned in those schools are undervalued by the state. I’m sure that’s true. but even if the the state did give them the proper value, it would still not be enough.

I am so tired of this. The fact is that the vast majority of Orthodox schools offer a secular studies curriculum. Some better than others. But in all cases they should not be targets of government regulators. They should be left alone. It is only a few -  mostly Chasidic schools that refuse to offer any secular studies at all that should be focused upon. There is no need for the government to change their policy. 

On the other hand, shouldn’t the ‘Free Exercise’ clause of the 1st Amendment guarantee that schools may choose to devote their entire day to religious studies if they so choose? Attorney Jay Ferguson, who is now head of Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas. – a Christian school -  made the following argument: 

Parents choose religious education, he said, precisely because “they do not want a substantially equivalent education for their children, and to force it on them isn’t freedom; it’s antithetical to the principles of the republic.” If the state wants to ensure quality of education, it can do so through the accreditation process,...

I do not see that as a way to get those Chasidic children educated. Their religious leaders could not care less about accreditation.

The ‘fix’ is simple. There is no need to change anything other than enforcement of the already existing rules. The state was negligent about that in the past. Those schools were simply ignored. That is where the state failed. And that is what should change. Leave the vast majority of schools that offer a secular studies curriculum alone. Focus only on those schools that refuse to offer them. If they don’t comply, then I would support shutting them down. The Free Exercise clause ought not enable wide spread illiteracy among certain Chasidic groups.

I realize that one can function in society without a secular education. There are plenty of illiterate people on the planet. Some of them do quite well. But for the Jewish people that ought not be our bottom line. Why shouldn’t all of our religious schools have a higher standard than simply functioning at a  base level in society? Why must we condemn so many of our people to live their lives limiting opportunity for lack of an education? Why  not instead expand  their opportunities for success? Just because their community as a whole is satisfied how their children are educated, does not mean they aren’t short changing them. Ignorance is not bliss.

The bottom line for me is that a religious education alone is not enough. Even though that kind of education is way ahead of public schools on some areas –  like in teaching them  critical thinking skills... there are other skills that are essential for living in the modern era  – which are not taught.

I believe that at least in part, the motivation of the Chasidic communal leaders in not offering a secular curriculum is  to keep them insulated from the rest of the world. They do not want any outside cultural influences to impact their people. Keeping them illiterate helps accomplish that. 

But that is no longer possible anyway. We now live in world that is tied together electronically. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach them how to navigate that world than to try and insulate them from it – which is in any case a losing battle?

I have been told that some of these schools have made some progress along these lines. I wonder though whether that includes even a minimal part of their day devoted to secular studies? My guess is that it does not. And that there  are still some schools that refuse to do that! I will be happy to be proven wring. Any improvement that does not include part of day devoted to secular studies is not enough. That is what has to change. There has to be a dual curriculum in every religious school. That is the best if not the only way to become more productive individually as well as communally in our world today.