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An F for a flawed view of public education
November 2nd, 2007
Like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, I spent a large part of my life in England. I also sent a child for a good part of her education to a Jewish day school.
I only had one child to finance instead of his seven, but I certainly understand the difficulty of supporting children at expensive Jewish private schools. Like him, I felt the spiritual and moral importance of a Jewish education for my child.
Like him, I yearn for a society and world in which children are educated in the belief that life is more than the pursuit of money and recognition.
I also share some of his concerns about public schools in the United States as places that sometimes fail to provide safe and ethically uplifting environments for many children.
But Boteachs article shows that his personal travail has fueled an anger that clouds his thinking about parochial and public education.
First, there is no easy equivalence between attendance at religious school and moral character.
Parochial schools in America, of all stripes, have a long and shameful history of providing a refuge for parents who have supported white flight from diverse schools. It is well documented that they have allowed and facilitated detestable racial, class and ethnic segregation in U.S. society.
As Jews, we especially understand the centrality of social justice to an ethical world. As such, we must face the way religious schools, including Jewish ones, can provide a vehicle to deny our responsibility for moving toward a more just and inclusive community.
Second, honesty demands we acknowledge that the imperative to provide a fast track toward the Ivy League is as important in the goals of most Jewish schools, and in the minds of parents who send children to them, as any more laudable ethical pretension.
Such schools typically provide an environment that privileges one small group of young people with all the advantages that money can buy.
Finally, Boteachs crude depiction of drug addicts and liquor store robbers as the inevitable product of the public schools is inaccurate and racist.
Many years ago, I was a lay chaplain to a British prison, visiting the Jewish inmates on Passover. I remember trying to convince my mother that there were Jews strictly Orthodox, hitherto active members of their synagogues who were incarcerated for fraud, theft, even murder.
Moreover, Jewish religious schools have no shortage of the usual ethical and social concerns: cheating among students, aggressively competitive and selfish behavior, drug abuse or overly materialistic priorities.
The expectation that we are all enjoined to support public education represents, for me, an extraordinarily important commitment. Indeed, in this time of increasing concern with private wealth and individual advantage, this commitment has become ever more important.
Public education embodies a democratic vision of a place that brings together children from all across our diverse society and offers them a common and shared experience.
This noble idea is undermined frequently by wealth, segregated housing, racial separation, etc. Yet before we push it aside in the name of free choice, of the Its my money, and I ought to be able to do with it as I like attitude, and of a preference for schools that reflect my kind of people and values, we need to look at our fragmenting and increasingly balkanized world.
Are there not good reasons to support and protect financially and in terms of our own childrens participation an institution that maintains a vision of our shared connections and responsibilities?
I insisted that my daughter split her education between Jewish and public schools for this very reason. It seemed to me a moral necessity that as she formed her personality and outlook, she should spend time with others whose experience in the world differed from hers.
Her interactions and friendships with Christian, Muslim and Hindu children, as well as African-American, Asian-American, gay and lesbian young people made her a more sensitive, compassionate and justice-minded individual. Her love of and commitment to Judaism were enriched, not undermined, by this experience.
We can have both religious and public education. But in the face of a prevailing public policy agenda that has lionized the marketplace and private interest over everything else, we need to protect institutions that speak not in the name of a particular group or limited interest, but as the embodiment of our common concern for a caring and inclusive culture.
Then there is the American commitment to separation of church and state. Jews, for generations, have been staunch supporters of this idea and have benefited from the legally sanctioned determination to ensure that no particular religious tradition could be imposed on children who are not part of any dominant denomination.
I grew up in England. I know from personal experience the embarrassment, even shame, that is the result of being educated in a religiously alien environment.
Sadly, Boteach uses his fury at the demand that he be responsible for the well-being of other children to engage in a diatribe about the supposed assault against God and religion in American schools and society.
I have been around public educators for many years. I know such accusations have little to do with real attitudes of the majority of teachers and administrators, who are as likely as other U.S. citizens to attend religious institutions and believe in a deity.
There is a spiritual and moral crisis in this country. But its sources are not found in public education, which is an easy scapegoat.
Moreover, this crisis will not be resolved by paying tuition for Boteachs children or by providing him or others with vouchers to attend private schools. Any such change would divert precious funds from a system that is already seriously hard-pressed and ensure even greater deprivation for many of the children who depend on it.
Our crisis is the manifestation of a society where children are urged by the dominant economic and cultural institutions to pursue a shallow materialism, to seek selfish advantage over others, to care little about growing social inequities, and to celebrate power, status, and violence. Whatever their pious rhetoric, our political leaders are the guardians and guarantors of this system.
Public education may mediate our societys cultural values, but it is not the source of the moral crisis they embody. And private religious schools are almost certainly not the solution Boteach makes them out to be.
Svi Shapiro is director of the Ph.D. program in Curriculum and Teaching Studies Specialization at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
This article appeared originally on www.beliefnet.com, the multi-faith Web site for religion, spirituality, inspiration and more. Used with permission. All rights reserved.