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OP-JED
OPINIONS ON JEWISH EDUCATION

The Closing of the One-Year-Program Mind

"Hashem is SO cool....you know, He's, like, my best friend." So exclaimed Ariella (real person, fake name) in November, not long into her post-high school year of study in Israel.

Ariella had been the pride and joy of her high-school administration. She is smart and well-spoken, attractive and cool. She considers her Limudei Kodesh seriously - as a matter of schooling and as a guiding force for how she wants to live. A year in Israel after high school graduation is as natural to her academic journey as the B.A. that follows it. Her only question was which of several institutions would suit her best.

Remarkably, however, Ariella is hard-pressed to articulate why she has traveled six-thousand miles for a year of yeshiva study. "It's what you do...it's what everyone does." Unlike some of her classmates, she needed no push by her high school administration. And, yes, she's thrilled to be in Israel - "It's fabulous! So many great tiyulim, and the girls are great and the teachers are great." But she has no conscious personal goals, which makes it unlikely that she will attain them. The year in Israel has been transformed from a year of intensive Torah education to a "gap year" of entertainment, diminished responsibilities, and personal release from some of the academic pressures of high school (where grades really matter).

There are two sides to the gap-year coin. The first, good side, is that many more people are coming. But the second, bad side, involves a watering down of the learning and the seriousness of the endeavor. The coming paragraphs will focus on this downside, though I admit that it is probably not easy to improve things.

What, then, is the problem? More students are coming now than in the years passed, which has sprouted more yeshivas to serve their needs. This proliferation of new programs is a blessing, both because it enables students to find programs that are right for them and because, in theory, greater competition should force programs to make themselves better. Yet, what's really happening is that competition pushes the yeshivas to sell their products by making the students happier. To some extent, the yeshivas and women's programs have become merchandise, and the administrations therefore must hawk their wares to the customer. And the customer, as we know, is always right.

To make matters worse, schools are under enormous pressure to make their customers/students happy quickly. If the current students are not pleased with their institution when recruiting season begins in early November (at the latest), even those who are most appropriate to follow in their friends' tracks are unlikely to do so. No recruiter wants to sit down at an Israel night and hear the following question: "Well, I was considering your yeshiva, but I just heard from my friend who said that it is too hard for him and he's not enjoying himself." There is not enough time for a teacher to explain to students, "Yes, this is hard, and it's going to stay hard for weeks, if not months. If you struggle in the beis medrash and concentrate and review, after a few months of frustration you will reap your own reward." That's what my rebbeim told me in yeshiva many years ago. Today, it's hard to imagine anybody saying anything like that in a great many schools. Good education takes time, effort and personal investment. In this era of instantaneous gratification, however, students often lack the patience to invest and wait to reap their rewards.

Furthermore, instantaneous communication means that parents can contact school administrators at the first sign of complaint, grievance, or even simple discomfort. This also places pressure on veteran educators (who know better) to keep all of the people happy all of the time - inherently, a no-win situation. One frustrated shana alef educator has dubbed the institutions "catering services," driven as they are by market demands.

And what sells to these customers? Let's call it "edutainment." A) Less time in the beis medrash, since learning in the beis medrash can be hard and boring, and it requires more stamina than a teenager can easily muster. b) More frontal class time, where the kids hear the teacher explain things, but do not have to work through things on their own. c) Teachers who have to worry deeply about how much the students like them. After all, if the customers are not happy, the administration had better find a new sales representative. The result? Increase in the amount of weight given to personal charisma in choosing staff, decrease in the amount that a lifetime of learning and personal spiritual gravitas matters in hiring. d) A lot more sources in translation, or in easy to digest sound bites, so that students "get it" quickly and avoid the frustration of fighting through longer, more difficult sources. e) A dramatic increase in cancelled learning due to some tiyul or another, an extra-curricular activity, or a MASA program.

With edutainment, students lose out on the thrill of personal discovery, gained through puzzling things out independently. And they lose out on the skills that puzzling things out independently affords them - invaluable for the future, when the charismatic instructor will not be standing before them. And, worst, those talented instructors must focus on the pyrotechnics of charisma, instead of real learning.

Some institutions solve this problem by "selling" seriousness. They have well-deserved reputations as being demanding and rigorous, pushing students hard. As a result, they attract many students who are motivated from the outset, who are happy with the rigor, and who report to their self-motivated friends that the challenge is gratifying. More power to them! My sense, unfortunately, is that they are the minority. Most high school seniors are just not that mature and forward looking.

And with the focus on selling the product comes untold expenditures for endless trips by administrators, who make their ways like traveling salesmen to America, England, and Australia. Hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on hotel rooms, bad coffee, and international flights, not to mention slick advertising DVDs and brochures. (The stress all the traveling puts on families is another important issue). And, at least in some schools (more in yeshivas than seminaries), the competition for students comes with infighting, bickering, and loshon hara (One educator reports interviewing a potential student who said, "The representative from yeshiva X told me not to go to your yeshiva because..." I wish that that was the nastiest story I have heard or been involved in.)

Often, yeshivas and seminaries will present themselves as more serious than they really are. Everybody says that they teach skills, that students spend a lot of time in the beis medrash, and that the program is demanding. Students want to hear that that is what they will gain, though they often lack the stamina to actually go out and get it. Few programs actually have the guts to say, "No, we don't have expectations that our students will learn at a high level, but we do hope that they enjoy their experience and become excited about yiddishkeit." My own personal experience tells me that students know what's what. They read between the lines of the programs' advertising and hear through the grapevine about what schools are really like. But some parents and Israel advisors do not, and they remain misinformed. (Several former Israel advisors who then moved to Israel told me how shocked they were at the difference between the reality and the impression from a distance.)

All this is to say that, the "culture of excellence" that was once the calling card of the year in Israel has been replaced with a culture of enjoyment and marketing.

Who is hurt by all of this? Not the students who do find their ways to the most rigorous programs, and not the students who would fail in such programs. The strongest and weakest edges of the student spectrum get what they need and want. But many in the middle - and I don't really know how many - are being cheated. If they were exposed to something more serious, they might "get into it," but since they are not, they may not maximize their potential, or they may continue to think that edutainment is the best Torah has to offer. Parents and Israel advisors are also being cheated, who sometimes have very serious misimpressions.

The bind of the one year programs is real. Offer too much edutainment, and you may lose your educational integrity and reason to be. Offer too much substance, and you may lose many of the students. This is not only an economic problem, but an educational one as well. No schools, not even those most mired in edutainment, are opposed to serious Torah study. Yet they find themselves pulled downward by the short-term desires of the student body. Certainly, it would be counterproductive to attract students to a voluntary year in Israel only to have them unhappy. For unhappy students will not only not learn very much, but they are unlikely to make significant religious progress. Is there anything schools can do to increase the quantity and quality of real learning, without alienating the students who are not self-motivated?

I do not have any solution to this problem. Perhaps we would be better with more truth in advertising. Schools should put their cards on the table and state more clearly exactly what their program offers and does not offer. Perhaps schools catering to the middle level students should make a more self-conscious attempt to increase the rigor and what they offer. Perhaps schools should invest more in testing and accountability about learning (yeshivas for boys, for example, generally do not test student knowledge of the material learned). Or perhaps schools offering a light diet of edutainment toward the beginning of the year should crank it up a notch at some point during the winter, offering more to the students who want it and can handle a heavier diet of more serious learning. Is this a full solution? No, probably not, but it is time, I think, to face up honestly to the long-term changes that have affected our educational enterprise.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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