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Why Religious Schools Have a Bad Rap

By Joel M. Hoffman

An old joke observes in bad taste that to deal with unwanted house guests, all that’s needed is a rabbi to bar mitzvah them. “Then they’ll never come back.”

It seems that Religious School has a bad rap. And in a sense, this poor track record is surprising, for at least three reasons:

  1. Children naturally like learning. They are curious about the world, and they are generally eager to discover more about it. They’re proud of what they learn. A new accomplishment or mastery of new material makes children feel good about themselves. Among many other things, children love learning codes, and Religious School naturally focuses on one, because Hebrew is a code of sorts.
  2. Children like being with other children. By nature, most people are social, and children are particularly so. They enjoy each other’s company, and thrive not alone but in groups. Religious Schools bring children together in exactly the sort of semi-structured environment that is best for them.
  3. Judaism is fun. Children like stories, and Judaism is built on some of the most enduring stories ever penned. Children like celebrating, and our Jewish calender provides a celebration almost every month. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a puzzle.

Religious Schools across the country start with this winning triple combination — learning, socializing, and fun — and yet they frequently end up with programs so bad that the only source of joy for the children who attend is mocking their teachers. I know, because I’ve traveled around the country and seen it.

So what went wrong?

It’s true that Religious Schools face some immutable obstacles. Some children can’t focus in the afternoon. Some children are tired Sunday mornings. Most schools are tragically underfunded. Soccer and ballet and piano and baseball create conflicts for the kids. (And I can’t count the number of schools that give children pizza and Coke and then tell them to sit down and be quiet.) But surely these are minor problems that can be overcome.

So again: what went wrong? Here I’ll mention two things.

The first problem is that in an effort to make schools more fun, too many organizations focused only on fun and not on content. But in large part it is the content that makes school fun. Children like lots of things. In particular, they like playing and they like learning. But they don’t like playing when they think they should be learning, and, at any rate, whatever games a school can offer pale compared to the opportunities outside the school. School will never compete with the video games or amusement parks, and schools that try only to be fun will fail.

Instead, Religious Schools must be a source a deep and authentic learning, living out our tradition of serious study. No less than adults, children deserve to be challenged. The problem with Religious Schools isn’t that they try to teach too much, it’s that they don’t teach enough. So we need to teach more. If we require weekly attendance of children — and at TINW we do — our teachers have an obligation to make sure that each class is worth going to.

The ubiquitous question, “I missed last week. Did we do anything important?” should have only one answer: “You missed something very important, something you would have loved to learn.”

The second problem is more important. Judaism is clear on the inherent value of every individual. The Talmud teaches that a single soul is like the entire world. In contrast to secular school and pop culture, which emphasize what a person can do or how a person should look, Judaism leaves no doubt that every soul is already a prized creature of God. Children should be able to count on the comfort of knowing that, even if nowhere else, at Religious School they are appreciated regardless of what they can or can’t do, irrespective of how smart they are, and without consideration for the degree to which they are like their peers.

Teachers need to love not only what they’re teaching but also who they’re teaching.

Writing of colleges, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that, “if they really had it, you would need police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude.” With a good school, we’d have to fight to keep people out, not to keep people in.

That’s our goal for Religious School, too. And if we keep our priorities straight, we can get there.

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Categories: education
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