What Is the Real Vision of Excellence?

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October 1, 2000
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Svi Shapiro

It is hard not to be impressed by the record of Jewish day school expansion that Rabbi Joshua Elkin describes. There can be little doubt that this growth has brought a Jewish experience to many thousands of children who would, otherwise, surely have had little contact with Jewish tradition. I myself am the parent of a child who attended a Jewish day school for nine years, so I know well the benefits and opportunities of such education in a world where for the majority of us, contact with Judaism and yiddishkayt has become perfunctory at best.

Yet there is something disturbingly absent in what the writer points to as the key areas that need to be attended to as we contemplate the future of Jewish education in this country. His concern for recruitment of trained personnel, the need for technical expertise, and the promotion of day schools is understandable and, I am sure, necessary. Yet the statement’s focus on the administrative, the financial, and the strategic makes it sound as if the question of what is Jewish education is settled. My belief is that nothing could be further from the truth. With the rapid expansion of Jewish day schools, this question looms larger than ever. And with the expansion of such education, the Jewish community needs to confront where this leaves us in terms of our relationship and responsibilities to public education in this country.

At this moment it is surely crucial to ask whether the Jewish day school is essentially a variant of American education, or whether it represents a genuinely alternative moral and spiritual enterprise. Whatever its Jewish “content” or ambience, my sense is that the day school’s claim to excellence has a lot more to do with its promise to provide students with the opportunities for individual success in the increasingly competitive “rat race” of schooling. The “hidden” (and not so hidden) curriculum of the Jewish day school is that it prepares students very well for the hunt for individual success, achievement and honors, and the academic skills that make entry into the public and private Ivy’s possible, if not probable. We need to ask whether the moral and spiritual ethos of Jewish education is shaped by a transformative vision of social life and human relationships, or whether it is merely another conduit for inculcating our children with a zealous, sometimes even ruthless, desire to “get ahead” and be successful. What, we need to ask, is the real vision of “excellence” that animates the day school? Is it the promise of gold in the standardized tests that now increasingly strangle American education? Is it the capacity of students to outperform children in other schools and classrooms?

The great challenge now before Jewish education is, in my belief, not how well our children can conform to the competitive values of American society with all its emphasis on winning and inequality, but on whether we are teaching a message that is quite contrary to all of this. Such a message will seek to nurture in the young values and attitudes that are quite different in their emphasis on care, compassion, sharing, and social justice. And intellectually our curriculum will teach them to look with deeply critical eyes at the idols of success, achievement, and materialism that so pervade this culture. Jewish educators will need to be courageous to affirm that there is no easy reconciliation between an education that is about tikkun olam, and the individualistic and self-seeking world that currently embodies American schooling. And, finally, as Jewish day schools expand and Jewish involvement in public education declines, we need to confront these same questions: Does the institutional separateness of our children promote and enhance the culture of justice, sharing, and equality in our nation, or is its real effect to offer Jewish kids the resources and opportunities that makes them sure winners in an increasingly competitive and consumerist world?

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Svi Shapiro is Director of the Education and Cultural Studies Doctoral Program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He writes on education issues for Tikkun magazine. His most recent book is Strangers in the Land: Pedagogy, Modernity and Jewish Identity.

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