Thursday, March 19, 2009

Choosing a Jewish Elementary School:
Why One Flunked My Test

[Note: I almost sold this piece to a Jewish newspaper, but the editors wanted it to be balanced by a more positive profile of some better Jewish elementary school (a good editorial idea) as part of a larger article. I bet there is one, and I hope we find it soon; for the moment, there's been no time to go school-hunting just yet, and I do not want to keep this little piece hidden in the shoebox any longer. I ought to run out and chase the $75: go find a better school to profile, then write it all up, cut it down, and send it in. But I'm gonna share it with you guys instead, and get back to one of the two writing projects that is currently (almost) paying the bills... --JH]

We are shopping around for an elementary day-school for my four year old daughter, who is currently attending a Montessori in the greater Los Angeles / Orange County area. I just came back from my first school Open House, where I was one of about ten parents touring the place with a guide who has several children of her own enrolled there. It was a Jewish school, attached to a Temple; I won’t say which, since this is a largely negative review and I don’t want to defame the place. They probably do a generally great job of educating the kids who enroll. I respect what they do there, but I want to tell you why it was not a good fit for our family.

It was sparkling clean, huge, amazingly well-maintained and modern, with laptops everywhere and a “Smart Board” internet projector on the wall in every classroom. The gym was enormous, with a brand new varnished wood floor. All the kids seemed happy and safe, and the spirit of the place seemed quite benevolent and genuine. During the talks by the Principal that preceded and followed the tour itself, we were told about the emphasis on Jewish values and Jewish identity, two areas in which the place seemed to excel. So why aren’t we going to send our kid there?

At one point the tour guide told us that “the kids don’t have a separate Bible class... everything is together; so, say they were having a lesson about the ocean -- it would include Jonah and the whale.” This did not seem to fluster any of the other parents, whereas I felt quite taken aback. To be fair, this was a parent speaking from her own perspective, having volunteered to lead a tour. I asked: “So, at some point, does anyone tell the kids something like, This is a story from HaShem, and it’s in the Torah. This other learning, called ‘oceanography,’ is what we found out ourselves, and here is how we found it out... both are true, but in different ways?” Answer: “No... we don’t sort it out like that... we talk about creationism but we also talk about evolution.” Ahem.

I switched from that tour group to another and asked its leader the same question. Very sensibly, she recommended asking a teacher. I found one and asked him. His first response to my question was, “You mean, do we present scientific evidence for creationism?” No, that was not what I was asking. If that option were on the table I’d wonder if we had been unwittingly teleported from Los Angeles to Wichita. I gently clarified my question, and he responded with what he thought was a progressive idea: “We don’t tell them this is how it is; we say, some people believe only Torah, and other people believe only in evolution, and there’s mixtures in between. I don’t think there’s just one way to teach it.”

This will not do. No educated person “believes in” evolution. It is something of which one becomes persuaded, by evidence and argumentation. Or it’s taught as the patent truth which the kid accepts because the adults do, until s/he comes to question it and then is persuaded by evidence and argumentation. Wittgenstein wrote that “If you tried to doubt everything, you would not get as far as doubting anything; the child learns by believing the adult.” Yes, but for us and for the new-and-different adults we want our children eventually to become, evolution is not a belief -- certainly not a “belief in” anything -- any more than Newtonian physics is a belief: it is a powerful, fascinating, demonstrable though incomplete description of a real process in the world. One could give this teacher the benefit of the doubt and call it a poor choice of words, but the bigger problem is the inability to hear the question.

At the Principal’s after-tour talk, I asked how I can learn more about the textbooks they use. “We don’t tend to use textbooks. We prefer to use literature.” By G-d, so do I! In the lit classes I taught for 14 years, I almost never used an anthology, only primary texts from various disciplines. So I was pleased to hear this, though she still hadn’t named a single book. “For science and math,” she continued, “we use Houghton-Mifflin.” That’s a gargantuan publishing conglomerate, not a book. She just didn’t know the answer. The teaching coordinator was in the room, and she spoke up -- but only to offer me her business card and invite me to email her about it. There was no shortage of time, and there were almost no other questions from the other parents; I had certainly not hogged the floor; had they known which books were being taught in the school, they could have told us.

The Principal’s brief remarks continued, emphasizing Jewish values and Jewish identity at the school, two things I dearly want my kid to have. As an example of the Jewish spirit of learning, she said, “A third grade class was learning about the Tower of Babel, and one boy asked what languages the people were speaking before the Tower of Babel. Another time, when a class was learning about how the Torah says Moses ‘heard the word of G-d,’ a girl asked, ‘Is that really, really true?’“

Good questions from the kids. But the Principal gave no hint about how the teachers at this school responded to those questions. So I raised my hand and asked her, and she said, “We asked the kids what they thought.” That certainly is part of what a good teacher does. But teaching is supposed to include informing kids about the world and the culture in which they find themselves. Adults are supposed to know something. In Chapter 14 of De Magistri -- "On the Teacher" -- Augustine (354 - 430 C.E.) asks, “Who would be so absurdly curious as to send his child to school to learn what the teacher thinks?” Very good. But no teacher can (or should) so sterilize his or her pedagogy as to expunge every trace of opinion; besides, one of the crucial things a good teacher can do for students is to model the figure of the thinking adult. The parent who makes a worse mistake than Augustine’s "absurdly curious" father, is the one who sends his child to school to learn what the other kids think.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jaime -- We met at AWP when we all walked out on some reading, you, Lou Faber (my husband) and me. This is quite an amazing article. I hope you get it published.


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