Teenage haredi girls receive a secular education that is on a par with, and likely superior to, the average student in the state education system. Increasingly, haredi women are going into hi-tech, accounting and architecture, as well as the traditional haredi professions of teaching and special education. That leaves the boys, whose secular education generally ends in eighth grade.
Next, let us clarify the goals of education. Broadly speaking, those goals are twofold: conveying specific information and developing the ability to think. With respect to the first, most of us retain very little of the specific content of our schooling. How many reading this column can remember the quadratic formula, much less its application? My brother once built a stairwell using trigonometry, but for most people trigonometric functions play no role past high-school math tests.
Given the pathetic state of Israeli public education, haredi young men would not seem to be missing much in terms of content. Barely half of Jewish high-school students even qualify for a matriculation certificate. And anyone who has ever listened to students in elite Tel Aviv high schools stumped by questions such as “How did Israel come into possession of the Golan Heights?” and “What is the difference between the legislative and executive branches?” can only wonder what is taught in the civics portion of the core curriculum. As Tali Lipkin-Shahak once wrote: “The only thing more depressing than our students’ total ignorance is their utter indifference to that ignorance.”
Most haredi kids are avid readers – unlike their secular counterparts. Newspapers, magazines and lots of books are found in almost every haredi home. Unless the subject is sports or the sexual peccadilloes of our leaders, haredi kids are probably better informed about current events than their secular contemporaries. I would wager that the average haredi high-school-age student even knows more Israeli history and has toured more widely in Israel than his secular counterpart.
The New York State Regents once exempted Orthodox schools from teaching the state’s mandatory anti-AIDS curriculum on the grounds that an Orthodox education provided a superior defense against the disease, as reflected in the near nonexistence of AIDS in the Orthodox community. In light of the vastly lower rates of violence and crime in haredi schools and society, and the much higher rates of participation in the political process, perhaps haredi education should similarly be treated as the functional equivalent of the core’s civics requirement.
IN TERMS OF developing reasoning ability, nothing compares to Talmud study. Every proposition put forth by the Talmud is immediately challenged and a dizzying array of proofs adduced to each side. Not only is no proposition accepted at face value by the Talmud itself, but Talmud is studied together with a partner whose task it is to challenge every interpretation one offers. The process is justly called “the wars of Torah.”