A Parent’s Dilemma: Public vs. Jewish Education

The time had come far too soon for the author to decide between public education and Jewish education for his daughter. There is always the danger of one person’s individuality being lost in the grand scale of “moral, ideological, and political considerations,” but a parent cannot ignore the needs of the child just for the parent’s own concerns. The author lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, a somewhat conservative middle class area where the small Jewish community is “well-established and comfortable.”

Being Jewish in Greensboro is definitely a minority experience, but it is much more accepted than in other areas. The Jewish day school his daughter attends teaches traditional values and she has become very comfortable there. The decision in her school had to do with not only wanting to see her embrace and continue the Jewish tradition, but also for her to have that richness in her daily life. Support for politics that destroy public institutions goes hand in hand with the hostility toward the state’s “impersonality, inefficiency, and waste;” this perception has caused the Right to “gut” nearly everything with public in its name. Part of this assault is what “lionizes” the marketplace and cuts social supports for “the elderly, children, the unemployed, the poor, and the sick.”

The marketplace needs to be toned down because its importance is causing our culture to promote self-interest over the common good. “For all of its flaws, the state embodies some notion of a shared purpose; its ultimate client purports to be the public good, not simply the desirous ego.” Ironically, the conservatives who speak most against the decline of community have also been the ones to pursue the most freedoms in the marketplace. People only react when cuts in benefits hit home; the market has created a world where companies no longer feel any obligation to their “workers, consumers, or community.” But in spite of all of this, people still want a society with a strong sense of the common good. This struggle is most focused around public education, which is essential for a “democratic civil society.”

The “current crisis of democracy” is related to the lack of places for people to have meaningful critical conversation. Unfortunately, public schools are far from being what they were supposed to be and are still riddled with dividing lines of race, class, and resources. Public schools act as mirrors to the divisions within society. While public schools are supposed to level the playing ground for students, they actually tend to magnify the advantages of some and the disadvantages of others. Schooling doesn’t generally mean real learning, but rather regurgitating miscellaneous facts, and the underlying emphasis on success and therefore competition destroys any semblance of community within the school.

The “withdrawal of the middle class from public institutions” is part of the reason those institutions are declining – those provided by the public are seen to represent the poor and the standards of those in the private sector are much higher. In deciding whether to send his daughter to public school, the author must consider his own responsibility in such a withdrawal, and his commitment to those public institutions. How does one “reconcile a commitment to public education with the need to recognize and affirm cultural, religious, or other differences?” People increasingly realize how public education refuses to recognize the contributions of people from outside our cultural definitions. Even so, multicultural awareness has become trivialized, and the differences that make different peoples special is only taught superficially.

A multicultural education is rather “thin,” whereas the type of education received at a Jewish school would color his daughter’s entire life. Only an environment thick with Jewish culture can instill in a person a commitment to “Jewish life and continuity.” This kind of intense experience, however, could foster narrow-mindedness. They teach social responsibility at Jewish day schools, but they are also a very sheltered community. Critics observe postmodern society as one in which all kinds of barriers have collapsed, and that we are in an age of “unfixity, uncertainty, and flux.” This is certainly a good thing, but it comes at a price of “traumatic consequences for the young.” There is a strong desire for discipline in raising the young because of a strong sense of instability in terms of “place, family, and normative communities.”

Talk of discipline, values, and tradition are not just a conservative view anymore as parents struggle to raise their children in a society where suicide, drug abuse, and depression, among others, reign amid “cynical detachment from social institutions.” In the midst of this, Jewish schooling offers a concrete sense of identity in the long Jewish history of “for a world of justice and freedom,” and of being excluded. “Such identification is one of connectedness to and enduring moral and spiritual vision.” Jewish orthodoxy can be rigid but it seeks to make everyday life sacred. “It is in this synthesis of social responsibility and joyful mindfulness that we can find the beginnings of a meaningful response to the rampant cynicism and nihilism of our culture.” The school offers only limited ability to question and be critical, and it is important for people to be critical thinkers, but it is also important for them to be taught that the world can be changed.

Without rootedness and affirmation there is only apathy and cynicism. The Right is correct that people need discipline, only not that “of an obedient drone,” but the structure gained from responsibility and participation. Everyone needs to find a way to commit in an uncertain world of uncertain beliefs and principles such as ours. The author’s concern with his daughter’s Jewish education is not that he wishes her to be able to practice all of the rituals and such, but that she becomes more aware of the “worth and dignity of all the lives that share our world.” Even so, the author worries that such a choice will encourage others to simply become more separatist, rather than concerned with the world at large.

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