We all need a secular education

By Geoffrey Alderman, August 28, 2008

Ofsted is right to demand better non-religious teaching in Charedi schools: it helps children learn right from wrong.

ive years ago, a welcome change in government policy meant that although independent schools were under no obligation to teach the national curriculum, they would all henceforth be subject to government inspection. This year, so far, Ofsted reports on 14 privately funded Jewish schools have been published. As Simon Rocker's analysis in last week's JC demonstrated, some of these audits make grim reading.
In five of the schools, Ofsted inspectors found little - apart from Jewish Studies - to praise and much to damn. In general, insufficient time was allotted in the school day for the teaching of secular subjects. At a secondary school in Salford, the inspector concluded that the education provided was "inadequate". Too little attention was given to "the scientific, aesthetic, creative, physical and technological areas". The inspection of a Stamford Hill primary school resulted in a verdict even more unflattering. Apparently no teaching time at all is or was allocated at this establishment to science, physical education, design and technology "or aesthetic and creative areas such as drama and arts".

These failing schools have one feature in common: they all cater for Charedi boys. At private Charedi girls' schools, ample time is apparently given to secular studies, in which the accomplishments of the pupils can be outstanding. I can vouch for this because my wife was for many years a teacher of art and design at one such girls' school: the learning resources were impressive and the standard of work often exceptional.
But in the world inhabited by these youngsters, it is traditionally the wife who is the main breadwinner in the family. She works to provide the family income, enabling the husband to spend as much time as possible in a yeshivah. And that being the ideal, what possible need could there be for him to be bothered or to bother himself with "secular" subjects?

Such is the alibi of choice proffered by those (and they are many) who defend the state of affairs revealed by the Ofsted inspections. And it is certainly true (as purveyors of an alternative alibi insist) that some aspects of the secular curriculum can be covered through study of the Talmud. So they can. But not all.
The basis of Charedi reluctance to teach secular subjects - beyond a modicum of English and mathematics - is the fear that pupils will be inducted into modes of critical thinking and will be introduced to or at least made aware of lifestyles that are deemed inimical to the preservation and propagation of a particular outlook and set of expected behaviours. "You can't learn midos [appropriate ethical behaviour] from goyim," a Charedi father once told me, explaining his objection to his son being urged (by me) to read Dickens's novel Hard Times as an introduction to the less pleasant effects of industrialisation on the urban poor of Victorian England. But of course you can.

I countered out that no less a Torah godol (great) than the late rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a latter-day hero of the Charedi world who headed the Gateshead Kollel in the 1940s, had as a child in Lithuania been deliberately introduced by his father to some of the great classics of literature, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, precisely because his father believed that a Jew, however frum, could indeed learn midos from gentiles. I was told that this was a piece of slanderous tittle-tattle. But it wasn't.
What we are dealing with here is a postmodern Charedi perversion of what authentic Orthodox Judaism is all about. Charedi parents of my acquaintance, themselves university graduates, go to extraordinary lengths to conceal their academic credentials from their children, as if their college careers amounted to some unspeakable adolescent indiscretion. Unable to cope with the temptations of modernity, they have withdrawn from it, seduced by the presumed safety of a spiritual ghetto.

The Charedi schools found so wanting by Ofsted would not function as they do if there were not parents only too happy to consign their children to such establishments. But whether these children emerge from these academies really able to tell good from evil is another matter. Judging by recent reports of riots in defence of child-abusers, failure to acknowledge the effects of drug-taking, and an alarming contempt for the law of the land, I would say that, as steeped in Torah as they may believe themselves to be, they are often quite unable to tell right from wrong.

    Last updated: 7:01pm, August 28 2008