In three provocative op-ed pieces that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week, Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, argues that -
1. we should recognize - and accept - that about half of the students in our schools are of below average intelligence whose potential for academic success is limited
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009531 )
2. too many students are being encouraged to continue their formal education in four-year colleges, when other professional tracks might be better for them
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009535 )
3. gifted students deserve special attention in the course of their education, since their talents require them to shoulder greater responsibilities to the community at large
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009541 )
Although his arguments with regard to general education deserve a serious response (and I encourage such discussions here or on Lookjed), I will limit my comments to their logical implication were we to apply them to day school students and Torah study. According to Murray's arguments, it would make sense for Jewish schools to recognize the limitations of a large proportion of its students and direct them away from serious academic settings, focusing resources instead on those gifted students who have the potential to contribute the most to the Jewish community.
Such a suggestion would hardly be a new idea. From what I can tell, it was a system that was commonplace throughout Jewish history, up until pre-war Europe. Students with unique potential (or from families of significant wealth) would be encouraged and supported as they continued their Torah study. The expectation was that when these young men (and they were, invariably, men) were of appropriate age and maturity, they would take on leadership roles in the community. The movement of universal Torah study in the Orthodox world beyond elementary school – for the commandment of Torah study ensured that virtually all Jews were literate and knowledgeable on some level – is relatively new, probably the outgrowth of our living in one of the most prosperous ages in world history.
While many argue that the movement today in certain circles towards universal Torah study into adulthood carries with it many dangers, I am not interested in discussing the Kollel phenomena. My question is whether all of our students should be encouraged to continue learning in formal settings post-high school, or if such study should be viewed as the domain of an elite few.
Let us recognize that Torah study is not first-and-foremost about Torah knowledge. It is about the experience of learning; the attempt to be part of a conversation that spans generations from the time of Moses (and before) until today. It is the effort to understand God and His will. Every Jewish student (and every Jewish person – child and adult – should aspire to remain a student) should aim to reach his or her highest level of this experience and understanding, but there is no objective achievement that should be the goal for all students.
Recently programs have been opened in two prestigious Israeli institutions that have programs that cater to American high school graduates, whose purpose is to allow special-needs students to participate – on their own levels – in the post-high school Israel experience. These types of programs should be a model for all students, recognizing that what is important in Yeshiva is not only the amount of Torah memorized or analyzed, but the experience of being involved in Jewish life to one's own, personal, utmost.
Aside from this issue, we should recognize what Howard Gardner taught the world of education some years back. There are multiple intelligences out there. The academic scholar may very well not make the best community leader. With the dearth of leadership in Jewish education – and in the Jewish community in general – it makes a lot of sense to recognize the different strengths and intelligences of all of our students, recognizing that it is not only the intellectual elite that will be driving the future of the Jewish people. We need to educate and encourage every Jewish child to aspire to make a difference in the future of the Jewish community.