Sunday, February 15, 2004

school of thought

I must pick up on something that seems to be coming through to me, both in the emails that I get and also to a lesser extent in the commenting. I always assume that when I talk about Chassidim and kollel-learners everybody knows what I mean. In fact that is obviously not true. In different communities around the world different people are using the same words Chassidim and Kollel to mean different things. Let me therefore describe what I know and see.

Chassidic school life in London, for boys, starts at two and a half to three years of age. The staff are, to a man, untrained teachers straight out of kollel. Kids of three will spend their days being baby-sat, often while their ‘Rebbe’ is on his mobile phone, for most of the day. The modern day urge to push a child’s outer limits and stimulate his development has not yet reached our shores. At best the kids can expect to be taught some aleph bet for a couple of hours a week and to get a couple of photocopied papers to colour. “the mothers like them to bring something home’. For the rest of the week they will spend most of their time riding around indoors on plastic bikes or endlessly building houses and planes from basic Lego blocks.

This happy-go-lucky attitude will continue for throughout the boy’s school life. As he gets older his teachers will become greater and greater Torah scholars but their competence to teach remains constant and that is the only positive thing I can think of to say about it. For the few really bright children this is no problem. On the contrary, many children are studying complicated logic and memorizing entire tracts of Gemara at the age that most tender minds are bending themselves round Star Trek and the jokes printed inside their bubble-gum papers. The less bright are usually ignored or they learn to get through life by looking interested do they don’t get punished. The rest will manage to get a rudimentary competence in studying Talmud which they will be expected to use until the day they die.

The day for toddlers is usually from 9-4. However as they reach the ages of 9 or 10 they can expect a day starting with davening (prayer) at 7.30 and ending with a final lesson at 8 pm. They will still be expected to have a shiur (study period) in the evening as well. As the ministry of education demands a basic secular education for all, our private schools have secular classes too. The law demands a ‘reasonable’ education. Our interpretation of that is to have one hour towards the end of the day dedicated to secular learning. Naturally the kind of teachers who apply for jobs like that are somewhat below par anyway. As most parents never had a secular education either they tend not to attach much importance to what they learn there. The children pick up this attitude and consequently regard the lessons as a necessary evil and a bit of a joke.

At 13 years of age the boys have barmitzva. They become men and from then on there is no secular education. They will be sent off to yeshiva. Often locally, sometimes abroad, and will immerse themselves in study until they get married. Happily they will not have to waste time choosing a bride. That will be done for them.

What I remember most about school is incredible boredom. The system of learning was not really intellectually challenging. How could it be when half the class was struggling even to read the words in Aramaic. Our logic at the school level is mostly a process of memorising other peoples thought processes. Lessons are typically two hours long and the monotony is only broken when someone misbehaves.

The language spoken in these schools is Yiddish. In fact it must be seen as a standing testimony to the incredible drive, the finely honed brains and plain yiddishe kep that the vast majority of our children CAN read a newspaper and even fill in a government form when they have to. I defy anybody to bring to my attention any community that has so sparse a formal education and yet has managed to produce so decidedly a middle-class population. That however is changing.

The world has become more and more reliant on the written word as the computer and the Internet, for better or worse, force themselvs into more and more aspects of our daily lives. The classic father son businesses are fast disappearing and few young men can rely on a guaranteed income when they leave kollel. Yet in a sad confirmation of Pink Floyd’s Wall our educationary conveyer belt is still belching out starry-eyed ignorami nose to tail.

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