Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Haredi Ivy Leaguers

This past week Haaretz reported on the above average scores of a small sampling of chareidi students taking the psychometric exam (equivalent of the U.S. S.A.T.). This was after they completed a preparatory class for taking the psychometric exam, much like the students in the U.S. who take prep courses for the SAT’s, LSAT’s or MCAT’s. It isn’t all that surprising that these students did well because Jewish students tend to be bright. Yeshiva students or those who take their learning seriously have, over the years honed certain skills, developed good study habits, cultivated intellectual reasoning, and have trained their minds along certain lines such as logic, reasoning and analytical skills. Even Yeshiva high school students in the U.S., who do not have the resources of wealthier school districts oftentimes, perform better on LSAT’s and entrance exams precisely because of the above reasons. Therefore I am not surprised at the results that that these charedim achieved and published by Haaretz.

I am surprised, however at the approach Haaretz took in assessing the test scores and what they mean. Haaretz seemed to assess these result clinically: The charedim, competing against the national averages of students studying from k-12 the math and sciences scored relatively well in spite of the fact that they hadn’t studied these subjects in school, risking bitul torah and zman. On the contrary, the continued their hasmadah, intending to cram at the last minute the courses required to do reasonably well on the psychometric and thus gain admission to higher education.

The Charedim and of course Haaretz have missed the entire point of education. The purpose of education isn’t to score well on the psychometric tests. That ought to be the by product of studying all those years, but not the goal. If the by product i.e. scoring high on the psychometric, were to be the goal then why bother teaching tanach or world literature to students planning on entering university to study law, medicine, math or earth sciences? And why study biology, chemistry or physics if one’s goal is to become a history teacher?

The purpose of a well rounded education, beyond what a yeshiva can provide is manifold: Thinking has its own grammar and set of rules. Developing good thinking habits will provide for a more satisfying and fulfilling life. A good education will also teach you how to think for yourself. You will develop an active engagement with knowledge and not just be the passive recipient of boring facts, such as the chareidi cramming off of flash cards while his wife was in labor at the hospital. Thinking independently is the father of good judgment and good judgment is essential to living better. A comprehensive knowledge base make the phenomenon of life appear coherent and comprehensible. On the practical side as “mitzvah goreret mitzvah”, so too knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something your brain sets up new pathways to make future learning faster. Good learning habits can be transferred from one subject to another; an old knowledge can be employed to clarify new knowledge.

Knowledge encourages creativity by the cross fertilization of ideas. Many discoveries and “strokes of genius” are the by products of the mind working on one problem while solving indirectly other problems. Last but not least, knowledge will plant the seeds of wisdom in you. It will help you see your shortcomings, change yourself, improve, becoming a better person.

So while it is pleasing to note that some chareidim are good test takers and their achievement in the psychometric exam will permit them to enter institutions of higher learning, I question what they will get out of their secular education other than the skill to “do the job”. If that is all they desire, then in this respect, what is the difference between them and philistines?