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Getting educational

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-11-26

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

According to Mr Miliband, the UK Education Minister, a four-year study by Cambridge University academics of teenage girls and boys, has shown, to quote the Times, ‘where single-sex teaching was used in subjects where gender is sometimes seen as influencing underperformance, such as languages for boys and maths for girls, the number of boys who got good academic results went up from 68% to 81%, and the number of girls went up from 68% to 82%.’

The statement went on to reiterate the fact we must now all (except for a small band of ostrich rabbis) be aware of, that girls outperformed boys virtually across the board at school by about 10 percentage points. To give them all, automatically, a poorer or less intellectually demanding education is not only insulting but also stupid, in that you are depriving your community by under-utilizing 50% of your potential brainpower.

Naturally educational experts are busy trying to refute these claims.

It was also fascinating looking at the recently released official ‘league table’ of English schools’ academic performance. The best Jewish school is way down at the 300 mark. Of course, some of the best Jewish brains might be going to non-Jewish schools, but it is a sobering indication that we Jews are pretty average on average!

What hits you between the eyes is the fact that the single-sex girls’ schools put all the rest in the shade. So when a rabbi in the Talmud says that ‘women have weak minds’, perhaps we don’t understand what he meant, or it may be that in some sense, as in the case of those rabbis who once believed the sun revolved around the earth, he was simply wrong.Those who take him literally and oppose giving girls an intellectually challenging education, are simply dispensing with 50% of Jewish intellectual talent and potential.

Fortunately, more and more centers of Jewish life offer programmes and colleges for women who really want to master traditional texts and, indeed, more very Orthodox institutions now offer degree courses even in subjects such as technology and design. Slowly, very slowly, the education of Orthodox Jewish women is catching up, despite continued resistance in some quarters. The long-term impact of intelligent trained women on the men folk in their homes can only be beneficial even if short-term it might cause some tension.

But, on the other hand, ultra-Orthodox Jewish education that insists on segregating the sexes seems to be vindicated. Girls do indeed do better academically when separated from the boys. This was certainly something I noticed in my time as principal of a quasi co-educational school. There are social arguments in favor of co-education, but not, in my view, educational ones. And in the end the primary job of a school is to educate.

When I became a headmaster I went to see the late and great Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York (don’t ask me why, it’s too complicated and will revive too many difficult memories). The one thing he emphasized was the need to reverse the trend towards co-education at Carmel.

I simply wasn’t powerful enough at that stage to fight pupils, parents and governors. Interestingly, my late parents had both wanted to have separate boys and girls school that would come together for social and other events but remain within their own specific learning and living communities. But, again, Jewish politics overcame traditional values. By the time I arrived it was too late. But I did experiment with separate classes in certain subjects, which produced unmistakable evidence that separating the sexes benefited both academically. The Rebbe didn’t hold my limitations against me and after a later visit sent some of his groupies to work at Carmel.

But here was an example of where fashionable educational thinking at the time became doctrinaire and was allowed to overrule traditional Jewish values. Whatever the faults of tradition, whatever my own impatience with the reluctance of Orthodoxy to act creatively within its own constitution, it does strike me that sometimes, some old fashioned values are worth preserving despite their lack of fashion. Not everything that is modern works or works well.

I hasten to add that looking after a home and or bringing up a family is not only demanding but challenging and the most noble of tasks. It would be as ridiculous to discourage women from being fulltime mothers and wives as it is to exclude those who want and are capable of having careers or expertises. In the end it is a matter of allowing people to fulfil their potential in appropriate ways. But what is appropriate?

The furor over Prince Charles’ recent comments about people not knowing their places has been interesting. He argued that he has always encouraged young people to strive to rise, and his work through his Trust has supported this. The trouble is that he, himself, benefits from the accident of his birth, inherited wealth and privilege, and so when a former employee (a black woman) produced an email in which he claimed that young people were encouraged by the school system to think that they achieve things beyond their limitations and without hard work as well, it sounded patronizing and very old fashioned.

In other words, old-fashioned values are fine provided they are not wedded to old-fashioned prejudices and a failure to recognize that changes may be necessary. Noblesse Oblige is one thing Droit Du Seigneur is quite another!