My grand-daughter Ella entered first grade this month. It was a big deal. 97 new first-graders entered our regional grade school. 43 are from our community. Ella's first grade class is filled by 32 new little students.
I have a few misgivings about all this. For one: a single teacher with a bunch of 32 juvenile munchkins….How does she handle so many? For another: how can those miniature minors sit for hours (with a few very short breaks), in those typical rows of classroom desks after just recently leaving a kindergarten where knowledge and mores were taught through play and fun (Ella can read and write) without desks facing that unexciting blackboard. Ella was bored during her first week. I heard that another little girl complained to her mother "My tush is round, not square". How clever. I am also concerned that we have no alternative schooling available in our area without spending lots of road-time getting our little ones back and forth. Anyways, if we had an alternative close by, it would probably cost something far beyond the reasonable abilities of Ella's parents (or grand-parental aid). So we rely on Ella's innate ability to hold her own, overcome boring obstacles, and somehow learn how to continue enjoying to learn.
We are slipping. Every study shows it. Every comparative testing by international standards shows it. Our Ministry of Education knows it. Our own eyes can see it. The People of the Book are slipping. The level of our children's education is falling behind, plummeting at a rapid pace. Need an example ? O.K…. Recently each of 97 countries sent a group of their brightest high-school math students to an international test of abilities. Israel ranked below the mid-range. Turkey and Iran were some of those 50 odd countries who ranked ahead of us. Ten and more years ago we were somewhere so very much higher. Every year has seen another slippage. Should I worry………..?
My grand-daughter Ella is in a regular, normal (perhaps even better than many other), State-sponsored, non-religious first grade. An interesting newspaper item caught my eye and informed me that Ella's type of State-sponsored first grade is now an Israeli minority. It seems that 52% of all Jewish first-graders entering our school system this year, are enrolled in ultra-orthodox or (State-sponsored) orthodox first-grade classes. This too is a percentage that has grown with each new Rosh-Hashana. Today's first grade is tomorrow's second grade and so forth up the educational ladder.
So, yes, I'm worried. My entire schooling in New York, Washington and Baltimore, till my high-school graduation, was spent in orthodox Yeshivot. Were I offered a second chance, I would probably choose to do so again. I remained a secular Jew, but not one ignorant of our religious, cultural and historical roots. Here in Israel, though, for so many years I am in total conflict with the character of our exclusively solitary and powerful orthodox-religious establishment. I worry about the direction our education will follow under the influence of our multi-faceted (ultra, part ultra, nationalist) orthodox infiltration.
The (religious) Chief Science Advisor in the Education Ministry is ambiguous regarding the creation of our universe and insists that (in non-religious classes, of course) we should give equal prominence to the scientific and the biblical theories of creation. The (religious) Pedagogic Administrator in the Ministry wants more "Jewish" studies at the expense of "unnecessary" studies of civics, good citizenship and the meaning of democracy (this, in our troubled country where 50% of high school students already think Arab citizens should have fewer rights). The same Pedagogic Administrator instructed a revision of history schoolbooks that mentioned the Palestinian "Nakba", for fear of damaging the student's patriotism to his country. (The same Pedagogic Administration rejected an 8th grade history book as being too difficult. The unfortunate book demanded of students to "think" rather than memorize. But perhaps there were other more legitimate reasons.) The orthodox education system for those 52% of first graders is already influenced by the fundamentalist visions of either the anti-Israeli-Zionism of the ultra-orthodox or the Messianic All-is-Mine Zionism of the nationalist orthodox. Our religious establishment could find no need of "defrocking" well connected community rabbis ("teachers!) who wrote and applauded a book containing legal orthodox justification for killing Gentile (especially Arab) children. After all, "Thou shalt not Murder !" pertains (according to them) only to the killing(murder) of Jews, while those Arab children may one day grow up to be enemies. Our religious establishment (for that matter, also our government) meekly rose to the issue only after a great public (mainly leftist) outcry forced them to relate. These are only some of those writings on the wall warning of the influence seeping into our system.
My grand-daughter Ella entered first grade this month. All the above worries me. I know.....on the one hand it's all about budgets which have other priorities (Well then, change priorities!), and on the other it's about a creaping fundemantalism which is certainly getting budgets (again, a matter of priorities). About six years from now, the ninth and tenth of my grandchildren (twins) will be entering first grade. Will I still be worried, by then?.... Or will I, by then, be utterly frustrated with the falling level of education (through priorities), and also tormented by the demise(again, because of priorities) of Jewish traditional/liberal secularism within my grandchildren's State-sponsored educational system…??