The saying attributed to the Jesuits – “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man” – speaks to the great importance that all religions place on indoctrinating children. It’s the most critical period of their lives, when they’re ready to absorb information but also trusting of what elders and authority figures tell them. It’s no surprise that religion, especially the cultish and fundamentalist varieties, are especially threatened by anything that might diminish their control over the next generation’s minds.
On Friday [February 15], Mayor Bill de Blasio promised serious consequences if four yeshivas continued to bar NYC Department of Education inspectors from their buildings. Now the deadline for scheduling those inspections has passed, but officials are still negotiating with the schools.
This is the culmination of a battle that began in 2015, when an activist group called Young Advocates for Fair Education raised a complaint about the quality of education in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, or yeshivas.
As I noted in posts like this one, ultra-Orthodox Judaism is an intellectual prison. The education its children receive is intended to stifle their minds and deprive them of any knowledge that might permit them to live independent lives. The men study Jewish religious texts to the exclusion of all else, and women aren’t permitted to seek higher education at all.
Students in these yeshivas receive only the rudiments of a secular education. They come out reading at a second- or third-grade level, unable to do math beyond simple arithmetic, unable to recognize a map of the world, unaware of scientific and historical facts like what dinosaurs were or what the Civil War was. Unless they become rabbis, which obviously only a tiny minority can do*, they’re totally unprepared for any sort of career and end up consigned to poverty and menial labor (ultra-Orthodox communities like Kiryas Joel are the poorest places in the entire United States for this reason).
As the Gothamist article says:
The current debate dates back to at least 2015, when a group of parents, former students and former teachers filed a complaint expressing “deep concern about the poor quality and scant amount of secular education” at 39 yeshivas primarily located in Brooklyn. The letter said students at those yeshivas generally learned English and math for a total of 90 minutes four days a week from ages 7 to 13 — and other subjects such as science and social studies often weren’t taught at all.
In response to these complaints, New York State revised its guidelines for private schools. The new guidelines describe a basic curriculum that all schools, secular and religious alike, have to meet, and provide for state inspections every five years. Schools that refused to comply would lose public funding and their students could be deemed truant.
Of the 39 yeshivas named in YAFFED’s complaint, most agreed to make changes. But a few are still holding out, refusing access to state inspectors. Now five of them have filed a lawsuit, complaining that it violates their religious freedom to prevent them from keeping their children in a state of ignorance:
Yeshivah heads noted that the nearly four hours and 30 minutes demanded for secular education every day would remake yeshivos into a different entity entirely.
Shock! Horror! Half the day learning about subjects other than religion! The ferocious resistance to such a minimal and reasonable demand makes it clear the level of anti-intellectualism and dogmatism we’re dealing with.
It’s not just Hasidic Jews who are holding out against education. My Patheos colleague Barry Duke notes that Catholic schools are also fighting New York’s plan:
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York is also dead against the new guidelines. A statement from the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents, which represents 500 Catholic schools, unequivocally denounced the plan.
It’s less clear why the church is against this plan, since I’d agree that most Catholic private schools provide a good-quality secular education. Catholic superintendents have claimed that it’s a conflict of interest to have local school officials evaluate private schools in their district, but I think the true reason is simpler: religious schools, in any form, don’t relish the prospect of oversight. Whether Catholic, Jewish or any other sect, they want free rein to indoctrinate children as they see fit.
* And consider what it says about this sect that they don’t think it’s necessary for a rabbi to know any science, history or anything about the outside world in order to make binding proclamations on his community. In their eyes, the only qualification for absolute authority is the ability to echo the thoughts of religious leaders from hundreds of years ago.