Goals of Day School Education

Jul 26, 2004

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 2, 2, 1987, pp. 30-31. Appears here with permission.
The following is adapted from a talk given at a TEN conference held on Long Island in November, 1987.
The prophet Mikhah addressed the goals of day school education many years ago, “What is good, and what does G-d require from you, only to practice justice (asot mishpat), love kindliness and compassion (ahavat chesed), and to conduct life with gentility (tzniut).”
If we can inculcate our students with these attributes, then our educational goals can be achieved. Let us analyze these components.
Asot mishpat– doing the right thing- teaching children the difference between wrong and right. This includes the obligation to deal with integrity and honesty towards our students. It is our responsibility to prepare our students for the future. We must therefore focus on excellence in education as we provide them with the highest level of Judaic and general studies education. We must expose them to people, curriculum, activities, and values which are consistent with our philosophy and approach, without bending or swaying to modern trends, religious images, and current tendencies to seek approval and approbation.
Asot mishpat means presenting young men and women with consistency that they can respect. Children are the first to spot the hypocracy or inconsistency that becomes the lesson in life that they learn far more clearly than any taught in the classroom. This negative experiential education can inflict its damage in school or at home. A child who hears the Rabbi’s sermon discussed with derision has learned a lesson in derekh eretz and kavod harav. If a student sees a teacher, principal, Rabbi, or community leader act in an inappropriate manner in public or private life- a lesson is learned.
The second characteristic Mikhah stresses , ahavat chesed, is reflected in relationship between man and man. Inherent within the precept is the philosophy that a pasuk is not as important as being a mentch. How can we best foster this major concept of ahavat chesed? Following are a few examples. There is a company called Funathon which professionally organizes walkathons as fundraisers. About a year ago, my colleague Rabbi Yona Fuld, principal of SAR, approached me with a modest proposal. He suggested that HAFTR and SAR join together to sponsor a walkathon. The money raised, however, would not be for our schools but would be used to jointly purchase an ambulance for Magen David Adom in Israel. The walkathons have taken place, the funds have been raised, and the children will experience the gratification of chesed when this ambulance visits each school. On its doors it will tell the world that this ambulance was donated to the people of Israel by the children of HAFTR and SAR. We have taught the students not only to give tzedakah to others, but to do it without personal rewards or prizes. This is ahavat chesed.
A few years ago ahavat chesed was experienced each week in an intergenerational program created for our sixth graders and the senior citizens of the Hartman “Y”. They shared music, art, dance, discussions, movies, experiences, refreshments, births and deaths. Ties were forged, some of which are still in existence. The relationship helped our children become more sensitive to their own grandparents and enhanced the seniors’ relationship with their own grandchildren. When the class was graduating they dedicated their yearbook to the senior citizens.
However, we must not delude ourselves. We cannot create and introduce values. The process must begin at home long before a child enters a yeshivah. We can encourage, nurture, help, develop, shape, and fine tune these midot by instruction and example- but they must take root at home.
The third component Mikhah enumerates is v’hatznea lekhet im elokekha. This has provided us with guidelines to try to educate every child in his/her optimal fashion. This can be accomplished by implementing different approaches:
Another way to combat unfair competition is to mail report cards to parents rather that distribute them for comparison in class. Is there anything uglier than children comparing report cards on the bus. V’hatznea lekhet represents the importance of maximizing a student’s strengths while strengthening the weaknesses.
The Reward System: it is incumbent upon us to try to downplay the intense competition that exists in yeshivah circles, and sometimes leads to dire consequences such as cheating and exam theft. This problem can be combated by eliminating graduate Honor Rolls and Dean’s Lists in the elementary grades. Intelligence is a gift from G-d. The academically superior student already receives sufficient gratification and accolades from parents and teachers. It is unnecessary to further make the point. In fact, what we sometimes do with Honor Rolls is create a greater social problem for the superior student, who may be exposed to ridicule and derision by peers. Instead, honor certificates praising davening habits, midot, service to the yeshivah, etc. should be awarded. Perhaps, eventually, valedictorians and other graduation awards can be eliminated.
Extra Curricular Activities: Extra curricular activities must be emphasized. It is important to provide an outlet for the non-academic student with clubs that have social, cultural, or academic value. Participation and achievement in these activities often enhance a child’s self-esteem and sense of well-being which can then have a positive effect on his/her studies. The non-academic students who performed with our choir at Lincoln Center will have a memory to cherish for a lifetime. Not only did they perceive themselves as important and successful, but they were far more receptive to what was taught the next day and the next.
Thus, as educators, we must view each student as a challenge; we must determine the ideal modality to maximize the education for each individual boy and girl. This is v’hatznea lekhet.
And so, Mikhah gave us the formula thousands of years ago. All we have to do is follow his outline and the rest of the educational process becomes a pleasure. Of course, none of the above can take proper root unless we teach ahavat Eretz Yisrael– love for the land of Israel. And, I sincerely believe that it is impossible to do so unless limudei kodesh are taught in lashon kodesh. If children are exposed to constant, consistent usage of the Hebrew language beginning in the earliest grades, they will then have the tools needed to master all Judaic subjects including Tanakh and Talmud. It is in this quest for the use of Hebrew that we should place more effort among the yeshivah day schools in the decade to come. If we follow Mikhah’s instructions we will succeed in developing both a child’s sense of self worth and confidence as well as integrating the academics and life skills that will encourage and help him/her face the Judaic and secular world of the 1990’s.