Democratic Techniques in an Orthodox High School

by: Dr. Steve Bailey

Originally printed in Ten Da’at, vol. 8,1, 1995, pp. 35-37. Appears here with permission.
In traditional Jewish education, the teacher, by virtue of being a teacher, is the authority to be respected and heeded by students. Indeed, Day School students are taught from elementary grades that the “kavod” due to one’s parents as promulgated by The Fifth Commandment, must be extended to one’s teachers. Thus the parent is the authority in the home and the teacher is the authority at school.
Teaching moral and ethical behavior in Judaism is based, primarily, on the authority of the parent and teacher, as representatives of Jewish law, who define for the child/student the differences between ethical and unethical values as well as right and wrong behavior. To propose “democratic,” rather than authoritarian methodology in moral education, seems somewhat self-contradictory in the context of these traditional pedagogic concepts of Orthodox moral instruction.
In the school-based model pioneered by Professor Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard (and modified for Jewish education by this writer and Dr. Jerry Friedman, the founders of Shalhevet), the school is considered a “Just Community.” This means that the underlying principle of all school policies and functions is fairness and justice. Such a school applies the democratic principles of the right to voice opinions, to be heard, to have a significant part in the policies of the school and to be treated in a fair and respectful way. The principles of a “Just Community,” moreover, apply equally to administrators, faculty and students. The model also requires that all members of the school community accept the responsibilities that come with these privileges. These include listening to and respecting the opinions of others, abiding by policies accepted by the community and behaving in ways which enhance the community, including ethical, honest and pro-social behavior.
How are these principles expressed? First, students and faculty/administrators are trained in “Just Community” methodology. Teachers are well-grounded in Kohlbergian theory and techniques, including moral dilemma discussions and democratic classroom principles. Students are oriented to both their empowerment, by participating in school policies, as well as to their responsibilities to abide by democratically established rules and regulations, including expectations for menschlichkeit. All groups are introduced to the concept of the “Fairness Committee” which is a student committee, elected by peers, who, along with an administrator and Rabbi, “hear” cases of violations of fairness and mutual respect.
After training and orientation comes the implementation. This takes the form of weekly moral dilemma discussions and “Town Meetings.” The Kohlbergian dilemma discussions- sometimes presented as a special weekly course and sometimes within a regular classroom curriculum- train the students to think critically about moral issues, analyze reasons behind moral positions, listen to differing opinions and self-evaluate personal stages of moral maturity. A formal moral dilemma is always followed by a halakhic analysis of the moral conflict, thereby validating the inherent system of fairness/justice within halakhic reasoning and providing practical guidance for the students’ ethical behavior. The halakhic analyses, based on Talmudic sources and responsa literature, rarely conflict with the students’ initial discussions. The only area of conflict realized was the discrepancy between Kohlberg’s universal ethic vs. the Jewish parochial ethic which places the survival of the community over the individual; for example, the command to Shaul to annihilate Amalek. But in practical life dilemmas, within a population who accepts the moral authority of Tanakh, we have not encountered a conflict between mature moral reasoning and halakhic imperatives.
A second mode of implementation is the “Town Meeting.” Here, all students are seated in a semi-circle and lively discussions on school policies, initiated by faculty and students, take place. Additionally, there is an Agenda Committee which prepares formal proposals based on these discussions, following a specific format including research and formulation. Proposals are presented by the student chairperson of the Agenda Committee to be voted on at the next weekly “Town Meeting.
It may seem from these innovations that the authority of the administration and faculty is compromised and that the school is run on the democratic vote of the majority in all areas, including curricula, pedagogic goals and halakhic policies. This, of course, would be absurd. Administrators and teachers are trained professionals in education, while students cannot be expected to have equal say on issues ‘of curriculum, measurement techniques, assignments or the overall educational plan of the school. It is equally absurd to invite democratic majority vote on issues of halakhic parameters and required observance in a modern Orthodox school.
Neither the pedagogic nor the halakhic areas are subject to the democratic procedures applied to the classroom or “Town Meetings.” This definitive limitation is explained to students each year and it is accepted by them as reasonable, fair and required in a modern Orthodox college preparatory educational institution. What we do offer in these areas, however, is an explanation and rationale for all our policies and for modern Orthodox halakhic parameters, even though they are not subject to vote. This maintains the level of mutual respect and trust necessary for the success of a “Just Community.”
In sum, modern Orthodox education is in need of a fresh, effective way to increase the moral maturity and menschlichkeit of students (and sometimes of educators!) as part of an effective, relevant Jewish education process. Ethical reasoning and behavior are integral to Jewish education and if graduating students are not thinking and behaving in a morally mature manner, a critical goal of Jewish education is not being met. After three remarkably successful years at Shalhevet High School, a modified Kohlbergian system of moral education- in the form of a “Just Community”- seems to contain the key to meeting these goals.