This article appeared in Wisdom From All My Teachers. Atid / Urim, Jerusalem, 2003. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
Parents who are concerned about their child’s proficiency in college-preparatory curricula but also serious about his or her religious development in young adulthood, are willing to spend thousands of dollars a year sending their children to private Jewish high schools. After four years, they expect that their children will have received a quality Jewish and general education so that they graduate knowledgeable in Jewish texts and in Jewish practices while being prepared to compete for acceptance into prestigious universities.
But parents sending their children to a Jewish school also expect that their children will graduate a “mensch.” They expect that their children’s attitudes and behavior will reflect Jewish values such as honesty, respect, caring, truthfulness, tolerance, compassion and social sensitivity. The fact is, most graduates may achieve academic success and competence in basic knowledge and skills, but still remain seriously lacking in moral maturity, both in universal ethics and Jewish values.
Indeed, both formal and informal observations of Jewish schools have revealed significant evidence of cheating, plagiarizing and lying throughout the four years of high school. Disrespectful language and disruptive behavior towards teachers, administrators and peers are commonplace. Overall, there are manifestations of social insensitivity, intolerance of differences and immature moral judgment (Bailey, 1996; Green, 1985; Friedman, 1984; Nulman, 1975; Selig & Teller, 1975; Yaron, 1975; Menitoff, 1974).
Certainly many “traditional” schools graduate students who are strongly identified with observant Jewish life, but even these graduates often fail to absorb Judaism’s nonritually based ethics and morals. Worse, a larger percentage of graduates either reject, ignore or simply fall away from traditional Jewish life and in their rejection, often substitute Jewish values with the non-Jewish cultural values of their contemporaries.
Ethical reasoning and behavior, integral to Jewish education, comes from the transmission of values that strengthen the young adult’s Jewish identity in coping with the moral dilemmas of everyday life and from a firm basis in Jewish literacy and ethical traditions. If a Jewish adolescent enters young adulthood as a college-bound, morally stunted 2 individual, we, as Jews, are in trouble. Where will we get the next generation of knowledgeable identified Jews who reflect Jewish ethics in their university, professional and personal lives?
Who has the primary responsibility to transmit values and literacy–the home or the school? This paper takes the position that, for the following three reasons, the Jewish school is a key player in resolving this critical issue.
First, although the ultimate responsibility for character development is on the parents, schools are in a better position to influence the developing child’s moral qualities, since children spend most of their waking hours in school. Hundreds of moral dilemmas present themselves in school life and educators can use these opportunities to sensitize students to ethical decision-making.
Second, administrators and teachers are the child’s models for ethical thought and behavior, intentionally or unintentionally. How educators relate to the child daily becomes the real teaching tool for the child’s moral sense. If administrators and teachers are arbitrary, unfair, authoritarian and disrespectful towards their students, it will not matter what traits and values are taught verbally; a student learns what a student sees.
Finally, any school-based moral education program must be comprehensive to be effective. Periodic moral exhortations or sporadic social-caring activities do little to affect the internalization of values and ethical behavior. It is the day-to-day, real-life experiences that a child integrates. Therefore, schools need to incorporate formal and informal techniques that are omnipresent.
It is this writer’s position that such a school-based comprehensive program, which satisfies these three criteria, is the a Just Community — a model for moral education, based on the pioneering work of the late Prof. Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard University
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