This week I came across an article in the paper about a group of ultra-Orthodox youths who managed to score high on the psychometric exam after attending a preparatory course at the Technion. The haredi students, who had no prior background in English or math, received grades that would even enable them to enter the Faculty of Medicine.
I was indeed impressed, but for the wrong reasons. Maybe because I know too well how much efforts, blood, sweat and tears have been put into each and every point on the way to fulfilling their dream – an academic degree that would enable them to integrate into the employment market.
This innocent story reminded me of an article I was once requested to write for a haredi weekly in the midst of the struggle against the "core studies" in the ultra-Orthodox education system. The editor asked me to locate three graduates of haredi institutions who managed to get an academic degree and develop a career despite the fact they had no prior knowledge of math of English.
No knowledge of English, math (Illustration photo: Haim Zach)
After a long research I finally found my three interviewees. But what I recall most from my conversations with them was the criticism the three of them expressed separately, and off the record, against the current curriculum in haredi schools.
Vague fear of academics
"It wasn't always like this," one of them reminded me. "Such ignorance in 'secular' studies is something that evolved in recent years." He attributed his success in closing the gap and gaining a degree to the fact that as a child he attended one of those almost extinct haredi schools that teach English.
Another interviewee, a senior high-tech executive, confessed that until today he has a hard time writing fluently in English. "Many around me dropped out," he recounted. "Not everyone is capable of the huge efforts required for acquiring so much knowledge in so little time." He added that many of those who failed felt outrage towards the education system that brought them to their current situation.
The truth is that even today, in an age where haredi colleges have become a common sight, the sector isn't quite sure how to accept these success stories. This lack of support stems from a vague fear that more and more haredi academics might change the face of this society.
Parents are responsible
In my opinion parents, who determine their children's educational path, should be willing to carry the consequences. The elementary privilege to acquire an education is still prevented from many due to the simple fact that this costs money: For tutoring, a preparatory course and even the studies themselves. Given the fact that most of the students have families of their own, the question of earning a livelihood is another deterring factor.
The public of haredi parents has yet to internalize the fact that when choosing to minimize the scope of secular studies in schools, they must at the same time be prepared to enable their child the option of a professional career, by saving money for academic studies.
One thing is certain – the position regarding secular studies is destined to change as the circle of haredi higher education grows wider. People may discover that the level of math teachers can be improved, and that English has a place in elementary schools.
And who knows – perhaps in the future a high psychometric score for haredim will no longer be a newspaper sensation, but rather an ordinary thing.