Think Again: Israel's greatest untapped source of brainpower

The state gets its money's worth in funding yeshivas.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir became an unlikely haredi hero recently when she defended the Knesset vote to anchor in law funding of yeshivot ketanot (for young men aged 14 to 16) at 60 percent of the funding of students in the state education system. Evelyn Gordon took Tamir to task in these pages ("Tolerance without state funding," July 30). Gordon agrees with Tamir that the government should not coerce haredim into accepting the core curriculum. But that does not mean, she argues, that the government must also fund an education system that has declared itself free from all governmental control. I confess that I find it almost impossible to disagree with anything that Evelyn Gordon writes. Here too, I agree that democratic theory does not mandate government funding of private education. Nevertheless, there are compelling public policy grounds to justify the continual funding of haredi post-elementary education. First, let us clarify the extent of the issue. Teenage haredi girls receive a secular education that is on a par with, and likely superior to, the average student in the state education system. Increasingly, haredi women are going into hi-tech, accounting and architecture, as well as the traditional haredi professions of teaching and special education. That leaves the boys, whose secular education generally ends in eighth grade. Next, let us clarify the goals of education. Broadly speaking, those goals are twofold: conveying specific information and developing the ability to think. With respect to the first, most of us retain very little of the specific content of our schooling. How many reading this column can remember the quadratic formula, much less its application? My brother once built a stairwell using trigonometry, but for most people trigonometric functions play no role past high-school math tests. Given the pathetic state of Israeli public education, haredi young men would not seem to be missing much in terms of content. Barely half of Jewish high-school students even qualify for a matriculation certificate. And anyone who has ever listened to students in elite Tel Aviv high schools stumped by questions such as "How did Israel come into possession of the Golan Heights?" and "What is the difference between the legislative and executive branches?" can only wonder what is taught in the civics portion of the core curriculum. As Tali Lipkin-Shahak once wrote: "The only thing more depressing than our students' total ignorance is their utter indifference to that ignorance." Most haredi kids are avid readers - unlike their secular counterparts. Newspapers, magazines and lots of books are found in almost every haredi home. Unless the subject is sports or the sexual peccadilloes of our leaders, haredi kids are probably better informed about current events than their secular contemporaries. I would wager that the average haredi high-school-age student even knows more Israeli history and has toured more widely in Israel than his secular counterpart. The New York State Regents once exempted Orthodox schools from teaching the state's mandatory anti-AIDS curriculum on the grounds that an Orthodox education provided a superior defense against the disease, as reflected in the near nonexistence of AIDS in the Orthodox community. In light of the vastly lower rates of violence and crime in haredi schools and society, and the much higher rates of participation in the political process, perhaps haredi education should similarly be treated as the functional equivalent of the core's civics requirement. IN TERMS OF developing reasoning ability, nothing compares to Talmud study. Every proposition put forth by the Talmud is immediately challenged and a dizzying array of proofs adduced to each side. Not only is no proposition accepted at face value by the Talmud itself, but Talmud is studied together with a partner whose task it is to challenge every interpretation one offers. The process is justly called "the wars of Torah." Talmudic learning leaves no room for the passive absorption of information spoon-fed by a teacher. When Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the leading talmudist of his time, gave his lectures in Ponevezh Yeshiva, he was inevitably challenged within a few moments by students 60 years younger than he. To the logical abilities developed in talmudic learning must be added the intellectual discipline required to engage challenging texts 10 to 12 hours a day. Yeshiva learning thus bears no resemblance to the rote memorization of the madrassa, to which it is ignorantly compared. A 1994 study by a team of Israeli and American researchers, headed by Prof. Robert Sigler of Carnegie-Mellon University, found that yeshiva students surpassed secular students in their ability to solve geometry and mathematical problems. And American software entrepreneur George Morgenstern claims that students with a background in Talmud can master computer programming in one-quarter to one-half the time of those lacking such background. A July 24 Ha'aretz news story compared the results on the psychometric exam of haredi men who had no high-school education but who took a preparatory course of one year or less to the national average. The results refuted Ha'aretz's recurrent portrayal of yeshiva education as the heart of darkness, consigning its products to a life of ignorance and poverty. The conclusion: "The data indicate that the formal education system plays a small part in an examinee's chances of succeeding in the test." Of the 30 haredi men in the course, 70% scored above the national median of 400, with 15% over 700 and 45% over 610 (as compared to national averages of 5% and 27%, respectively, in the latter two categories.) The manager of the preparatory course attributed the superior results of the haredi men to the "haredi students' marked capacity for learning. It's not just the developed logic of those who studied Gemara, but the habit of perseverance." EDUCATION MINISTER Tamir cited such studies in her defense of continuing government support for the yeshiva ketana system. To cut off all government financial support to the yeshivot, as Gordon suggests, would be treated by haredi society as a declaration of war. And it would greatly strengthen those elements in haredi society always seeking to draw the wagons tighter and minimize contact with the broader society. The result would be to deny Israeli society its largest untapped source of brainpower - the yeshiva world. And that brainpower is the least susceptible to the lure of higher-paying jobs abroad. In recent years, there has been a vast proliferation of training courses aimed at the haredi public, in particular men from their mid-20s to 40. In the past, a kollel student considering vocational or academic training faced a major disincentive: He would not even bring home a kollel salary during the period of his studies, and would be laying out money he often did not have for his education. Today almost any haredi man seeking vocational or academic training can receive a stipend during the period of his studies and have those studies paid for through grants from private benefactors and the government. The fastest way to halt the growing trend of haredi men following haredi women into the workforce would be a frontal attack on the haredi education system. That, as much as her multiculturalism, explains Yuli Tamir's surprising defense of the yeshiva ketana/I> system.