A good word about 'discrimination'

Some children learn better in single-gender environments.

school children teacher  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
school children teacher
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In the early 90s, when I served as a teacher and principal of the boys‚ division of a yeshiva high school in Providence, Rhode Island, I once called the local school board to arrange a board-sponsored driver's education class for a group of male students, and one for a group of students in our young women's division. The official with whom I spoke was aghast. "A separate class for girls!" she exclaimed. "That's blatant discrimination, and against the law." I tried to explain that my request no more discriminated against the girls than it did the boys, that the separation of the genders was part of our school's policy for religious reasons, and that religious freedom was also a concern of the law (not to mention a touchstone of Rhode Island's history). But the official was unyielding, and the classes never came to be. I couldn't help but wonder how she might have reacted to the Bush administration's recent announcement of new rules allowing school districts to create single-gender classes, and even entire single-gender schools. And to the fact that the move was backed not only by political conservatives but by urban educators and legislators on both sides of the political aisle as well. To be sure, the usual amalgamation of civil rights and women's groups (and Senator Ted Kennedy) dutifully condemned the administration's decision and threatened to challenge the decision in the courts, but Education Department officials expressed confidence that the new rules would pass legal muster. The impetus for the reassessment of what constitutes illegal discrimination under Title IX, a 1972 federal law, was research suggesting that at least some children learn better in single-gender environments. HOWEVER FUTURE studies may pan out, though, it is encouraging to see consideration at the highest levels of government of the possibility that boys and girls may be different in the ways they learn, and that the case for same-gender education cannot be waved away with unthinking accusations of immoral discrimination. It would be encouraging, too, to see some Jewish schools until now pledged to "co-education" give some further thought to the matter as well. The administration's rationale for separate-gender public education may be pedagogical, while our own is essentially religious. But there is more than minor overlap between the two, born of the realities of human psychology. And, whatever the reasoning, that the issue is being addressed honestly and objectively is healthy and heartening. It holds out the hope, moreover, that charges of discrimination in other areas might also be considered not through the muddled lens of the word's contemporary pejorative meaning but in its original, benign sense - as per the American Heritage Dictionary's first entry: "able to recognize or draw fine distinctions." Some such distinctions, of course, inform observant Jewish life, and occasionally come into conflict with contemporary society's notions of "equality." We certainly do not - or at least should not - discriminate on the basis of race, national origin or disability, but we are most unabashedly discriminating about a number of other things. Like, to take one example, the definition of marriage, an institution under relentless attack these days. A number of countries have radically redefined the term, one state in our own republic has already followed suit, and several others - most recently New Jersey, through a ruling by its highest court - seem headed in a similar direction. At issue is whether marriage defined as it has been since postdiluvian times is, in the eyes of state constitutions, inherently "discriminatory." Well, yes, it is. It discriminates among a variety of arrangements, some of which violate one of the universal Noahide Commandments (not to mention the Torah's laws for the Jewish People) and the deep sensibilities of countless civilized (and even some less-than-fully-civilized) people around the world. But it does not discriminate, in the word's negative connotation, against anyone - any more than defining apples as fruit somehow wrongs tractors. Because words have meanings, and "marriage" is a word. And discriminating souls care about protecting it. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The above essay appears in the current issue of The Jewish Observer and is offered with its permission.