The heart, and head of the matter

My head says Jewish day school for the kids - but my heart wants a public school education for them.

I was in Boston this week at the PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) Assembly for Jewish Day School Education and thought it was an appropriate time to recycle a piece I wrote a few years back, an internal dialogue between my head and my heart about day school education: HEAD: I am a product of suburban public schools and regret that I'll never have the fluency in Jewish learning that can come only from a day school education. By sending my kids to Jewish day school, I am giving them the gift of Jewish literacy. I also have dark memories of synagogue supplementary school and vowed never to inflict that on my children. HEART: You are the son of a public high school principal and spent your summers at a bungalow colony whose entire clientele were Jewish public school teachers. The connection between your Americanness, Jewishness, family history, and public schooling runs wide and deep. Jewish day school is a vote against one of the most important institutions of American democracy. HEAD: Public schools are not like they were just 20 years ago, when even run-of-the-mill suburban high schools like mine were safe, staffed with competent, caring teachers and bright, middle-class kids from stable homes. I am not willing to sacrifice my kids and their education on an altar labeled "democracy." And searching out the affluent suburbs with the better public schools is every bit as segregating as Jewish day school. HEART: Anything worthwhile is worth fighting for. Between day school and synagogue, day school parents have all but eliminated opportunities for their children to interact with families of different classes, nationalities, religions and races - a loss to their children, and a loss to the friends they could have made and influenced. HEAD: I was lucky enough to find for my children Jewish schools that put values ahead of rote learning of text, take pride in their secular curricula, indulge a variety of Jewish home practices, and treat students as individuals. It's the kind of school I would want my kids to attend whether it was Jewish or not. HEART: Judaism is not a curriculum. It is a way of engaging with the world. Your children will achieve their "Jewish literacy," but to what end? You think you are quarantining them against the disease of assimilation, but what you are really doing is replacing one malady with another: parochialism. HEAD: I read The End of Education by Neil Postman and agree with him that children need a "master story." Such a story, he writes, provides "moral guidance, a sense of continuity, explanations of the past, clarity to the present, hope for the future." Even if they end up rejecting all or parts of that story, they will at least be able to make choices against a background that provides perspective, balance, contrast, and scale. Although Postman's book is a prescription for public schools, I am not willing to wait until his suggestions for new secular master stories take root there. HEART: You say "master story" and I hear "chauvinism." And I hear it too in the attitudes of other day school parents and their kids. You and they are afraid of something. You call it the loss of "continuity," but what you're really worried about are social ills like drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and violence, or a general lack of guiding values. HEAD: Not true. I feel the inherited Jewish tradition fits George Santayana's description of a healthy religion: "Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life." HEART: Bias is right. You're afraid of what your bubbe would call "goyische naches" - the idea that what they do is messy, rootless, tacky, other. That's the "inherited Jewish tradition" you want to pass on to your kids? HEAD: No - I want to pass on Judaism. The devotion to learning. Its love affair with words. The way dialectic and argumentation are the means for ordering the world. Its affirmation of life, in this world, at this time. And the idea, more important than ever as we rush into the 21st century at the speed of the latest Pentium chip, that ancient voices matter. HEART: Listen, it's getting late. If you're going to insist on day school, then I need to devote a few of these sleepless minutes to my anxiety over the cost of sending three kids through day school and college. HEAD: That's something we can both agree on. Good night. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at