Imagine asking your 16-year-old daughter and day school student, Maya, “What did you learn today?”
Instead of the usual, “I dunno, nothing,” you get this:
“I am working to weld an iron banister, but we need to understand how heat and pressure affect various metal compositions and then figure out how to calculate the maximum weight it can support.”
When, out of curiosity, you ask how welding an iron banister connects to Judaism, literature and history, Maya explains, “I am working with my group to find where iron, barzel, appears in the Tanach.”
She explains that they are identifying when it appears as the actual material and when it is used figuratively. “This,” she says, “connects to figurative use of the word iron in English, like ‘iron-will.’ ”
By now, Maya’s getting excited. “Did you know that the Jews weren’t allowed to use iron tools in the making of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan?” You didn’t know this, so you ask her why. “Well, we had a chance to work together and come up with a bunch of theories about that, and I really feel like I understand Rambam’s argument that iron was used in weapons that kill and that it doesn’t seem right to have it in a holy place that is all about appreciating and extending life.”
Maya tells you how, as a group, they have met with teachers and begun to develop questions to research. From their beginning work, she says, “We’re going to research the history of iron and its influence on the development of civilization, tool production and agriculture and all about its physical properties.”
You notice that the welding skills themselves are tied to Maya’s developing concentration, attention to detail and craftsmanship, and sense of achievement. It’s not hard to see that everything she is learning is linked in a very clear way to a set goal of welding a banister.
Now, I’m not naive enough to suggest that your teenager will magically respond in this sort of conversation, but I believe that a relevant and empowering curriculum that grounds academic skills in manual training will profoundly engage your child. Maya’s education matters in a way that it never had before.
Our current educational system, with its singular focus on book learning, has neglected the intellectual and cognitive development that comes from manual skills. Although this may seem necessary to address the pressure of college admittance, it is actually a less effective means of educating our students.
We need to take an honest look at how our system affects our children and our community. Although the Jewish community doesn’t have the problem of high dropout rates, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t assess, critique and improve our Jewish schools. Our students — your children — are as bored as their non-Jewish counterparts. They are set on a narrow path to success regardless of their interests or learning styles. We focus on one aspect of our children and completely disregard the importance for their holistic development.
Upon graduation they have no skills, no entry point into gainful and meaningful employment and few options aside from the academic path. We’ve convinced ourselves and our children that they must prepare for the future, but we have left them without a firm grasp of relevant knowledge and skills for their present lives. When our entire curriculum focuses on the future, we frustrate our children by rationalizing the purpose for the subject matter, and, worse, we disempower them.
The end of adolescence is traditionally marked by financial independence, marriage and children. Today’s adolescence, according to some psychologists, extends to 30. Several social/cultural changes affect marriage and decisions about child bearing, but that our children are not reaching financial independence until 30, is astounding.
Our children’s mental, emotional and physical health is influenced by their feelings of powerlessness and frustration with the endless adolescence they face. Instead, they could be empowered by being prepared for college and hands-on skills making them effectual now.
Our Jewish schools provide an excellent education for some of our children, which will serve them in college and beyond. However, they do not prepare nor provide them with the sense of pride and agency that comes with skilled work upon high school graduation.
The beauty in rethinking the entire modality of learning and grounding academic skills in manual training is that it engages and develops the whole and complex person that is your child. By making relevancy obvious, by making academic skills and Jewish practice (note: not observance) necessary for manual production, our Jewish schools can address the mind, body and spirit of your whole child and support and encourage her growth into a connected and powerful adult (at the age of 18).
By the time she graduates, Maya will know how to build a cabinet, fit a door, grow a crop and bring goods to market — all the while understanding the direct applicability of history, mathematics, physics, literature, Jewish law, traditions and business ethics. Honestly, wouldn’t you like the opportunity Maya has?