Monday, March 23, 2009

An Open Letter to President Obama about Education

Dear President Obama,

I am the Director of Education in a Reform Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. This is the congregation where our dear friend and rabbi, Arnold Wolfe, worked nearly 50 years ago. I am also a rabbinical student. I read your March 10th speech about education with great sadness and I want to share the reasons for my disappointment.

Early on you say, “In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know -- education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success.”

In this quote, you limit the objectives of education to “success,” but the hidden understanding of this word is financial success. In other words, the goal of education is financial self-enrichment and it is achieved through competition. In Judaism, we work to learn about God and ethics, which is the deeper meaning behind our saying, “Without bread (flour) there is no Torah.” A successful Jew is one who finds balance between work and study in order to serve God and be Her partner in Tikkun, perfecting the world. We also do this work in study partnerships called Chevruta so we can benefit from our classmates progress, not compete against them.

Additionally, I have a secular response to the problem you create by making the objective of education a financial reward. For a couple years, I volunteered in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. The students I worked with were mostly concerned with the same rewards you offer as a result of education. They wanted to make money. Education, for most of them, was a slow form of delayed gratification with numerous extraneous challenges. They had to learn to read, to write, to come to class and to do homework afterwards. They had to wait 12 years through school, not have money for college and possibly discover the glass ceiling created by the color of their skin. Most of my students were impatient, didn’t get the encouragement to reach the goals you wave before them, and decided to take short cuts. They sold drugs, committed petty crimes and basically went after your rewards in their own convoluted ways.

My point in sharing this is to discourage you from waving the financial success banner. Talk about great scholars who contributed to science, philosophy or law. Make education the road to a more ethical and culturally vibrant society, and I am with you. But if it’s all about money and competitiveness, I can offer you much fast paths, as my juvenile delinquent students taught me.

Mr. President, my disappointment from your speech subsided when I read, “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it's unsustainable for our democracy.” You are absolutely correct when you say that we need to improve American education to sustain this great democracy, but what education are you speaking about?

You say, “It's time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. It's time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career.” I say that a career isn’t enough.

The leaders of Enron and AIG studied in the best colleges our country has to offer. They were trained by our best mathematicians and economists. What has that helped the American people?

A principle of a public school who had survived the atrocities of the Holocaust once wrote this letter to each member of his faculty.

Dear Teacher:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas Chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

I implore you to consider these important words as you speak about America’s education system. So far I have heard something far different. For you, “This isn't just about keeping an eye on our children, it's about educating them. Studies show that children in early childhood education programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job.” Earning is not all there is to education.

Let me close with a brief story from the Talmud. Rabbi Meir was said to be the greatest rabbi of his generation, yet when he came to study with Rabbi Akiva he couldn’t understand what he was learning. Rabbi Akiva, maybe the greatest rabbi of all time, could make a case that what is pure is impure and what is impure is pure. In other words, he could see all sides of an argument. In order to be able to study with Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir went to study with Rabbi Yishmael where he completed all his remedial lessons. Only after this was he able to come back to Rabbi Akiva and study seriously – with wisdom and moral reasoning, what we refer to as Svara.

When Rashi, our great illuminator of sacred text explains the words “with wisdom and moral reasoning,” he says that Rabbi Meir could now stand on the core of a text and reason why something could be pure or impure, forbidden or prohibited, and on what authority that reasoning stands. He could find the things within the words and when something new would arise he could find a way to apply it within the moral authority.”

For me, this is the key to education, and as long as the American people are focused on reading and writing skills, measurement and accountability, we will miss “the thing within the words” and the moral authority that guides great nations.

I’m on your side President Obama, and I have great faith in your svara and ability to get things done. Please take my comments into consideration as you go forward.


David Steiner

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What happens to a dream deferred?

Langston Hughes answered himself in poetry when he asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore-- 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over-- 
like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
My dream is to go to Israel and train to be a rabbi so I can help my people navigate and negotiate the world and the heavy questions it poses to us.
Do we need to fit God in with our rational understanding of the world? Where was he when…? And why doesn’t he…?
How should we handle ourselves in a world that has proven that it doesn’t particularly care for us? How shall we behave toward our neighbors? What about the Palestinians? The Iranians?
I want to be there to help think through issues of child rearing and moral education in the tradition of great Jewish educators like Janusz Korczak and Rabbi Akiva. I want to lead us toward peace like Rebbe Yochanan when he fled Jerusalem in a coffin in order to meet the Roman general, Vespasian, who later became emperor and gave us Yavne and a second chance for our tradition.
I want to show the world the beauty of making the case for purity of the impure and impurity of the pure like Rabbi Meir who followed his renegade teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, to the edge of the town, on Yom Kippor, in an effort to bring him back, and I want to be like Abbie Hoffman who new when to yell theater in a crowded fire and wear the flag with pride in an effort to expose the idolatry of patriotism.
All this will come when I sell my house, move my family, resettle in Tel Aviv and start my new life as a student in Israel.
Now, please God, send a buyer for my home.