secular studies at yeshiva

Who Decides english and math in Yeshivas?

Last week the New York City Department of Education sent a warning letter notifying 18 yeshivas that they are failing to teach secular subjects at an acceptable level (Read news coverage from The City here). This resulted from a multi-year government investigation following up on numerous journalist and independent activist reports. For example, in September of 2022 the New York Times undertook a comprehensive analysis of local yeshivas, including interviews with scores of teachers and former students. The Times was able to document a stunning failure of yeshivas to teach English and math, so much that in 2019 at nine yeshivas less than one percent of the students tested at grade level (click here to see the Times article, may require subscription). The non-profit Yaffed, whose mission is to advocate for increased secular studies in yeshivas, has also been sounding the alarm about this for years.

According to New York state’s compulsory education law, instruction for students in private schools must be at least substantially equivalent to the instruction given in local public schools. If not, the nonpublic school should lose its license. In September 2022, after years of back and forth political pressure, the NY State Department of Education prepared a detailed guide explaining the basic requirements private schools must follow and the various pathways by which nonpublic schools could demonstrate their equivalence (see it here). This has resulted in limited impact, however, both because that document itself envisions a long-term process of schools gradually coming up to standards, and because a judge found that the Department of Education’s enforcement powers are anyway very limited (read news coverage of the judge’s decision here).

Those who defend the yeshivas cite parental rights and freedom of religion. For example, the non-profit advocacy group PEARLS (Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools), which was created to defend the current yeshiva system, begins its mission statement by saying, “PEARLS is committed to protecting the fundamental right of parents to choose that their children receive the intensive religious instruction. . .”

Education as a Human Right

The right of parents to choose the education of their children is in fact enshrined in no less a document than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 of the UDHR states as follows:

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. . .
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Clearly, Haredi parents have latched on to paragraph three. But the principle of parental rights has to be understood in the context of the entire article. As an excellent summary of the drafting history published by UNESCO explains, the primary reason paragraph three was included was as a means of limiting a potential grab for state power that might result from paragraph one (read it here). Free, compulsory education provided only by the state could be an opening for political indoctrination by the authorities. The drafters of the UDHR therefore added that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education given to their children, so that the government should not be able to force children into state-run schools. At the very least, it is clearly not the intention of this subsection to give parents unlimited license to do as they please.

Two Separate Human Rights Concerns

There are, in fact, at least two separate human rights concerns that yeshivas that fail to teach secular subjects raise.

First, one major purpose of education is for children to become self-sustaining adults able to support themselves. For example, UNESCO in its explainer titled ‘What You Need to Know About the Right to Education (see it here),’ answers the question of why education is a fundamental human right because, “It (education) is one of the most powerful tools in lifting socially excluded children and adults out of poverty and into society. UNESCO data shows that if all adults completed secondary education, globally the number of poor people could be reduced by more than half.” This point seems clear, and yeshivas that don’t teach secular basics are churning out students who will be at a severe disadvantage if/when they look for employment.

Second, while parents are clearly entitled to raise their children within the religious tradition they choose, children have religious freedom also. As they get older, children may choose to leave the religion they were raised with. Painful as that may be for parents, they do not have the right to force religious observance on their offspring. At what point does intensive religious instruction cross the line from education to indoctrination aimed at denying children their own freedom? Also remember that the second paragraph from the UDHR states that the purpose of education is to promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among racial and religious groups. Is teaching one religion morning to night, without a decent dose of social studies, history, and literature so that children have some understanding of the rest of the world around them, too much an attempt at parental control over children’s development to still be considered education?

In the current debate, economic self-sufficiency is clearly the focus. Likely this is because economics is relatively safe ground for the State of New York to claim an interest and it avoids the more highly charged discussion of freedom of religion. For example, even YAFED, the non-profit advocating for more secular studies in yeshivas, puts the matter in economic terms, stating on their home page that without an education, yeshiva graduates are severely limited in work options and often are forced to rely on government aid to support themselves and their large families. This is even though its members are obviously concerned with the issue of religious indoctrination and control as well.

The 18 yeshivas that received letters from the state of New York last week are hardly the only ones failing to give a basic secular education to their students. In addition to more in the New York area and other places in the United States, this has become an especially vexing topic in Israel with its vast system of Haredi education.

It’s unfortunate for the human rights of parents to come into conflict with the rights of their own children. The New York Department of Education has done an admirable job of making clear that it is not aiming to punish or replace parents or schools, but rather assist them in fulfilling their obligations. Parents should be reminded that the right to choose an educational path for their children, let alone to receive state education funding, is not absolute. Governments must insist that children be educated to be productive members of a multicultural society. That basic requirement should not be seen as infringing on the religious freedom of parents at all.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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