Teach These Instructions to Your Children
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite community undergoes some substantial changes. Moses’ sister Miriam, who has been a (literally) guiding figure for the Israelites, dies. Aaron, Moses’ brother and the community’s high priest, dies. Moses is told that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In modern day terms, we could call this a period with a pretty high turnover rate among top leadership. Luckily, the Israelites were ready – Elazar was able to relatively seamlessly assume the high priesthood, and Moses spends much of Deuteronomy preparing the people for their entry into the land of Israel.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, we are not similarly preparing the next generation to be full and productive leaders of society. On exams administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science or reading. Only 70%of students graduate high school, with a much lower percentage enrolling in and ultimately finishing college. These trends are even more pronounced among black and Hispanic children, who graduate high school and attend college at markedly lower rates than their white counterparts. Poor and minority students are also out-performed by white students on standardized tests, with evidence of the “achievement gap” starting as early as elementary school.
While there is theoretically legislation that outlines recommendations and policies for our school system – entitled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – this bill was set to be reauthorized in 2007 and has yet to be properly considered by Congress. This week, federal legislators are beginning a new attempt to revisit and improve upon this crucial piece of legislation. An updated version passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate yesterday, and now will hopefully be considered by the full chamber. Importantly, the Senate’s version contained LGBT-friendly provisions that create a national definition of bullying and provide LGBT students the same legal recourse as other targets of discrimination. Click here to tell your member of Congress that these are important policies to you in any legislation moving forward.
The Jewish tradition is unequivocal in its views on the importance of education. The second paragraph of the sh’ma itself commands us to “teach these instructions to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7), with the Talmud expanding on this idea and relaying an elaborate system of compulsory education starting at the age of six. A school or learning center has been at the heart of every Jewish society throughout time, and few institutions are more valued by the community. It is time that we take these traditions and commands to heart, and demand a timely refocusing on education as the building block of the next generation of Americans.