The problem with fundamentalist religious schools is the wealth of secular knowledge they're not being taught.
After firmly resisting New York state oversight for years, a private fundamentalist Hasidic Jewish academy in Long Island—one of the state’s largest schools—finally in 2019 agreed to give standardized state tests in reading and math to more than 1,000 students.
Every single student failed, the New York Times reported in an exhaustive investigative report published Sept. 11.
This sad result at the Central United Talmudical Academy reflects a broader reality for students at many if not most fundamentalist religious schools in America of any sect: With the teaching of religious doctrine massively prioritized, students are taught, and thus learn, far too little else.
And such enforced ignorance can have debilitating consequences in their lives, with broader spill-over effects for the nation.
The upshot is that these knowledge-deprived kids commonly grow into adults who find themselves wholly unprepared for real, diverse life anywhere outside their religious communities and enclaves. This is especially true for Hasidic boys, who are more rigorously taught religion in school than girls. Such educational stunting later entraps many in highly dogmatic, constricted lives they loathe but feel they are totally ill-equipped to change or escape, according to the Times report.
How religious schools embed ignorance in students
Making matters worse, in some of New York’s Hasidic schools, textbooks are in Hebrew, not English.
“I’m the third generation born and raised in New York City,” former Hasidic student Chaim Fishman, “and, still, when I was 15, I could barely speak English.”
Another Hasidic Jew, Mendy Pape, embodies another cautionary tale for other ultra-orthodox youths wanting to leave the fold. When he fled his sect, he found he couldn’t afford an apartment with his bagel-factory job and had to sleep on park benches, before attempting suicide and landing for six months in a psychiatric hospital. Eventually he was able to earn a nursing degree.
A kind neighbor taught Pape English in her spare time and gifted him his first book, the children’s story Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. He was 28 at the time. He told the Times that his earlier Hasidic education basically prepared him for failure beyond his community and was like an anchor trapping him in place and time.
When he first left, he recalled,
I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a bank account, I didn’t have references. I didn’t have any of that because I didn’t even know what any of that was. I had no knowledge really of how to speak to people. I thought I was all on my own. That’s the idea I was given in school.
Pape was hardly alone. Another young Hasidic man interviewed by the Times also found the culture shock overwhelming when he first entered the wider world.
Wrote the Times:
I don’t know how to put into words how frustrating it is,” said Moishy Klein, who recently left the community after realizing it had not taught him basic grammar, let alone the skills needed to find a decent job. “I thought, ‘It’s crazy that I’m literally not learning anything. It’s crazy that I’m 20 years old, I don’t know any higher order math, never learned any science.'”
Other religious sects also teach students to fail
But in many fundamentalist schools of various sects in the U.S.—private or homeschool—it’s not “crazy.” It’s normal.
In her beautiful, devastating memoir, Educated, author Tara Westover recalls when as a homeschooled 17-year-old freshman at Utah’s Brigham Young University, she heard a curious word in an art history class.
“I’d seen other students ask questions, so I raised my hand. ‘I don’t know this word,’ she asked the professor. ‘What does it mean?’”
In her 2018 profile on Westover in the Israeli ezine Haaretz, Nina Alexander explained what happened next:
The silence in the Mormon school’s large lecture hall could have been cut with a knife. The professor suddenly looked grim and moved on to the next question. Surprisingly, Vanessa, Westover’s only friend at college, looked shocked, and when the class was over, she admonished her angrily that “there are some things you just don’t joke about.” Westover was about to ask her what she meant, but her friend rushed away. Only later, after Westover hurried to the library to search for the unfamiliar word on Google, did she begin to understand the irritated reactions. The word she had encountered for the first time at age 17 was “Holocaust.”
Indoctrination creates huge blank spots
The result of fundamentalist educational indoctrination at the expense of learning about the real world is huge blank spots in a person’s working knowledge, the critical understandings that allow individuals to safely and effectively navigate their paths in the world.
Enforced ignorance carries existential risks not only for individuals and communities but for life on earth, as an article, “Fundamentalism and education,” contends in the website OpenDemocracy:
When the city of Chicago closes 49 “underperforming” schools in poor neighborhoods, who gets hurt?
When fundamentalist parents control what information their kids are exposed to by home schooling them, who are the victims?
In both cases, children are being hurt. But they are not the only ones.
We live at a time when, according to environmentalists, our continued existence on this planet is at risk. More than ever, in the years ahead, people will need both scientific and humanistic knowledge to confront this challenge. But our educational institutions are lagging behind, rather than gearing up to mobilize the vast stores of human creativity that will be needed as we face irreversible climate change.
Unnecessary tragedies unfold from human ignorance. The hidebound “education” many Hasidic students in New York receive has had real-world consequences stemming from parents’ biases and lack of knowledge.
Of course, many educators believe it’s beneficial to teach students in an objective, non-proselytizing way about the diversity of faiths in own societies and others around the world, about what is and isn’t objectively true about them (read the “On The Other Hand” essay below). What isn’t beneficial is teaching students that only one is valid.
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
EducationWeek: Four Reasons Why You Should Teach About Religion in School
But supernaturally-induced ignorance is always dangerous.
Long-gone polio back in New York
For example, On Sept. 9, New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a statewide public-health emergency after 56 samples of the polio virus were discovered in wastewater—50 of them genetically linked to a young, never-vaccinated Jewish man from Long Island’s heavily Hasidic, vaccination-averse Rockland County. Gov. Hochul said that whereas the polio vaccination rate among the state’s two-year-olds was just under 79 percent, in certain ZIP codes in Rockland County, the rate is as low as 37 percent.
Keep in mind that polio was virtually eliminated in the United States in 1979, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as immunizations for that disease and others were mandated in public schools. The nation’s last polio case, in 2013, was reported in a victim who contracted the disease while traveling abroad.
Politics hobbles effective corrective action
Besides religious-freedom rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, there are political reasons that so many religious schools fail to robustly educate their students with actual, verifiable knowledge.
Political leaders in New York, according to the Times have long been cowed by large enclaves of Hasidic Jews, who effectively vote as blocks and can spell electoral doom for candidacies they don’t support. And these fundamentalists in recent years have made protecting their religious schools and their curricula a top priority.
But the kind of abject ignorance instilled in kids by many fundamentalist religious-school indoctrination makes the nation weaker, not stronger, as we approach a far more sophisticated, technological future where broad secular knowledge and the creative innovations it breeds is king.
We simply can no longer afford to have native-born high-school seniors who can barely speak English, and who don’t know what “the holocaust” was. And it’s costing public money. New York’s Hasidic schools have raked in more than a billion dollars in government funding in recent years, and other parochial schools have gorged at the public trough as well.
Willful ignorance isn’t bliss. In the 21st century, it’s a kind of treason.