Strengthening Against Challenges
I had a really interesting conversation over Shabbos with one of my hosts. We started out talking about some of the issues with education in Orthodox Jewish schools and the conversation just kind of spread from there. The initial point that was made was that the Orthodox Jewish schools, in order to remedy a lot of the problems they are currently facing, must first and foremost admit that there are problems, such as the fact that they are populated with teachers who know nothing about education and learning. I mentioned that one of my possible future career interests lies in this kind of educational psychology field, attempting to build programs in the Orthodox community, but again, the schools and the system must realize that they are in need of help before that can happen.
The conversation continued with the point raised that the problematic educational system often leads to students and youth who are disillusioned and disappointed by such a system, which is often, because of the long hours they are required to be in their schools, the majority of the exposure they get to the lifestyle they are expected to live. So, these students are often struggling to fit into a one-size-fits-all education (and students just clearly are not all the same) which is accompanied by lifestyle instruction that is often less than tolerant of those students who don't "fit the mold." The message being sent here ends up being that conformity, and fitting in is the only way to go and to be successful. Which (and I think this is the beauty of life, but others might disagree) just isn't what human beings are about - we are all unique individuals who are motivated and excited by different things and we learn in different ways and our brains work differently. Not everyone has a natural aptitude for the skills required to learn Gemara. That doesn't mean someone who doesn't have that specific natural aptitude will never be successful in any other area. (Caveat - I think the girls' schools often do a better job at addressing the needs of individual students, so some of this is probably more specific to the boys' schools. Additionally, this conversation took place in Passaic, which is certainly a more right-wing community, so I think a lot of what follows pertains less to Modern Orthodox schools.)
What this one-size-fits-all education is also doing is sending the message that there is only one acceptable path in life. The schools teach the students that they should all aspire to learn in kollel, that a college education is a bad thing, that secular culture is evil and should be avoided. But to me, that's teaching from a place of weakness, rather than strength. The message being sent is that we are all too weak to handle any challenges, that any kind of temptation must be taken away from before us in order to be able to function as an Orthodox Jew. I think this makes us even weaker - when we are not taught how to handle any temptation or challenge, we subsequently become unable to handle it when we have to. It's like a muscle. If it is worked, it becomes stronger and more capable of handling resistance and of lifting the weights it opposes.
The other problem with this is, it just isn't practical for every man to learn Torah full-time. At some point, when a family has 8 or 9 kids (I'm being a little facetious here), someone has got to earn a salary to pay a mortgage, for groceries and for tuition. And when that somebody, usually the father, goes out into the world now, with his ill-prepared, weakened exposure to the outside world, he is going to be much more vulnerable than if he had been educated and strengthened and warned about the challenges he will be facing.
What's the answer? I think it's education and openly discussing the challenges that someone who is going to have to deal with the world at some point (and that's most of us) will face. Preparation is an excellent tool for enabling people to handle the challenges in life. It's impossible to prepare for everything, but knowledge is the key. If a person has no clue what they are getting themselves into, what they are going to face, then they can't prepare in advance how to handle those challenges. It's just like it's important to tell a child that it is not okay to get in a car with a stranger - you don't want to scare a child, but it's important that they be prepared to handle the situation.
You can't protect against every possible outcome and situation. The spectrum is way too broad. But by forging an open, trusting relationship (and this applies to the whole world, not just the religious one) with your children, your students and for spiritual leaders, your congregations, they will in turn come back and ask for guidance and help when facing difficult situations, rather than hiding and getting in deeper. You can't shield anyone from everything, and I think education where challenges are discussed and defenses are built, is the key.