Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Individuality and Education

Yesterday I completed a computerized practice test for the GRE. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the GRE is a standardized test that prospective graduate students take so that graduate schools can have an objective standard against which to measure all potential applicants. The test consists of three sections, one of which is an analytical writing section which requires the test-takers to write two essays on the topics given.

The particular practice test that I took required me to write an essay, in thirty minutes or less, either supporting or opposing implementing a mandated national curriculum for all students in the United States from kindergarten to college. Here was my response:

Quality education is fundamental to the success of society. Therefore, the national government should do everything within its power to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education. While one may think that a set national curriculum is the appropriate means of achieving this goal, having a national curriculum would like do more harm than good. Requiring a national curriculum would reduce innovation within education, limit the ability of educators to individualize the educational process, and restrict some of the freedoms that are part of the foundation of a free country.

Human knowledge and discovery develops over time, and this is certainly true in the field of education. Researchers in the field of education, which is part science and part art, regularly develop new theories which enhance or even transform the way that educators view the educational process. In order for a new hypothesis to be accepted as a theory, it must be empirically tested in an educational setting. If schools are required to follow a national curriculum, the opportunities to develop and test new theories, as well as the motivation to do so, will be greatly decreased.

No two students are alike, and it therefore follows that it would be ineffective to teach all students in the same manner. Some students are more talented at certain subjects than other students and therefore students should be given the opportunity to take advanced or remedial courses as needed. There is also a wide discrepancy amongst students and even among regions of the country in terms of student preparation and motivation. Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds would likely need more educational support than a standard curriculum would provide, while students from other backgrounds may find the additional support redundant.

Additionally, imposing a federally-mandated curriculum limits the rights of parents to control the upbringing of their children. In a free society, parents are given the ability, within reason, to educate their children according to their values. Therefore, parents who prefer one type of education over another, regardless of whether the preference is based on educational reasons, religious reasons, or philosophical reasons, should be given the right to educate their children according to their beliefs, provided that a minimum standard of competence is met.

Therefore, in the interest of providing a solid education for all children within a free society, a national curriculum should not be implemented. The federal government should instead actively encourage educational innovation within school systems and provide for a diversity of educational options for the public. Allowing for a wide variety of educational approaches is the best way to implement unique and appropriate educational techniques for every child.
Since taking the practice test I have spent a bit of time thinking about my twenty-minute essay response. My immediate negative reaction to the proposed idea demonstrates what I view to be a fundamental flaw in many restrictive social systems--the emphasis on conformity. While the pressure to conform has the essential benefit of maintaining a structured society, it also has the potential, when taken to its extreme, to hamper innovation, limit individuality, and restrict the rights and freedoms of the members of that society.

It seems clear that the best, although by virtue of its subjectivity somewhat flawed, approach is to strike an appropriate balance between the two extremes. This can be achieved by having some degree of structure and rules that all members of society need to follow, while allowing for individuality and alternative approaches whenever possible. Regarding the topic of the essay, the best approach would be to have some general minimal educational guidelines that all schools, public or private (Ohalei Torah, are you listening?), are required to meet while allowing flexibility in all other areas of the curriculum.

Orthodoxy, by its very name (k'shmo kein hu), suggests that it requires a higher level of conformity than average. To me, this seems to be both its advantage and one of its biggest faults. Many ba'alei teshuva are attracted to Orthodox Judaism precisely because of its orthodoxy. Many people feel that the secular world as a whole is too permissive and long for a return to a structured lifestyle with set social norms, and this structure can be found within Orthodox Judaism. However, that same structure and social norms serve to strangle those who cannot fit into the prescribed box permitted for them. As the box continues to get smaller, those who desire conformity will feel more comfortable, while more people on the other end of the spectrum will be pushed out of the box.

To those who are left inside, I would like to ask a simple question. Is it worth it to have a smaller box with more structure and more exclusivity? Do you understand that not everyone can fit into such a small box? The answer is not that we should try harder or have more bitul. No amount of bitul in the world can make one box work for everyone. Every individual is unique so why can't we build our own boxes, or better yet, a box big enough to fit everyone's little boxes?


  1. "Is it worth it to have a smaller box with more structure and more exclusivity? Do you understand that not everyone can fit into such a small box? The answer is not that we should try harder or have more bitul. No amount of bitul in the world can make one box work for everyone."

    You didn't happen to read my latest post, did you? The themes are similar.

  2. I wonder how many more people the box will squish out before some major changes are made.

  3. Tova,

    I did read your post, but only after you mentioned it did I realize the similarity.

    Boxed Whine,

    It's a good question. The problem is that it is exceedingly hard to make changes to a system when large parts of it are believed to be divinely-ordained. Hopefully, however, people will soon learn to be flexible wherever flexibility is allowed.

  4. fs: another nail hit on its proverbial head!

  5. > the proscribed box

    I think you mean “prescribed” = “established rules, laws, or directions” rather than “proscribed” = “forbidden.”

    > Every individual is unique so why can't we build our own boxes, or better yet, a box big enough to fit everyone's little boxes?

    Because it’s not about the people, it’s about preserving the Orthodox Judaism meme and variations thereof. Nobody deliberately set up the rules of Orthodoxy to exclude people. It’s just that if Orthodoxy were more inclusive, it wouldn’t be Orthodoxy. Ditto for each of it’s sub-groups.

  6. G*3,

    Thanks. I fixed it. :)

    Yeah, that is precisely the problem it seems.