We’ve all heard the old jokes about proud Jewish mothers bragging about “my son the doctor, my son the lawyer,” etc. We also know the widespread belief that Jews are smart and, truth be told, we do have a disproportionate percentage of Nobel Prize winners relative to our numbers. We ought to be proud of our children who go on to distinguished careers in so many professions. The nachas is always multiplied when that successful child is also proud and unashamed of his/her heritage.
Educators can always spot children with great potential early on. Not just the rare gifted and talented students, but those with great aptitude, motivation, and love of learning—be it for math, science, Talmud, art, or creative writing. Schools have made great progress in the area of differentiated learning to provide for the individual needs of all students.
Many parents want their children to go to college and follow a career path that includes graduate school. This is as it should be for the average and above average student. Students with developmental issues will follow a different path. There is still much to be done in this area, but progress is being made.
What about students who are not learning disabled, but are just not interested in academics? What about students who may not have the aptitude or desire for schoolwork but have other skills and interests? Are their parents’ goals and aspirations congruent with their desires and abilities? Must every child go to college? Can Jewish parents handle a successful child who doesn’t have a college degree?
In many countries only those who are academically qualified by virtue of a standardized examination are allowed to enter university. Those who do not qualify follow another career path. In the pre-modern era it was called an apprenticeship. Young men and women learned a trade and developed skills that led to a livelihood. Today we call it a trade school or vocational training.
Not every child is college material. Literature, math, and science—not to mention rigorous Talmud study—may not be relevant to many children, as important as they may be in general. Why doesn’t the Jewish community operate schools to train young men and women in various trades and occupations that are needed and used by everyone? They can attend secular vocational training schools, but a Jewish school would be sensitive to issues of kashrut, Shabbat and holidays, co-ed classes, mincha breaks, etc. If there were a Jewish vocational high school, courses would include practical limudei kodesh. In addition, a Jewish school in a Jewish community provides many opportunities for networking and employment.
Many of these occupations can yield a very good income: computer repair, website design, diamond sorting and cutting, electricians, plumbers, graphic designers, contractors, HVAC engineers, auto repair, beauty, grooming and fashion trades, real estate brokers, insurance agents, appliance repairmen, civil servants, building trades, food service, agricultural careers, and the list goes on. It is not at all unusual to find Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews in these professions.
We tend to think of vocational education as being outside educational enterprise and often in pejorative terms. The result is that vocational schools are underutilized. If Jewish stand-alone vocational schools are too far off on the horizon, vocational training can become an acceptable track in our high schools. We can restructure the relationship between academic and vocational education. Integration need not focus heavily on “high tech” vocational programs to the exclusion of more traditional vocational education. Mainstream educational and cognitive research has just started to address the potential value of efforts to integrate or align academic and vocational curricula.
Educational researchers, theorists, and policymakers have thus far failed to consider vocational education seriously—in combination with applied academics—as part of the solution for improving educational outcomes for non-college-bound youth. Perhaps because of the stigma attached to vocational education—or more likely because vocational education does not typically show up on the mainstream education or psychology researcher’s radar screen—the logical connections between theories or observations and the types of learning opportunities offered by vocational education are overlooked.
Many years ago, Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University challenged the idea that human intellect is a unidimensional, overarching faculty. Instead, he articulated a theory of “multiple intelligences,” suggesting that, at a minimum, there are seven different ways in which an individual can be intellectually talented. Gardner does not dispute the need for a core curriculum that transmits the critical elements of our common culture to all students. He argues that our tunnel vision in how we deliver the common culture in the classroom is costing us a great loss of human talent. So long as a uniform curriculum is embraced, most individuals are destined to emerge as untalented. Not only is there little room at the top, but standardized regimens tend to favor individuals who exhibit certain intellectual profiles, ones which may be valuable for the aforementioned curricula but need not signal success outside the school setting.
This is not a novel idea, but we as a community—and especially the ultra-Orthodox community— have failed this segment of the population. Surely somewhere out there is an investor or group of investors who see the business potential of operating such a school or network of schools. It could help the Jewish community in myriad ways.
Suffice it to say that our future poets and artists, musicians and authors, salesmen and shopkeepers, builders and fixers are the square pegs that don’t always fit into our round holes. Isn’t it time that we as a community offer them the means to further their dreams?
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He is currently a consultant to schools and non-profit organizations, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. He can be reached at email@example.com.