The current debates over whether critical race theory should play a role in primary and secondary education, along with those about whether to reopen schools in the fall, are perhaps symptoms of a larger crisis, which is also reflected in dispiriting test scores, widespread ignorance of the basics of history and civics, and the inability of high schools to prepare graduates for either careers or the university. Examining the problem as it applies to American Jews in particular, Dan Senor discusses a possible remedy:
For generations, [the civic education of potential leaders] served two purposes: to attach young people to their own history, giving them a sense of responsibility for their own heritage; and to provide young people with models of human achievement to learn from and emulate, as preparation for their future lives as statesmen, generals, religious leaders, or educators. Liberal education was a time machine, awakening a vivid sense of the past in preparation for the looming challenges and responsibilities of the future.
These days, education in many schools seems geared toward different ends: finding signs of oppression everywhere, debunking our heroes, and leveling the heights of human greatness. We are, too often, in the business of tearing down statues. In doing so, we are shrinking the moral and political imagination of the very young people—including young Jews—who might one day step forward to lead our nation and our community.
There are surely bright spots in a number of Jewish day schools. But will most young American Jews—both those in full-time Jewish day schools and especially those enrolled in public and secular [private] schools—ever really encounter the heroes of Jewish, Zionist, and American history? Are they invited to take human excellence—and Jewish excellence—seriously?
When Tikvah, a Jewish educational center in New York, announced a new program on “Great Speeches and Great Leaders,” I knew it answered an urgent need and genuine problem.