Over the last few decades, general studies programs in our Torah schools have come to face some serious challenges. Problems both within and without have created a very difficult environment for both administration and students alike. To focus on just one area amongst many, the issue of problematic content in general studies curricula are on levels unseen in the past. While in the past some aspects of the curriculum contained problematic content, much of it was acceptable and informative for the students.
As an example of this change, the study of biology has morphed from largely being a study of anatomy to one in which reproduction, evolution, and environmentalism play an outsized role. Approximately 80% of the Living Environment course contains one of these three topics. And this isn’t the only course showing this change. Many subjects have become suffused by social agendas which are anti-Torah at their core. Liberal, anti-Mesorah attitudes are dominant in American and Global History, while implicit denial of Hashem and the belief in the power of reason is trumpeted. While to some adults, these attitudes may not sound very threatening, they can inflict lasting spiritual damage on impressionable young boys and girls if not taught in a modified way.
Moreover, even if we were to remove the issue of problematic content (by the way of belittlement and the like), another insidious problem lurks in the halls of mesivtas around the country: young men who feel that secular studies are a waste of time. I can attest to the many complaints I received over the years from my young talmidim voicing their objection to secular studies on the grounds that it is pointless. They complain about the need to learn general history if that leaves them with no lasting knowledge that will help them in their lives. They squabble over the need to study geometry if they won’t become engineers. They contest learning about weather if they won’t become meteorologists. Thus, being that there is some truth to those objections, and less and less talmidim are going to college, general studies has become less meaningful to these young talmidim. This situation leads many talmidim to (unjustly) rationalize their lax attitudes and behaviors during general studies as they believe this study has no value anyways and won’t impact them negatively in the future if they don’t participate or behave properly.
There must be a better way. In fact, there is a better way! When Rav Hirsch zatzal” founded his school which included secular studies over 150 years ago, he envisioned a secular studies program, particularly history and the sciences, which,would bring his talmidim and talmidos to greater attachment to Hashem. He understood that by studying science as an expression of Hashem’s actions, we build Ahavas Hashem as we wonder at the world that Hashem created. When we study history through a Torah lens, we become cognizant of His Hand guiding history around the Jewish people. If we were to adopt his ideas, purchase appropriate texts, and hire frum Bnai Torah as teachers we can transform the afternoon into a wonderful Torah experience. Moreover, through the new curricula, our students, will obtain a clearer and more passionate Emunah in Hashem, something many mechanchim today say that our talmidim lack.
Learning secular studies this way could actually be a very valuable tool of chinuch. No longer will our talmidim and talmidos have any issue justifying their attention to secular studies. No longer would we need to tolerate problematic content in our textbooks, no longer will we have to tolerate misbehavior by students during secular studies and no longer will we have to waste our valuable afternoon time. We could make it better. While to some this may all seem like an ideal goal to strive for but one that is not within our reach, I would beg to differ. It is in our reach if we are only able to see a different vision for the future. Here at the Limudai Yisroel Institute, we have developed kosher textbooks and solutions to replace problematic non-Jewish textbooks. Additionally, we have added exciting kosher technology and layered the general studies curriculum with Torah values and hashkafos. Finally, using these new books and Torah-based curricula, we have begun to train and place new Bnai Torah in our holy yeshivos as general studies teachers, much to the delight of the students and administrators.
And if there was ever a time to change, it is now. As New York State gears up for a review of our yeshivas general studies departments, there is no better time to improve than now. And while we must heed the call of our Gedolim to fight these intrusions into our Yeshiva system with whatever means we have, if in the eventuality that these reviews do occur, our general studies departments must be able to show that they perform to the highest standards all the while giving our students a meaningful and Kosher general studies experience.
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