The Rabbi Writes: Michigan Public Schools

The Jewish Humanist, February 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 7

The public school system in Michigan is in a crisis condition. The property tax for education has been dismissed. Public confidence is declining. The morale of teachers and students is at an all time low. Religious groups are clamoring for the replacement of state education with the voucher system. And a controversial referendum to provide alternative funding through a higher sales tax is imminent. 

The crisis stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of my childhood. In the first sixty years of this century the American state educational system was hailed as one of the finest examples of American democracy. Even free enterprise enthusiasts liked the public schools, even though it meant government control of education. While some proponents were fanatic Protestants who hated Catholics and the Catholic parochial school system most proponents were happy parents who believed that the state school system was delivering exactly what they wanted. 

The old public school system was very good at turning farmer children into urban labor and European immigrants into American citizens. It was also very good at producing a literate work force that could undertake unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. It was blessed with low paid spinster teachers, a young population eager for child education, a reverent relationship between parents and administrators, and low expectations. The social setting was one where two parent families and non-working mothers were the norm. Television was either non-existent or new and children read newspapers or wrote letters. 

The crisis in the public schools exists because the old social setting no longer exists. There are virtually no farmer children to turn into an urban work force. European children have been replaced by African, Asian and Hispanic children. Jobs for unskilled labor have vanished together with the easy affluence that little education at one time could bring you. Low-paid spinster teachers have yielded to self-esteeming professionals who want decent compensation and tenure at the same time. The population is aging, filled with old people who have no personal vested interest in funding child education. The relationship between administrators, teachers and parents is adversarial, aggravated by the emergence of aggressive teacher unions and indifferent politicians. Stable two parent families are shrinking into a minority-all of this change adding new burdens and responsibilities to an overburdened and non (sic) traumatized school system. The analytic skills that come from reading and writing have found a substitute in screen watching. And a more affluent bourgeois America has much higher expectations of its schools and its teachers. 

The consequence is a declining faith in the value of the public school system and an increasing unwillingness to find it. 

Something dramatic needs to be done. Either the public school system will be reformed and funded. Or it will yield to a chaotic system of private schools paid for by state vouchers. 

I am no friend of Governor Engler. But I applaud his willingness to confront the issue. The public school system will not be improved by defending the status quo and identifying all the enemies of public education who are members of his entourage. The complaints are legitimate. The crisis is real. 

I believe that right now, there is no alternative to public schools having the major responsibility for youth education. If we were starting from scratch, I might choose another alternative. But you do not tear down a system that basically works and replace it with an untested private system that will still rely on state money. 

So what do we need to do to reform the system effectively? We need to take bold action. Timid reforms will not work. 

We need to reform the school curriculum so that it trains students for the jobs of the future. Self-esteem does not flow from talking about it or praising one’s ethnic background. It comes from competence and employment. There is no substitute in today’s world for a basic knowledge of the language of science and technology. 

We need to find the teachers who can do this job, pay them adequately and rescue them from overcentralized (sic) and intrusive bureaucracies. Teachers should be rewarded for merit. The tenure system, which exists mainly in the public sector, ought to be discarded. 

We need to charter experimental schools, which are responsible to public authority-but which allow creative educators to test new procedures of education without having to conform to standard policies. 

We need to allow parental choice within a school district-and within the ability of a local school to accommodate demand. Schools that parents do not want should be closed or changed. 

We need to allow public schools the options of turning their operation over to private educational corporations. This experiment in Minnesota has proved quite successful. This transfer must only be made to entrepreneurs with a clear secular agenda. 

We need to establish performance standards for children in each area of learning. There is no substitute for testing. The fear that testing will produce uniformity and rote learning is out weighed (sic) by the disadvantage of chaotic expectations and school certificates that are a sham. 

We need to find funding for the system that provides equal support for the rich and the poor. The local property tax is no longer a feasible funding route. The income tax is a better route but will not be accepted by the general public. The sales tax is regressive-but there is a chance that it will be approved. Therefore, I support the referendum initiative. Hating Engler is not a sufficient reason to oppose. Helping children is more important. 

In some ironic way, Michigan has become a ‘pioneer’ for educational reform. We have to do something dramatic right away. 

The Rabbi Writes – American Civil Religion

Volume 31, No. 7 2, 1995

February is the month when both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were born. They were the two “gods“ of the American civil religion in which I grew up. Together with the American flag their portraits graced the walls of almost every classroom I used.

Fifty years ago there was a powerful American patriotic “religion“ which lay at the heart of public school education. Its gods were the Founding Fathers. Its Torah was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its vivid symbol was the American flag. Its ethics with the requirements of good citizenship. (We even received the grades and cooperation, reliability and self-control.) Its sacred songs with the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. Its clergy with thousands of WASP spinsters who had committed their lives to American public education and to Americanizing the children of European immigrants.

National pride, instead of God, lay at the heart of this “religion.” National history, rather than mythology, was the foundation of its holiday celebrations. While the Fourth of July was not a Day of prayer, it was a joyous holiday with your folks to memories of our sacred patriotic American saga. Everybody regardless of his or her personal theology or lack of theology, could participate in the pageantry and commitments of the civic cult.

The American civil religion was the reason why the separation of church and state worked in America. The removal of denominational religion from the heart of public education was not replaced by a spiritual and ethical vacuum. It was replaced by a full-blown and powerful secular patriotic “religion“ which provided the foundation for group solidarity, civic pride and ethical behavior. Without it the separation of traditional religion and government would not have worked. It was one of the great unrecognized achievements of the American political system.

This achievement rested on certain ideological and emotional foundations which gave it stability. There was the belief that there was an American nation, with a unique and powerful culture all its own. There was the conviction that the major cultural element was Anglosaxon and that the English language, which was inseparable from the foundations of America, was intimately tied to that cultural core. There was the understanding that immigrants would be stimulated into this American culture and when identified with the symbols of the patriotic religion. There was the understanding that while diversity was important for personal freedom there had to be a certain level of public conformity in order to ensure community solidarity and moral empathy. If everybody looks and acts like a stranger, it is difficult to develop a sense of community solidarity.

One of the reasons why the separation of church and state is collapsing in this country, why the Religious Right and Christian Coalition are seizing power, is that the American civil religion is vanishing. In its place is a moral vacuum in public education which cries out for replacement. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed are more than happy to provide one.

Why is this “patriotic religion“ vanishing?

The Anglosaxons are no longer what they used to be. They are now a minority in the nation which they founded. They are no longer providing the major cultural drive in America. They now live amid millions of people who have no connection to Anglosaxon culture and no desire to participate in it. We Americans are all part of a multi-cultural and multi-racial pot pourri which lacks a core cultural commitment in which glorifies diversity over solidarity. Patriotism was struck a powerful blow by the Vietnam War. But it was mainly undone by the emergence of ethnic politics and raise conflict. Values were no longer American. They now became African, Latin or European. In fact, there were no universal shared American values beyond the general agreement not to impose our personal or a group of values on everyone else. In liberal circles it became fashionable to regard values as subjective matters of personal choice and his attributes of ethnic loyalty rather than civic virtue or good citizenship. No one had the right to tell anybody else what to think, feel or value. Every individual was autonomous. And every group with autonomous. There was nothing left for the community as a whole to teach about right or wrong. The public school could provide information. It could help students clarify their personal and ethnic values. But it could no longer indoctrinate. It could no longer be the instrument of the American civil religion as the transmitter of the ideal vision of the American citizen.

The appropriate educational expression of a society committed to multi-cultural loyalty is a multic-cultural school system in which parents and children can choose the culture they wish to identify with. The role of the state is to support and subsidize this choice. It is not to provide a vision, all its own, of ideal behavior.The government becomes like the commander of an army post with many different regiments, each with its own agenda. If what we want is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual America, in the public schools will become an irrelevant issue because there will be no public schools.

I regret the feeding of the “American civil religion.” I regarded it as the major bulwark of the separation of conventional religion from government institutions. I regarded it as the major cultural glue of diverse people and strangers struggling to stick together. Although I often resent the naïve glorification of Washington and Lincoln, I’m up much prefer it to the propaganda of segregationist multi-culturalism which has replaced it. The year “melting pot“ idea is now in disrepute. But, at least, it had a workable vision for a united America.

The Rabbi Writes – I Am a Detroiter

Volume 31, No. 8 3, 1995

I am a Detroiter and so are 4 million other people in this metropolitan area. We may live in Birmingham, Farmington Hills or west Bloomfield. But, in the eyes of the world outside, we are still Detroiters.

Some of us are the traders by choice. We have thought seriously about other places to live. But we have come to the conclusion that the Detroit area is the best of all possible options for us.

Others are Detroiters by fate. They would much prefer to be someplace else. They are here only because they have to be. They feel condemned by destiny. When they have to reveal it to others that they are the traders, they make their announcement defensively and apologetically. They have difficulty understanding why anybody would freely choose to live in the Detroit area. In their eyes Detroit is the “pits”.

“Fate-Detroiters” have a long list of complaints. The inner city is a devastation. There is no functioning downtown. Crime is rampant. Culture is thin. Young people are fleeing. The population is shrinking and aging. The scenery is boring. The climate stinks. The race war is relentless. There’s no place to go – except to Chicago or Toronto.

Some of these complaints are valid. Most of these complaints are not.

Certainly, there is crime, poverty, racial tension, urban devastation in the absence of a central downtown. But some of the changes are positive. Suburban housing is bigger and more commodious then the old urban variety. Detroit now spends three counties; most of that area future is comfortable and safe neighborhoods. Shopping centers, with greater variety and options in the old downtown, have become new settings for pedestrian traffic, community interchange and entertainment. The automobile makes educational and recreational opportunities available that the old public transit never provided. There is more opera, classical music, theater and dance than most “sophisticated” citizens choose to or are able to take advantage of. The metropolitan area features the diverse environments of Ann Arbor, Northville, Royal Oak and Birmingham. The Great Lakes may not be as magnificent as the Rockies, but they are clearly not ordinary. The suburbanization Of America has its disadvantages; but it has its advantages to. And the old urban density was never as wonderful and romantic as we know imagine. If it was we would have created its duplicate in suburbia.

I am a Detroiter by choice. Even though I was born and raised in Detroit, there were other urban options available to me when I graduate high school. It would have been easier to organize Humanistic Judaism and bigger more Jewish cities like New York and Los Angeles.

I chose Detroit because Detroit is my home. The streets are filled with childhood memories. The setting is filled with family and friends. Human relations our capital investments in life. They take much time, energy and personal devotion. Then I chose Detroit because Detroit is my home. The streets are filled with childhood memories. The setting is filled with family and friends. Human relations are capital investments in life. They take much time, energy and personal devotion. They engender profound attachments and commitments which are not easy to give up.

Neither weather north theater lights are more important to me and my human connections. I see too many people who abandon their human environment for physical environment they think it’s more comfortable. in my cases separation is less desirable than they initially imagined. I think that, in my old age, I will still choose the February ice of Detroit to the desert warmth of Scottsdale or San Diego.

I chose Detroit because I think that Michigan is beautiful. The magnificence of the Detroit River fills me with all. Adam is Oakland county has much of the splendor of New England. Fort Melbourne and the Bluewater Bridge provide me with inspiring with Easters. I like flat terrains. They do not hide the sky nor dwarf human beings and human creations. They give me my dignity.

I chose Detroit because it is mid-western. I like the culture of the Midwest, its speech, its openness, its hospitality. I find the east and west less rooted in more pretentious. I find the south less welcoming, warm and speech, cold and its acceptance of strangers. The Midwest is a wonderful combination of New England Yankees, Pennsylvania Quakers and generations of immigrants who shaped at this founding culture. When I am in the Midwest I sometimes weary of its matter-of-fastness. But I always look forward to coming back to it.

I chose Detroit because I am a workaholic. I did not want an environment so comfortable and so seductive that I would be drawn to leisure activities I find less meaningful. Cold and rainy days are good for work. A less than exiting outdoors makes things indoors all the more wonderful. Eternal sunshine discourage is the kind of human effort that makes life interesting. I do not dream of comfortable places for retirement. My mind is always inventing new projects. I’m not sure that I chose Detroit because I am a workaholic. I did not want an environment so comfortable and so seductive that I would be drawn to leisure activities I find less meaningful. Cold and rainy days are good for work. A less than exiting outdoors makes things indoors all the more wonderful. Eternal sunshine discourages the kind of human effort that makes life interesting. I do not dream of comfortable places for retirement. My mind is always inventing new projects. I’m not sure that longboat key supports that lifestyle. Long Boat Key supports that lifestyle.

Each of these reasons by itself might find another place for its satisfaction. But in combination, they make Detroit in my city. I do not know for sure whether in the infirmities of my final years, I will surrender and find a refuge in some overcrowded tropical paradise, I hope not.

Lifestyles in Transition

The Jewish Humanist, February 1977

People in transition. We are people in transition.

We are moving from one life style to another.

Our behavior is changing. As husbands or wives, as mothers or fathers, as employers or employees, as men or women, we are no longer behaving the way we used to.

The change is overwhelming. Divorce is ordinary. Pre-marital sex is conventional. Career women are legion. Artificial birth control is the norm for American Catholics. Even abortion has become Italian.

The change is so overwhelming that we often deny it. It makes us feel so insecure, so guilty. We try to imagine that our moral values have remained the same. We try to avoid confronting our behavior.

Moral schizophrenia is the psychic disease of many people in transition. It is the self-destructive defense against fear and guilt. Our conscious beliefs go one way, our behavior goes another. Our stated values are fantasies. They are unrelated to the substance of our actions. When we are challenged , some of us get very angry because we are resisting the painful truth. Some of us shrug our shoulders because we are embarrassed by our own ambivalence.

Moral schizophrenics are always the victims of change. Since they deny that it is happening, they can never control it.               They simply change and grumble. Unconscious needs and dumb social forces push them on relentlessly. Their resistance, when it comes, is both hysterical and ineffective. They are the victims of their own cowardice.

Healthy people are always fighting ethical dishonesty. They want their stated values to coincide with their behavior. They want to be aware of .what they are doing and why they are doing what they do. They want to be in control of their behavior and to consciously select the changes which are best suited to their needs. They want to resist irrational fear and non-productive guilt.

As people in transition – who can no longer live according to the dictates of old social scripts and who want to preserve their own moral integrity – we need a healthy style for coping with change. We need to admit ultimate responsibility for our own lives. Blaming others for bad decisions may be justified but is generally useless. Blaming destiny or irresistible social forces may be accurate but is usually a way of avoiding doing anything. Peevishness is fashionable. If we cannot be in total control, then we will not be in control at all!

Assuming responsibility is merely the good-humored awareness that conscious decision does make a difference.

We need to identify our most important desires. A healthy life style should serve our needs, not violate then. We have to be honest about our feelings. Anger and depression are signs that we are missing what we really went. Pro-longed anxiety Indicates that we haven’t come to terms with what we really fear. We have to know our needs before we can choose to satisfy them.

We have to be able to put our wants in some order of priority. Since we cannot satisfy all our desires simultaneously, we have to pick and choose. Human needs are complex. They cannot be reduced to single desires like sex, love, power or serenity. Simplicity is intellectually neat but pragmatically naive. On a practical level, we are messy jumbles of wants, each demanding center-stage and enormous amounts of energy. Knowing desire is never enough. We have to figure out the order of desire. If we don’t do it consciously and rationally, then we will do it unconsciously and irrationally. The former procedure is less spontaneous – but it is also less dangerous.

We need to know how to make rational choices. Irrational choices are decisions that serve the interests of dead people – that serve the needs of ancestors who cannot be served. Irrational people are always citing tradition and historical convention to justify their life style. Rational people always justify their behavior by pointing out how decisions serve the needs of the living. ‘I can’t help myself; that’s the way I feel’ is the standard reply of people who are traumatized by ancestral disapproval and who refuse to take the painful step of resisting the past for the sake of living needs and future good consequences.

We have to be able to resolve incurable ambivalence. Most of us want both independence and togetherness. The current psychotherapeutic fashion is for people to say that they want to run their own lives. But they generally want to run their own lives together with someone else. They want the ecstasy of intimacy and the pleasure of separateness at the same time. Total independence and total intimacy are not compatible. If we want one, we cannot have the other. Self-fulfilment is more than selfish independence or masochistic merging. It is a good-humored compromise called responsible intimacy.

We need to know the life style options. The traditional world allowed only one script for each sex and for each class. The contemporary world is a supermarket of life styles. Open marriage, communal child-rearing, living together, single swinging, nature simplicity, leisure careers – are still novel but increasingly legitimate choices. Even conventional long-run relationships, whether in marriage or work, require new stimulation to rescue them from boredom. Keeping ourselves aware of alternatives is necessary for both hope and sanity.

We need to resist stereotypes. As: children of our genes we are indeed programmed. But our programming allows for wide options. Men are not violating their nature when they are soft, gentle and dependent. Women are not resisting their essence, when they are strong, aggressive and publicly commanding. Our society requires greater flexibility than the tradition allowed. We need to be more open to variety. People do not exist to fit life styles. Life styles should be designed to fit people.

We need to be individually real. Before the present transition family, work and ethnic identities were primary. For a growing minority they have become secondary, although still very important. This minority are an avant garde, sensitive to the problems of investing self-awareness in groups. Groups no longer provide the stability and security they used to. Being able to see oneself as independently real of any group identity is becoming necessary for many people. In a world of serial careers, intermarriage and feeling young at fifty, it is dangerous to find one’s self-image in a group label.

We above all, have to be able to deal with the value of the temporary. Our conditioning so values the eternal that we often view marriages and careers that do not last forever as failures. We deny the importance of our pleasure and our joy because it does not last forever. In a world of rapid change this conditioning is conducive to neither happiness nor survival. Seeing change as painful but often desirable will, make us less possessive and more attractive.

We are people in continuous transition. We need the skills to make that transition worthwhile.