HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Envision Ideals, Not the Graduate
One of my darker pleasures as a twenty-something in Jerusalem was sitting in hotel lobbies watching my fellow yeshiva students endure the awkwardness of shidduch dates. The courting ritual customarily involved a young man with a pad of paper going through a prepared inventory of what he desired from the marriage candidate: education, pedigree, trousseau, and myriad other attributes and skills. The dating exercises I would witness were entertaining only in their anachronism. How offensive it felt to hear someone outline the qualifications of an ideal spouse, as if we could shop for a human being as we would for an automobile, listing standard and special features, upgrades, bells and whistles.
And yet that is precisely what we do as educators when we present our Visions of the Graduate. We aver that she should be conscientious, hard-working, athletic, artistic, religiously involved, a social activist, a student leader, club president, left-brained, right-brained, creative, passionate, and organized. She must be well liked by peers and faculty, an active member of her synagogue community and a leader in her youth group, involved in tikkun olam, volunteer for the young and the old and serve as a role model and ambassador for the school outside of school hours, on weekends, and during the summer, a living embodiment of the principles and values of our institution. Worse still, common educational parlance labels this elusive individual the Ideal Graduate, as if to suggest that an 18 year old who falls short in even one of these categories has not met our expectations. Even if the term “ideal” is not employed explicitly, it is certainly implied.
Are any of us prepared to line up our graduates at commencement and rate them based upon their congruity with our vision?
I believe that a Vision of the Ideal Graduate is not healthy, not realistic, and not desirable.
We must consider foremost the psychological effect such a document has upon our teenagers as they navigate their place in the world and carve out their identity. It is bad enough that students feel we expect them to be academically exemplary. The straight A report card, once a statistical rarity, has now become the baseline for college admission, supplemented by extracurricular activities, athletics, and fulfillment of community service obligations. These unrealistic expectations press upon our students’ minds even before we present them with our own institutional expectations. Already they fear failing their parents, their teachers, and themselves. By presenting a Vision of the Graduate we set up yet another external matrix by which they will be judged inadequate. Instead of exhorting our students to excel in their own path and carve out their own destiny we present them with a narrow mold into which we expect them to fit.
Not having a Vision of the Graduate does not mean that a school should not have vision, and not having an Ideal Student does not mean that we should not have ideals for our students. Schools—Jewish day schools in particular—must have both vision and ideals. It is our charge as educational leaders to articulate an inspiring vision of Judaism, the Jewish future, and the Jewish people. Schools should also set forth ideals toward which students must be encouraged to strive. We may choose to idealize religious commitment or academic excellence or diversity. Schools must also distinguish themselves from each other by their choice of ideals: does the mission idealize pluralism or sectarianism? Is Zionism included as an ideal? Schools should be mission-driven, and a powerful mission must motivate with vision and ideals. But having ideals must not be mistaken for having ideal students. A school may choose to have academic excellence and gemilut chasadim as ideals, but a graduate who is a mediocre student yet a great ba’al chesed should never be labeled by that school as less than ideal. Are any of us prepared to line up our graduates at commencement and rate them based upon their congruity with our vision? In our climate of liberal education few of us are prepared even to name a valedictorian. Could any of us pass this test?
Instead of speaking of an Ideal Graduate we should speak of ideals that we encourage our graduates to adopt. If a graduate embraces one ideal over another he should be celebrated for exemplifying one particular aspect of the school’s mission. To brand as failures students who diverge from an element or two of our vision is not only hurtful, but fails to recognize the very nature of the human condition. Children come to us with a unique set of predilections, likes, dislikes, propensities, beliefs, and habits. One need not be an ideological pluralist to recognize the diversity of personality and practice that exists among individuals in an open society. To pretend that we can perfectly shape our students in our image or in the image set forth in a Vision of a Graduate is not only offensive, it is also unrealistic. No school is a factory. The humanity of our students prevents us from forging them on the anvil of our mission.
Our students will also grow and evolve as they age and will value different parts of our mission in different proportions at different times. The Vision of the Graduate is too much of a snapshot in time and fails to look at the effect of an education upon a person over a lifetime. We must also expect that at some point in their development a certain percentage of our students will not accept, or will outright repudiate, our mission and vision. We should take this as an indication that our mission has substance, and that our institution stands on clear and distinct principles that can be accepted or rejected.
By the same token, we hope that each year we produce a core of graduates who embrace our mission fully. Here again we must avoid designating these as our ideal graduates. Rather, because these students embrace the fullness of the mission, they will possess the unique charge of carrying on the ideals of the school to the next generation. These students will become our schools’ visionaries and leaders of the future.
At the school that I lead, the Frankel Jewish Academy, I have consciously made the decision not to have a Vision of a Graduate. When I speak publicly of our school’s mission I always emphasize that we do not have an Ideal Graduate. In publications and publicity we make a point of not featuring pictures exclusively of students who are idyllic exemplars of our mission. Of course all day school leaders feature such students in their brochures: visibly high achieving, Jewishly committed, attractive, etc. But constantly highlighting such students to the exclusion of others sends the message that these are the students we really want at our schools. Instead, our school showcases a representative variety of our student body in our marketing and communication. All of our students are part of the school community and are therefore part of our vision.
Rav Kook taught that the 613 commandments were given to the entire Jewish people because the mitzvot can only be fulfilled by an entire nation. No one individual can observe both the commandments of men and women, not to mention priest and Israelite, king and subject. Only as a whole community are we able to fulfill our Divine mission. Come commencement, as you look at your graduates arrayed in identical caps and gowns, take heed to remember and honor the uniqueness of the individuals beneath. ♦
Rabbi Eric Grossman is Head of School at the Frankel Jewish Academy, an open, Halakhic, Zionist, American school in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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