Significance, Not Just Excellence

Lee Buckman

Jewish day schools have a reputation for academic excellence. They attract top teachers who enjoy working in an environment where all students come from homes that value books and academics. Class size is generally small, and teachers can provide students with the type of close personal attention that addresses students’ individual learning needs. As a result, the typical Jewish day high school has earned an admirable track record for university acceptances.

Academic excellence is such an essential element of a Jewish day school's identity that if it did not value and tout academic excellence, the school would be empty. Yet our schools should strive even higher. They should not be exclusively schools of academic excellence. They must become schools of significance as well.

Allow me to define significance in three ways, one that focuses on the purpose of schooling, one that focuses on our Jewish mission, and one that focuses on responsibility beyond ourselves.

A school of significance is one that keeps in the forefront of its work the purpose of school, namely, learning. This sounds obvious, and yet a prevalent view among parents and students is that school is more about success and careerism than learning. They believe that the reason for earning good marks, getting involved in the arts, or engaging in community service is to pad a resume in order to impress university admissions officers. Someone once quipped that the prevailing motto among many of our students is, Ki mi-tziyyun teitzei Torah. That is, the great motivator is the mark or the grade; and if an assignment won’t be graded, it won’t get done. Learning for the sake of learning has little value.

In a culture where marks and grades take on supreme importance, we must remind families about the transcendent purposes of education. That is what transforms a school into a school of significance. A school of significance is one where we convey that education is about sparking students’ curiosity, helping them learn the place of hard work, and teaching them the value of risk-taking in the service of learning. School should be about teaching habits of mind like problem-solving, resilience and persistence. Yet, our honor roles and Honor Societies lionize marks and not the internalization of these values. In doing so, we unwittingly contribute to the notion that students’ worth and fate are measured by some score or grade.

In schools where students care only about marks and where we administrators give our highest praise to those students with the highest marks, students become so afraid of failing that they avoid courses that challenge them intellectually. When students assess the value of registering for specific courses on the basis of the grade they anticipate receiving, they risk losing their sense of intellectual curiosity. In such an environment, students are at risk for never developing a genuine interest in what they are learning. Schools, even ones with high university acceptance rates, can become breeding grounds of anti-intellectualism. That is why I caution that Jewish day schools should strive not just for excellence but significance, and becoming a school of significance begins by recapturing the purpose of education: expanding one’s intellect.

A second path to becoming a school of significance is by unapologetically embracing our Jewish mandate. We have the opportunity to do something public schools and secular private schools cannot do: nurture the soul. Jewish day schools can help students develop a personal connection to a sacred tradition not as an extracurricular activity but as something that is part and parcel of what one does every single day. Our schools teach children that Jewish values are not only timeless but they can be timely too. Jewish day schools can teach students how the ancient resources and texts of our tradition can help them navigate life’s challenges, address real problems, and find meaning. Our schools teach students how to relate to the State of Israel in all its complexity and the Jewish people in all its diversity.

Some Jewish day schools emphasize academic excellence to such a degree that there’s hardly mention that the school was founded and exists primarily because it is a Jewish school with a Jewish mission. At one school with which I am familiar, I was told that a third of the parents send their children because it is a Jewish school, a third send them despite the fact that it’s a Jewish school, and a third are not sure where they stand on the Jewish character of the school. In an environment where two-thirds of the families are not sure why a Jewish education matters, we have an obligation to educate parents about our schools’ Jewish mandate and an opportunity to make the case for why being Jewish matters. What greater significance could there be than building a strong, vibrant future for the Jewish people? Proudly embracing our Jewish mission is the second way we become a school of significance.

A third way in which Jewish day schools lend significance to their existence is by teaching students that life itself becomes more meaningful when we go beyond ourselves. Again, academic excellence is the centerpiece of our schools, but, even in the best of circumstances, it is mostly inner-directed. Academics are about my marks and my grades and my resume and my path to university. A school of significance encourages students to develop concerns beyond themselves and find a cause that gives life greater purpose. A school of significance helps students realize that the world is in need of repair and others need us. Significance is about having an impact on others. It is about helping others achieve their goals. It emerges when we respond to the call of others.

David Brooks said it this way in his April 12, 2015 New York Times op-ed piece entitled “The Moral Bucket List”:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were…..But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

A school of significance does not simply have an excellent record of university placement. A school of significance sees beyond itself and tries to address “one of the world’s deep needs.” It is a place where everyone—parents, students, and staff—feel a duty to service. It is a place where everyone aspires to build a school that serves some indispensable benefit for the community.

The Hebrew word for education is chinuch, which means dedication. Chinuch is about dedication to a higher purpose. In English educate comes from the Latin root educare which means “to bring forth.” The latter implies self-expression, whereas chinuch implies self-attachment to certain ideals and values beyond oneself. Jewish day schools are centers of academic excellence. However, if we attach ourselves to the transcendent purpose of school which is learning, not resume building, unapologetically embrace our Jewish mandate, and develop a responsibility that goes beyond ourselves, our schools will become schools of significance, not just schools of academic excellence.

Rabbi Lee Buckman is the head of school at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto, Canada. [email protected]

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015