The Humanist Dilemma: Is It Right—or Obligatory—to Mandate Basic Education for All?

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Students Speaking Out: In New York, a group of Yeshiva (ultra-Orthodox Jewish school) students have banded together to demand more secular education in their schools. They say their studies, which focus almost exclusively on religious texts and don’t include basic math, science, history, English, and other typical secular subjects—are inadequate to equip them for life in today’s broader society.

I know we’re supposed to respect people’s religious customs, especially when they don’t interfere with our own. But I’m wondering if it’s right to look the other way and allow extreme religious groups not to educate their children in a manner that prepares them to live in the wider world or be able to leave their religious community if they so desire. Those who have only a very strict religious education barely even speak English, and are ill equipped to survive outside their enclaves.

Should we go along with the claim of religious freedom, or should we heed this call for help coming from some of the students themselves?

—I Hear a Who


Dear Horton,

The argument for religious freedom breaks down when that freedom infringes on the rights of others, but also when it suppresses the rights of people within the religion who are unable to advocate for themselves. Generally, there are laws mandating education for all children in the country and certain accepted standards to which that education must adhere. Even homeschooling is often subject to government requirements (although I don’t know how well adherence is monitored or enforced).

The most crucial time to mold minds and attitudes is the earliest years of life. What people learn in the first decade or so shapes them for all the years that follow. Just as it’s easy to learn languages from infancy and increasingly difficult to do so later, it’s also easiest to instill values, attitudes, skills, and habits during the early years, and much harder to modify perceptions or add new capabilities later.

That’s precisely why religious groups fight ferociously for their right to educate their communities as they see fit—and why we should fight just as hard to give youngsters a chance to learn more than just Torah studies (and probably quite a few falsehoods about the outside world). Many young people yearn to leave their religious bubbles—or at least take a peek outside—but they are forever stuck because they haven’t the basic education and skills to thrive outside their insular communities. Many may not even entertain the possibility because they have so little information beyond horror stories of the wicked outside world.

Very often we hear that people are perfectly happy—happier than we are—living within these communities and following their dictates. I’ve spoken with ultra-Orthodox women who insist they love not having to make decisions—they just follow the rules and life is good. And that may be quite true for them. But these are people who have been indoctrinated from birth and shielded from contact with other influences. If members of these groups had the opportunity to experience how others approach the world—and the education and skills to leave their nest if they wanted to—surely some of them would drift (or run) away. And then perhaps more and more over time. That’s why their leaders are so adamant that they never get even a glimpse.

But do we have the right to interfere? Do we have the right to mandate at least minimal secular education for all? Does that run counter to the freedoms supported by our Constitution? I say we do, because young people need to be protected from religious extremism, whether it’s being denied medical treatment for diseases that could be cured with an antibiotic, exposure to barbaric and dangerous customs, or being forced to plod through life in perpetual ignorance of anything beyond a tiny village. These students are left without basic education and the tools to distinguish superstition and fallacies from truth.

There’s also a more selfish argument: many of these communities rely on charity and public assistance to provide food and shelter so they can pursue sacred studies. Rather than perpetuate the need for others to enable them, we should insist on education so these children will become adults who can support themselves, and we can divert their funding to other needs. Institutionalized ignorance actually does affect the rest of us, since our tax dollars are footing the bills to support these communities.

It’s a big messy battle that won’t be resolved any time soon—if ever. But the fact that we are hearing young people from within one of these enclaves calling for help is a clear signal that we need to do what we can to rescue them.