I think we have done something quite backwards during COVID.
Or rather, I think COVID-19 has revealed something quite backwards about us.
Let me explain.
In the 1990s, a sociologist by the name of Samuel Heilman gained access to one of the most extreme, ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the world. Heilman was Jewish himself (which helped), but he was a trained scholar and much too secular for contact to be permissible. And yet, somehow, he was welcomed into the closed world of Mea Sharim—a small neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. Heilman’s subsequent book, Defenders of the Faith (1992), provides readers with a fascinating glimpse into a world that is otherwise almost entirely sealed.
I remember when the book came out. I was very excited to read it and, like almost everyone else, I turned to the last chapter first (which is the secret sex chapter—there are many rumors about the sex lives of the ultra-orthodox and Heilman dove right in). But once I read passed the salacious parts, I returned to the beginning and read through the book properly. And what has stayed with me after all these years is actually something quite different from the sex chapter. It was his discussion about kindergarten.
According to Heilman, the various communities in Mea Sharim agree on one thing: kindergarten must be taught by the best teachers available. The inexperienced are never dispatched into the classroom haphazardly. Student teachers are never handed a kindergarten class as a trial run. Teaching kindergarten is, rather, a sacred obligation. It can only be performed by the most sophisticated pedagogues around.
Heilman spends many chapters on the theme of education and he makes his point repeatedly throughout: for the communities of Mea Sharim, education is the highest priority. Schools are more important than businesses. Books are more prized than bank accounts. Children have to learn their tradition or their tradition will disappear.
I keep thinking about this aspect of Heilman’s book as I listen to the endless arguments about re-opening schools during COVID-19. We have focused so much on the re-opening of businesses that schools seem like a distant second. We are now still scrambling to figure it out days before the opening is scheduled to take place. What have we done?
The communities in Mea Sharim would never operate this way. Granted, the communities in Mea Sharim are, for the most part, extremists. Their focus on school has as much to do with indoctrination as it does with education. But still, there is something about their focus on education that I think we need to hear.
We have all inadvertently revealed our priorities during this crisis. Politicians have had the very difficult job of juggling a million needs at once, but the fundamental concern—seemingly overshadowing everything else—has been consistent: business comes first. We have voted for capitalism at every turn. We have focused on the economy with hands wringing and hearts palpitating from the moment the virus announced itself. We have obviously been concerned with many other competing realities too, but the bottom line is the bottom line. If people cannot put food on the table, nothing else works.
On one level, this was a reasonable direction to take. If people cannot eat, then they cannot send their children to school or manage anything else. Period. But the crisis is shifting gears. It is no longer an emergency of the moment. It is becoming a long-term reality and focusing on finances as a long-term priority seems to me to be a big mistake. A 12-year-old boy can (probably quite happily) spend a few months in a vacuum playing video games, but he cannot afford to fall off the grid for a few years. We cannot afford to put business first for years. If children stay out of school for years, the damage will be irreparable.
Our first priority now must be education. We must take our cues from the fundamentalists in Mea Sharim (but only on this point) and reorganize our thinking so that children and their education come before everything else. We are no longer scrambling to manage an unexpected invasion. We are now living with an understood disruption. The focus now must be about getting our children back into school.
From the beginning of this pandemic, we have tried to find ways to open non-essential businesses safely. But non-essential businesses are not the point (sorry, but in big-picture thinking, it’s simply true). The goal is not to protect restaurants, bars, and gyms. The goal has to be our kids. Once they are safely back in the classroom, then—and only then—we can return our attention to non-essential business. Because non-essential business is simply non-essential. Educating the next generation is not.
Non-essential business simply cannot be our social focus anymore. It cannot be our purpose and our raison-d’etre. Children are going to inherit this mess we call home and we need to do everything we can to prepare them for that reality. We have been working backwards, revealing our deep-seated love of capitalism above all else. It is time to change direction and rearrange our narrative.
If we have any chance of creating a safe future, education must be the first story. Everything else is a distant second.