In a recent article on crosscurrents.com, Yitzchak Adlerstein seems to argue that yeshiva boys do not need a secular education. His reason: Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), a beis medrash (place of Torah study for adult men who are past high school age) with thousands of students, was ranked top in the state as the university with the highest proportion of students passing the CPA exam. Adlerstein goes on to say that “If motivated people in their 20’s with practically no secular education at all can compete effectively with products of conventional educational systems, what can we learn about all the drill and reinforcement that is part of elementary education? Are some kids wasting years of time because they could learn material much more quickly when a bit older?”
Adlerstein seems to be implying several things in this statement:
One, that BMG students are the product of defunct religious education systems not providing a basic secular education.
Two, that not providing a basic secular education in elementary and high school may be beneficial to students.
Earlier in the article he writes that BMG students’ high rate of CPA exam passage “Ostensibly... reflects both the quality of student an educational experience that positions candidates to get it right from the beginning [sic]. Outside of our circles, many must be scratching their heads. Is Beth Medrash Govoha a branch of Princeton? Rutgers?”
He seems to be implying (I say "seems" strongly here since the language was a little hard to parse) that BMG students are stronger or of better quality than students attending Princeton University.
There are many problems with Adlerstein’s claims and I will address them in the same order I listed them above.
For one thing, BMG is known to be a litvish yeshiva -- a yeshiva that attracts a largely ultra-Orthodox non-Hasidic student body. While it is true that some non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox yeshivas fail to meet state standards, on the whole these institutions do provide students with a secular education. As such, BMG students' performance on the CPA exam can hardly be attributed to the benefits of a lack of secular education in elementary and high school.
That brings us to point number two -- that not providing an education is beneficial to students. Adlerstein expands on this point at the end of his piece when he talks about Israeli haredim who make up for their lack of elementary and high school education in what he says is eighteen months. “Twelve years of education in 18 months? There are some questions that need answering – and may help everyone streamline children’s education.” If I’m reading this correctly, he seems to be encouraging us to use the haredi non-education paradigm as a model.
But here’s why he is wrong: while it is true that a small minority of Israeli haredim who did not receive a basic education are able to make up for it in under two years, the vast majority are crippled by their lack of education. They are underrepresented, for example, in the tech industry, and they are overrepresented among recipients of government assistance. The same is true in New York where graduates of yeshivas that fail to provide a basic education are overwhelmingly poor.
And finally, to contend with the claim that BMG students would outperform Princeton students, let’s examine what it means to take and pass the CPA exam and what it means to be an accounting student at BMG in the first place.
To take the CPA exam, according to New Jersey requirements, students need either a Master's degree or "a minimum of 60 semester hours selected from courses in English, history, foreign languages, mathematics, general psychology, science, geography, fine arts and music; a minimum of 24 semester hours in accounting including municipal and government accounting; at least 6 semester hours in business law; at least 6 semester hours in finance; at least 6 semester hours in economics; and at least 18 semester hours in related business subjects."
BMG unabashedly provides no secular studies. It provides Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Talmudic law but it has no core secular studies requirements and does not provide faculty or classes in secular studies. A small minority of BMG students, however, take secular studies courses that are offered through other colleges to meet the minimum requirements. That being the case, it is perplexing to claim that BMG is producing these top students when BMG is not preparing these students to be CPAs at all and any CPA training they receive is outside of BMG.
Additionally, as with his discussion of haredim in Israel, Adlerstein fails to acknowledge that BMG students taking the CPA exam account for a minuscule minority of the total number of students attending BMG. This small minority consists of real outliers of the system and can hardly be said to represent the institution. At the same time, I don’t want to mitigate how impressive it is that those outliers’ CPA exam passage rates outrank students at all other institutions in the state.
Still, while these outliers may be bright and motivated, they hardly make a compelling case against providing students with a basic secular education -- for one thing, because these non-Hasidic students in all likelihood received a secular education in elementary and high school; and for another, because the few successes will never negate the overwhelming number of failures. When the majority of those deprived of an education are living in poor or near poor conditions, it is offensive to point to the few extremely ambitious and intelligent individuals who made it despite their adverse circumstances in order to continue promoting the status quo. That is akin to pointing to President Barack Obama and claiming that since a black man graduated from Harvard Law School and went on to become president of the United States, we no longer need to invest in minority education. We all know a claim like that would be absurd, so why are there so many naysayers when it comes to Hasidic education?