Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Of Matisse, Skirt Lengths and Teaching Skills
In a recent essay in the Orthodox Journal Conversations, Esther Lapian attacks the Modern Orthodox Memlakhti-dati school system in Israel for caving in to Haredi standards in terms of girl's education. She tells the story of her daughter choosing the artist Henri Matisse as the topic for her school project and getting a poor grade on it despite the hard work she put in. What is interesting is the response Mrs. Lapian got from the teacher when asked for an explanation:
"Well," she said hesitating, "it was a bit skimpy." "Skimpy?!" I cried in disbelief. "She's in fifth grade. She could have chosen 'Water' or 'Color' or 'Why Is the Sky Blue?' Instead she picked a difficult topic and handed in work she did herself. What do you mean by skimpy? "Well," she said quietly, "the truth is … I have never heard of Matisse." ("When Worlds Collide: Why Observant Student Teachers Refuse to Teach in the Memlakhti-dati School System" Conversations Spring 2010 pg. 134)
Mrs. Lapian goes on to note that:
Part of the reason why the teacher in the Matisse story continues to teach in our schools is because she looks the part. She and hundreds like her are teaching in our schools, despite the fact that they may be inferior teachers, because her elbows are covered, her skirts are long, and in the case of married women, her head is covered.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, the dati-leumi establishment has become obsessed with the dress code of women. Prominent rabbis write outrageous articles measuring centimeters on the neck and on the arms. While the suitability of male teachers is measured in how much they know and the quality of their prayer, in the case of women, the skill of pious dressing can override the skills of good teaching. (pg. 138-39)
I would see this issue as a variant of the dress code challenge I raised previously. Every time one chooses to make an issue out of something, by implication one is also saying that other things are not important. Think of it as a point system in which you have a limited number of points to invest. Thus every point you invest in women's dress is a point you are not investing in women's learning or in male civility. To invest in something of minor importance is not just wasting a point it is the support of the negation of a virtue that has value. In our case of women's dress, one cannot play innocent in the statement being made. When you state that women have to be dressed a certain way you are also saying that women do not have to be well educated and that men do not have to respect them. The fact that you do not come out and explicitly say this is irrelevant; it only means that you also support mendacity as well.
It is very easy to say, as politicians regularly do, that you support certain values, whether they are long skirts, children, motherhood or apple pie. Because such support is so cheap, it is also irrelevant and meaningless. Values only mean something if you are willing to pay a price for them, particularly when that price is that of another value. In the real world values are going to clash with each other. They gain their meaning precisely when put up against the other and sacrificed for something higher. Do not tell me what values you support; tell me what price you will pay for them.
(For a different reaction to this article see QED.)