Texas public schools have long been a hotbed for controversy, with debates concerning evolution and intelligent design taking center stage. But the controversy concerning the curriculum used in Texas schools has broadened to other subjects as well, particularly American history. The Texas Education Service Center Curriculum Collaborative, a quasi-state agency, develops lesson plans that are used in about 70% of Texas public school districts. A number of the lesson plans have come under fire, with critics arguing that they demonstrate an anti-American bias.
One example concerns a high-school history exercise on terrorism in which teachers are instructed to ask students whether they think that, from the perspective of the British, the Boston Tea Party was a terrorist act. State senator Dan Patrick, a chief critic of the lessons, said “This is the United States of America, and I have a real issue if we are calling Boston Tea Party patriots terrorists.” On the other hand, Heath Burns, superintendent of Abilene Independent School District in west Texas, defended the lesson, saying “To offer only one perspective about these patriotic men cheats students out of an opportunity to engage in critical thinking and participate in a robust dialogue.” (Texas School Lessons Spark Fight over Patriotism, Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2013)
The issue being debated in Texas – whether to teach children perspectives that differ from our own core beliefs – is one that our own community struggles with as well. On the one hand, if we hope to inspire our children to live lives that are guided and inspired by Torah and Mitzvot, we must present our beliefs to them in a manner that is clear and straightforward. Constantly exposing our children to other perspectives threatens to undermine their faith. But on the other hand, as Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm has written, “Anyone who has taught or discussed the fundamentals of Judaism with young Orthodox Jews can testify to the ubiquity of honest doubt, and to the catastrophic consequences of cowardice in dealing with it.” (Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought). Our children will soon grow into young adults, and they need to be prepared to confront other perspectives on life and religion.
There are no simple answers to this educational challenge. But an insight from Rav Adin Steinsaltz may offer the beginning of a solution. He comments: “The beauty and the lesson of the Talmud is that it teaches us to always see the other side, to believe and to question at the same time.” (Arthur Kurzweil, On the Road with Rabbi Steinsaltz: 25 Years of Pre-Dawn Car Trips, Mind-Blowing Encounters, and Inspiring Conversations with a Man of Wisdom). The Talmud is, in essence, a collection of perspectives; more than anything else, students are surprised by the never ending arguments and debates that make up the fabric of Judaism. But at the same time, the Talmud is the very backbone of our faith; despite its complexity, it exudes a powerful faith in the unique destiny of our people.
What better way can there be to teach our children to believe, but also to appreciate and respect other perspectives, than to introduce them to the joys of Talmud study?