When I was in college, an MO professor noticed that there were a surprising number of alumnae from my high school in her grad school.
“What did your bais Yaakov do wrong,” she asked, “That so many of you are pursuing an excellent higher education in something that isn’t OT/PT/Speech therapy?”
My initial reaction was bafflement. What was wrong with getting a masters in software engineering? But then I realized that she had a point: almost no other bais Yaakov was represented in the program.
“Well,” I mused aloud, “There was always a strong emphasis on academic excellence. We were always driven to do well in whatever we did, and during high school, that was mostly about grades.”
In fact, so closely did they monitor our grades that a friend of mine was called into the principal’s office because her secular grades were so much higher than her Judaic ones.
The catch, though, is that challenging, academically inclined high schools like mine struggle with the long-term message they send their students.
On the one hand, they want students vigorously engaged in their studies in high school, because they should be learning as much Judaica as you can cram into them while you still can. Also, it keeps them busy and out of trouble.
Also, you want them to be able to sustain a kollel lifestyle, so some form of preparation for higher education is necessary.
But after they graduate, you don’t want them pursuing long courses of study, like medical school or PhDs. They should be striving to get married and settle down quickly, before they have too much chance to stray. And long amounts of time spent in a non-religious academic setting is just setting them up for straying. A short, practical course of study is preferred.
This tension came to the forefront at a recent event for single alumnae at a local, highly driven and academic girls high school. The topic turned to what to tell prospective mothers-in-law who call to do research about your friend.
“What if we get asked about her bad grades?” a student asked.
The teachers on the panel poo-poo’d the significance of bad grades. “Will good grades help her bake challah?”
“So, after all that, we’re only worth our ability to bake challah? Why do they emphasize the importance of a good education — including secular higher education — for four years of high school, and then minimize its importance once we graduate?” one student fumed. “How is that not some kind of double standard?”
You’d think, at least, they would have found time for one practical Home Ec class that included challah baking. After all, women’s colleges before the 1960s were also there to produce overqualified housewives. But at least you could major in Home Economics!
Other students were more phlegmatic about it.
“If I’m still single in five, ten, or twenty years,” an alumnus said, “It won’t be because I don’t make the best goshdarned challah you could ever hope to taste.”