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Issue 201 - Educated Consumers
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine

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I was talking shop with a public school Dean at an educational conference we were attending several months ago. He was lamenting the fact that the parent body of his affluent suburban area was far less respectful than they were five or ten years ago. When I asked him for some concrete examples of this phenomenon, he said that parents regularly challenge the school’s recommendations for special education, counseling, or any diagnosis that members of his staff make. “When I started this job thirty years ago,” he said, “parents accepted what professional educators told them almost without question. Nowadays, nearly every recommendation is met with a flurry of discussions and counter-arguments.”

He attributed this trend to the financial success of the parents in his district and their feeling that “Since they are wealthy, they always know better [than he and his faculty members].” He then went on to give examples of the material excesses of his parent body – expensive cars, elaborate vacations and full-time maids at home. “They expect us to defer to them [because of their financial success], not the other way around.”

As regular readers of this column may know by now, I occasionally (read: often) adopt a position at odds with conventional wisdom, and this conversation was one of those times. I informed my colleague of my hunch that the trend he was noticing was not necessarily a function of disrespect or affluence, but rather a result of a dramatic shift in the accessibility of information over the past ten years. Before the advent of the Internet, he and his faculty members were far better informed than the parents about educational issues such as learning disabilities. It was therefore entirely understandable that parents had been deferential when a recommendation was made.

All this changed, I suggested, with the advent of the Internet. Nowadays, one can go online and explore an educational issue or any other topic imaginable in one evening – accumulating a body of knowledge that would have taken many weeks of full-time research a decade ago. So, when a child in his school is diagnosed with, say, dyslexia, it is almost inevitable that his or her parents will do a great deal of investigation on various models for treating dyslexia before attending the meeting. And even if they have not done so prior to the conference, they will certainly do so after they have been informed of his school’s plan of action for their child. What my colleague was interpreting as eroding disrespect for professional educators over the past five to ten years was actually a profound leveling of the playing field.

In fact, the new reality that the Internet has created is the capacity for an individual to respectfully challenge the information presented by an authority figure or professional such as an elected official or physician – armed with the power that comes with an enhanced knowledge base.

The tag line of Sym’s, a popular clothing chain in the United States, is, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Well, school heads, physicians and people in all walks of life are rapidly – and sometimes painfully – coming to realize that their ‘customers’ are becoming far better educated as time goes on and the relentless march of improved technology rolls on.

What should give us all pause is that this information-is-power phenomenon will increasingly have enormous ramifications on our Torah society moving forward. And move forward it will regardless of our appropriate efforts to curb its impact on our homes and communities.

In my previous column, (Rambam or Ra’avid, issue #198), I made the case that so long as our children are young and in our exclusive domain, they will, in all likelihood, unquestioningly accept all the hashkafa values we teach them. But in the rapidly changing world in which we live, the proliferation of digital information and instant communication makes it far more likely that our children will be asking – or be asked – significant hashkafa questions as they grow and leave the shelter of our homes.

However, that is only one component of the complex issue of how evolving technology will change the landscape of our lives. Another is that the very nature of today’s world is that just like unquestioning acceptance of the recommendations of public school deans and physicians are becoming a thing of the past, so too, I’m afraid, will the chinuch and hashkafa that we teach our children be subject to consideration and review as our savvy children go through adolescence and adulthood. We, therefore, not only need to teach hashkafa to our children, we need to impart these values in a thoughtful, moderate and careful manner so that it will withstand the almost inevitable scrutiny that these lessons will be subjected to later in life.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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