The following post appeared as my weekly column in last week's school newsletter.
Of course, like many of my kosher-keeping peers, Coffee Cakes, Ding-Dongs, Fruit Pies, and Devil Dogs were a staple of my adolescent diet. Though raised in a home where “junk food” consisted of all-natural fruit leather and sugar-free candies, my high school’s vending machine ensured that the variety of kosher delicacies made by Hostess under its Drakes brand were never more than a flight of stairs and seventy-five cents away.
So why won’t my children ever have the pleasure of using their hard-earned babysitting money to indulge in such artery-clogging treats? Reasons abound, from fiscal irresponsibility to workforce inefficiency. But one facet of the company’s collapse is reverberating across news sites and blogs throughout the web and ought to give pause to educators of all types, and Jewish educators in particular.
Larry Popelka of Bloomberg BusinessWeek put it this way:
There are plenty of culprits in the recent bankruptcy and closure of Hostess Brands, including weak management, short-sighted labor unions, and poor judgment by investors. But the real reason Hostess is going belly up is a problem that’s been brewing for more than 20 years: The company completely failed to innovate.Despite its iconic brand and more than 80 years of success, Hostess is gone because the times changed and it didn’t have the foresight or wherewithal to change along with it.
Education, as an industry, is notoriously slow to innovate. And, to a certain extent, it ought to be that way. Innovation requires risk. Taking risk necessarily entails failure, flops, and frustration and there are few areas where such results are more feared than with regard to the education of our children. And true as that is in society in general, it is all the more true in the world of Jewish education. In general education, we have pedagogic traditions that go back a century and perhaps a little more. In Jewish education, our traditions of learning and study date back two thousand years, if not more. Taking risks in general education is seen as putting college acceptance and professional success in jeopardy. Taking risks in Jewish education is seen as jeopardizing a way of life and a Divine command.
No one wants to see failure or flops in Jewish education and therefore everyone is hesitant to take risks. The irony, though, is that business leaders and religious leaders alike have been growing increasingly vocal over the years about their frustration with the growing number of flops and failures being produced by our educational system in its current form. Fortune 500 companies bemoan today’s college graduates as lacking the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate efficiently. Rabbinic leaders bemoan a lack of passion, commitment, and meaning in the religious lives of those same twenty-somethings.
So, perhaps we have less to lose than we think. Perhaps the time to take calculated risks in the way we educate is now. The thought that my children’s children will never have the pleasure of biting into a Devil Dog doesn’t keep me up at night. The thought though, that some pundit with 20/20 hindsight will in twenty, thirty, or forty years write that “the real reason Jewish education is going belly up is a problem that’s been brewing for more than 50 years: the industry completely failed to innovate” is one that definitely does.