“Hidden Curriculum” and Power-Talk:
Responding to #Metoo in Jewish Education

By Shira D. Epstein

When I facilitate sessions on Gender Issues in Jewish Education, I cart along a stack of Newsweeks, Time Magazine, and other media interests from the past 20 years; I display the cover stories to underscore the cyclical nature of who and what our culture frames as requiring immediate attention and intervention. In the early 90’s, the focus was on Girls at Risk: the pressing need for single sex education, and ensuring that young women would not lose their voices. Simultaneously, news outlets such as New York Times Magazine headlined the date rape crisis on college campuses and the critical demand of teaching about consent. The next phase highlighted Boys at Risk on a rapid free-fall through the system, and the burning necessity to save them through specialized programming. The early aughts spotlighted teens and sex, and tales rapidly circulated of promiscuity at b’nei mitzvahs. ‘Mean girls’ and bullying epidemics also garnered focus. The most recent discourse has centered around safe spaces for gender non-conforming teens in camps, schools, youth groups, and synagogues.

Until this Fall, when #metoo landed.

The #metoo movement has rightfully rattled and awoken our educational leaders to the immediacy of addressing gender-based violence. However, if we do not want this current spotlighted issue to become another footnote in the gender issues cycle, we need to approach it differently this time around: attend simultaneously to the here-and-now and the long game – to craft policies and vehicles for disclosure, support, and restitution, as well as to teach about disparities in power and status that sustain such behavior in our teaching sites.

As an educator and leader, I have been drawing upon the work of Kevin Kumashiro; he asserts that education for the Other (eg; setting up safe spaces; offering supports such as counseling) and education about the Other (launching curricular initiatives and trainings; offering ‘special issue’ convenings) are but two laudable approaches in teaching to understandings of marginalized groups. While these strategies ensure identification of at-risk students and widespread changes to teaching and learning, they will not necessarily generate systemic change in ways that institutions disrupt gender-based violence. In order to do so, we need to commit to exploring with our educators and learners the hidden curriculum of our sites – the things we teach that are never written down anywhere in any explicit way, but consistently and steadily send messages about values, and beliefs about power.

Examples of questions that spark examination of Hidden Curriculum:

  • What does our institution value as a high-status education role (eg; is early childhood education conceptualized as lower status women’s work, which allows for justification of outdated pay scales? How are these primarily female teachers treated when they lobby for more resources?)
  • Are some of our learners more privileged in learning settings because of their gender (eg; are males called on during discussions more than females? Are females silenced more often when they speak out of turn?)?
  • Is there a dress code at our site and if so, for whom (eg; when are girls told that their dress is not modest, and by whom, and in what way? What is the penalty and who is charged with enforcing compliance?)?
  • Do parents and administration hold tacit beliefs about centrality of families or certain types of families (eg; assuming an educational leader or clergy will be in a heterosexual marriage with children, and thus, asking harassing questions during searches to those who do not align with the ideal)?

When we silo each issue into a curated box of interventions and trainings for those we as leaders categorize as at-risk, we lose the threads of connection to why certain beliefs and behaviors sustain.

  • Teaching about consent must link to exploring tacit understandings of masculine and feminine norms and sexuality.
  • Teaching about gender-based stereotypes must link to prevalent ideas about privileging cis-gender ideals.
  • Honest conversations about sexual harassment, assault, and domestic abuse in the Jewish community must link to probing of Jewish values of partnership, power, control, and leadership – and the hidden curriculum within the texts we teach on the daily.

Each linked exploration supports a deeper and more robust reveal of hidden curriculum, which in turn leads to self-reflection on who is most powerful and who is more vulnerable, and how our institutions might disrupt these norms rather than replicating them. Jewish educational programs that have had lasting effects and impact on countless Jewish teens and educators have committed to this deeper questioning: Moving Traditions, Keshet, and JWI’s teen healthy relationship initiatives are reminders that the dual conversations – of the immediate around boundaries and of the long-term of deeper values that might need to transform. We can do both, and we can do them in a way that resonates with and reflects the pressing need, while keeping an eye to the future of resilient teens and resilient leaders. And, most importantly, we can do so in a way that offer Jewish educational institutions models for systemic change. Let’s support #metoo as an enduring focus.

Shira D. Epstein is assistant professor of Jewish education at the Davidson School of Jewish Theological Seminary.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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