Are We Smarter?

Last time I wrote about Warren Harding and fears of a repeat of the intolerance of that time. The fears may be justified. Besides that, I cannot keep up with the whirl of events that is our new President’s first days in office, nor do I want to spend every waking hour stressing about it, which is easy to do. I will please or disappoint you by changing the subject, trying to maintain some sense that the usual questions are still of interest.

My question this week is whether we Jews are smarter than other people. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t provable. I am not sure what all the Nobel Prizes prove. What is provable is how much we value education. Maybe you saw the December release of the Pew Research Center’s latest study, one of educational attainment among people of different religions across the globe. We Jews are the world’s most educated religious group, shout the headlines (at least in the Jewish press.) We have an average of 13.4 years of formal schooling. The global average is 7.7 years. Christians average 9.3 years of schooling, while the “unaffiliated” ( they don’t identify as religious) come in at 8.8. Hindus and Muslims 5.6. Buddhists 7.9.

What does it all mean? Part is just geography: most Jews live in the U.S. or Israel where there is a high level of education overall. 98% of Hindus on the other hand live in developing countries. But it’s not just geography: Jews in Brazil average 12.5 years of schooling, nearly twice that of non Jewish Brazilians.

There are many little subplots here: one is the Muslims in Israel whose younger generations have added four years of education to the older generation’s average, or we see the opposite among Jewish men in the U.S. as so many of the Orthodox go to yeshiva year after year and only 37% have formal higher education (vs. 77% for the older Orthodox men.) The full study can be seen at

What, again, does it all mean? We (still) take education seriously. At least those who identify with the Jewish religion, though I suspect that the numbers for Jews who consider themselves Jewish but not by religion are not so different. I think this is something to be proud of. But not too proud, because – you guessed it- when it comes time for learning about the religious tradition that seems to make us want to learn, we are not doing so well. We are looking at maybe 7.0 years of formal education on the average, and that only for a few hours/week. We pay a price for that. Jews who are highly educated but have a 13 year old’s knowledge of Judaism will almost certainly feel ignorant or uncomfortable in many Jewish settings and try to avoid them. Regardless, it can’t be that our religion encourages us to take education seriously when we have so little contact with it. I am left with no answer to my question. Maybe you can help me.

Next time, barring the unforeseen, we do more demography. I hope you can wait. Best regards.        Bill Rudolph


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