Monday, January 5, 2015

Mr. Gradgrind and Jewish education



Education researchers in secular settings give a lot of attention to how (or whether) K-12 schools prepare students for college. In particular, they look at the extent to which high school prepares students for college, middle school prepares students for high school, and elementary school prepares students for middle school.

While the best students are invariably well-prepared for college, other students who may have the potential to succeed in a community or four-year college don’t always have the background.

Their recent work found that the goals of K-12 schools don’t completely align with those of colleges. For example, high-school English classes often spend more time on literature than on expository writing, but colleges all require expository writing and many don’t require any literature courses. 

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, the literature part of high-school English might appear to be a waste. 

English teachers—and I used to be one, albeit at the college level—would argue that the ability to understand works of literature contributes to a satisfying life. They might even argue that, if students aren’t going to study literature at all in college, they should certainly study some in high school.

We see a similar dynamic in Jewish education, where the utilitarian, reductionist question is, “What is necessary for bar/bat mitzvah?” 

To a Jewish educator, this is a confusing question. On one hand, the technical requirements for the service that commemorates becoming bar/bat mitzvah are simple enough to state. 

On the other, a young person becomes bar or bat mitzvah upon attaining the requisite age, whether there is a special service for it or not. At that point, the young person is responsible for managing his or her own Jewish life. This includes choosing the role that Judaism will have in adult life.

So the more important question is not what’s required for the ceremony, but what learning will contribute to a satisfying Jewish life. That learning isn’t limited to a certain set of synagogue skills: while the ability to participate actively in worship services is certainly desirable, synagogue services aren’t the entirety of Jewish life. 

Furthermore, Hebrew school isn’t the entirety of Jewish learning. Research that Prof. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University conducted in the 1990s found a strong correlation between taking Hebrew and Judaic studies courses in college and Jewish identification after graduation. The correlation was as strong as for Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and time spent in Israel. 

So what prepares a student for Judaic studies classes in college? Having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is hardly relevant at all (except to the extent that it contributes to total Jewish education). Because most students who take Judaic studies classes in college will do so in non-Jewish institutions, good secular education is essential. But secular education is largely outside the purview of Hebrew school.

What seems to matter most is learning that there is something to learn. In that respect, encountering challenging ideas is more important than mastering specific skills. This is why we want our students to have more Jewish education than the minimum for the mitzvah ceremony.

There is one skill that I think does matter. We are often asked why we persist in teaching Hebrew script writing: “If a student isn’t going to study or live in Israel, what use is it?”

Now, I don’t think we can predict in the third or fourth grade whether a student might eventually study or live in Israel. I hope that all of our students might have at least the opportunity to study in Israel for a semester of high school or college.

But script writing is also essential for taking Hebrew classes in college. When I worked in higher education, I met many Jewish students who shied away from a Hebrew course because script writing would be required.

That’s not a realistic fear, because there are almost always students in the class who aren’t Jewish, never studied Hebrew at any level before, and have no experience with script writing. Somehow, they manage to learn it within the first few days of classes. But it’s still a significant deterrent for Jewish students, who feel that they should know script writing, but don’t.

Students who learned script writing in Hebrew school may not be comfortable either writing or reading script Hebrew by the time they enter college. The difference, however, is that having learned it once leaves them with confidence that they can learn it again.