Education without soul
Originally published: Feb 2017
Leah [pseudonym] is a 21 year old assistant preschool teacher in a beis yaakov school and part time college student. Sweet, social, and sincere, she gets along well with her family, spends time daily with friends, dates regularly, and enjoys her work. But underneath her orthodontic smile, she's feeling personally under-stimulated. She describes a chronic lack of excitement, bordering on apathy, about her life, some of which she traces back to her schooling. Growing up, she had attended the school where she now works, alongside many other fellow alumnae.
"I actually had a pretty good experience with school. I was a well-behaved kid; I wanted adults to like me, and they usually did. I never had much of a problem with rules anyway. Our school was pretty academic- we learned a ton of information- we were way ahead of my classmates in our Israel seminary. Our school had an intense 'bekiyus' program, where every year we memorized more and more facts, quotes, lists, and laws, taking cumulative tests to reinforce our knowledge. A lot of the girls hated those tests, and the studying was stressful. But I kind of appreciated having all this information at my fingertips. Just now, looking back on it all, it just felt and still feels kind of tasteless. I know all this impressive data, and I follow the rules. And I don't mind, but there's no connection, and little emotion. I remember times where girls would try to raise deeper questions, about meaning and purpose, the "why" questions.
Most of the time the teachers were more focused on covering textual material for the tests. If we tried to probe beyond that, I think they thought we were just trying to waste time. When they did offer a bit more philosophy, it had kind of a packaged, scripted quality about it. We found ourselves memorizing what to write on exams even for the 'inspiration' questions, based on how they had almost told us to feel, what they wanted to hear. I never really minded, because it sort of made sense. It was familiar, because we'd heard the same ideas so many times. But now I just don't really feel like I really analyzed or internalized much. I look, talk, and even act the part, and I'm not unhappy. But I just don't know how much deep or creative thinking I've ever really invested in figuring it all out- myself- who I want to be, personally, religiously, professionally- I just kind of inhaled information, spit it back out as needed, and went with the flow. And now, I don't know- it leaves me feeling sort of hollow and dissatisfied."
Leah is actually an amalgam of other young women like her, a typology. She could be viewed as a "success story" from her school's perspective; the "system" ostensibly worked for her. Some schools even refer to their students as "products". Yet in the safety and privacy of therapy, she challenges the process, and can try to figure out what she needs to correct in order to feel more integrated.
The other day, I was reading a Rashi at the beginning of this week's parsha, which I've seen dozens of times before, but it struck me in a more contemporary way. The opening words of Parshat Mishpatim simply introduce the upcoming commandments. G-d tells Moshe: "These are the rules which you will place before them."
Rashi comments: The Holy, Blessed One [that's G-d] said to Moshe: "Let it not even occur to you to say: 'I will teach them the chapter or the rule two or three times, until it's ordered in their mouths according to its wording. But I won't bother myself to help them understand the reasoning and explanations behind it.'" Therefore it says: "that you should place before them" like a table which is set and prepared for eating, before a person.
This Rashi pithily encapsulates the scholastic hazard of excessively rote learning. G-d is telling Moshe: "Don't even THINK about educating this way: 'I will lecture repeatedly, obligating them to memorize concrete words and facts to the point of easy regurgitation. Then they will know it exactly as it's written; it will be easy lip service. But I don't need to give it color, flavor, taste or personal meaning. I don't need to entertain tangential questions or ideological difficulties.' "Don't even think about teaching that way!" G-d says. Instead, how should we teach?
Set it before them appetizingly. Like a table, decorated and prepared for a meal. No one wants to eat tasteless food. No one wants to eat when he's not had a chance to cultivate an appetite, when the food looks bland, stale, colorless, or unappealing. Our bodies don't respond to food that way, and our minds and souls don't assimilate moral messages that way. The Dubno Maggid once said: "Just as food is not sweet without any hunger, an answer is not satisfying without developing a question."
The Hebrew word used in the Rabbinic literature, including this Rashi, for "reason" is "ta'am." This actually means flavor or taste. The "reason" (siba) we do mitzvos is that G-d commanded them. The "ta'am" is added impetus, it's what makes them pleasant. The laws introduced in this parsha are called mishpatim, which is the term generally used for laws that appeal to natural human understanding, as opposed to chukim, whose rationale are divine and transcendent; beyond the scope of normal human comprehension. When we give our children and ourselves the gifts of exploring the brilliance of mishpatim, we also strengthen the foundation for the acceptance of chukim.
We need to encourage the questions, and take the trouble to answer them- not only dogmatically but dialectically. We need to make the information relevant, interesting, and inspiring- for real.We need to model the kindness, the warmth, the joy that this education is meant to offer. To develop the curiosity, the intellectual creativity, that will enable young people like Leah to connect- with critical thinking, genuine interest and eventual passion- with feeling and flavor, the way G-d instructed in the first place.