From Poor Beginnings to Positive Endings

Since John Dewey founded the progressive education movement in the late 19th century, the world of education has been torn between competing traditional and progressive theories about how best to educate children. Yet, after more than a century of research it is still not clear which model is better. A similar phenomenon can be found in the world of psychotherapy where competing theories like cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, and humanistic therapy all offer strikingly different approaches to treating mental illness, but despite all of their differences they all appear to produce similar outcomes and results. So, if theory and methodology cannot explain why some children learn while others do not, why some patients improve, and others do not, what accounts for these differences?

The Talmud in Masechet Rosh Hashana explains that any year which is poor or difficult at its beginning will be a year of plenty by the end. The promise of this statement has extra meaning this year, but it is also surprising because the Gemara seems to assume that once God makes a decree on Rosh Hashana it cannot be changed.

The famed 19th century Hassidic thinker, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, argues that the transformation the Gemara describes does not take place in God or in the world, rather, it takes place in man. He writes that when a person has faith in God, God in turns has faith in him. This enables a person to see the world in a different light and to overcome the challenges that they face. That which seemed poor and desolate is now a place of opportunity. It is the sense and knowledge a person has that God has faith and is supporting him that makes this change possible.

The power of knowing that someone believes in you is one that we may have experienced in our own lives. Whether it was a parent, teacher or mentor, there are moments we can hearken back to when the simple knowledge that someone had faith in us propelled us over a previously seemingly insurmountable barrier. In psychology, this sense of faith and trust is known as the therapeutic alliance and it impacts the likelihood of success more than any theory or approach. The same maybe true in education, where a teacher’s belief in their students can be for more important than what educational model they use.

The new year will begin with a multitude of challenges. Some we are already aware of, while others may surprise us. But at this time, we also have the opportunity to renew our faith in God, in ourselves, and in those around us so that we can instill each other with the strength to overcomes whatever difficulties lie ahead.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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