There is a crisis in education today. Amidst a flurry of global crises, one after the other and all interrelated, in which we each must play a role in resolving, we are guiding children through a system intended to teach them passivity and obedience. This passivity and obedience is not only dangerous for our world, but dangerous to them: students are more likely to consider or attempt suicide than ever, and cutting, teen sex, and bullying remain at all-time highs.
It is clear that passivity and obedience is what brought us here; how should we expect that it will get us out?
The system, which has remained stubbornly in place for over a hundred years, is familiar to most of us:
- A teacher lectures to dozens of students on a subject whose contents were designed by bureaucrats above them;
- Students are tested on how much of the material they’ve memorized, and rarely (if ever) on what they make of the material, or how they understand it relative to their lives and interests;
- Students are never allowed to be social, vocal, argumentative, outspoken, without the permission of an adult.
Contrast this with the breathtaking power of a Yeshiva-based education:
- A teacher guides students through the Talmud’s arguments and ripostes, which are immediately relevant to the students because they’re determined to live a life faithful to God (indeed, Torah study is itself a mitzvah);
- Students take turns arguing with one another, sometimes viscerally and passionately, about the concerns in the text, rather than simply being told what it means;
- While there are occasional tests on content, students are evaluated by the thoughtfulness they bring to the text, the ways in which they interact with peers, and, most importantly, how seriously they embody the knowledge they come to internalize.
The difference between these two approaches is evident: In the first, knowledge is dead, fossilized, “collected” and given without much consent; in the second, knowledge is living, relevant, and constantly applied. In the first, there is very little trust that students will explore, learn, and care on their own; in the second, it is presumed, honed, and focused.
The core differences between Jewish and modern secular education lie in the norms of intellectual dialogue and engagement through modeling and expectation.
It is amazing that so many people feel resistance to trusting kids to explore the world as they would like, to learning and making relevant ideas that matter to them, within the context of a purpose-driven learning environment. Immediately worries about “jobs” and “the future” come up (though no one expects tomorrow’s jobs or the future will be anything like today) – a testament to how successful this secular approach has been to cutting us off from ourselves.
How can we restore trust in children – which also always means giving them trust in themselves — in secular learning spaces? How can we give them the skills of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening – the core skills that develop a true confidence and self-esteem? The answer is to rip out our reluctant comfort in the traditional system and seek options that give kids the chance to own their own education – to take agency over their learning, because they care about it.
Judaism has an incredible structure to enable this, but we need not look only at Jewish solutions. It is enough to be inspired by them.
Online learning has given us the rare and small window of opportunity to bring this much-needed solution to life. “Pandemic Pods” and “Microschools” are popping up everywhere, parents suddenly determined to investigate the curriculum their children are learning with a more critical eye; professional educators who have spent decades in the field are finding ways to apply their creative and thoughtful approaches to learning and mentorship to the online space.
Parents today have the chance to explore every option that could work for their children – and perhaps they will discover a joy in their child’s eyes they haven’t seen in a long time.
We modernists and post-modernists tend to sneer at those who came before us. Their colorful garbs and values, infinitely diverse, seem alien and antiquated compared to our sleek, uniform standardization of the human being. But perhaps they, looking back at us, would sneer similarly at our hubris, as religious Jews so often do: our sureness in our own values; our categorical disregard of our own wants and needs in the name of society and “the good of all”; and our commitment to dead knowledge – knowledge we never expect to apply nor recall – in the name of “grades” and ribbons.
We ought to become true radicals in education and return to the source of what we are, obscured by a century of industry and mechanization: a flurry of questions, pregnant with the promise of beautiful answers.