Elli Fischer
Writer. Translator. Historian. Rabbi. With ADHD.

On education, genius, and AD/HD

Abaye and Rava were sitting before Rabbah. Rabbah asked them, “To whom do we pray?” They answered, “To the Merciful One.” “And where does The Merciful One live?” Rava gestured toward the roof beams. Abaye went outside and gestured toward the heavens. Rabbah said to them, “You will both be rabbis.” And so they say, ‘The gourds are known from their sap’ (i.e., greatness can be detected in childhood).        -Talmud, Berakhot 48a

This story portrays two of the Talmud’s greatest sages as children, demonstrating how each sought God in a different way. Rava seeks God within structure, Abaye in the vast expanse. Rava remains within the schoolroom, while restless Abaye runs outdoors. And yet, the passage concludes, both were destined for greatness. Indeed, the law nearly always accords with Rava’s keen analysis, yet, the Talmud states, Abaye outlived Rava because he integrated his Torah study with philanthropic endeavors.

What if Abaye had been enrolled in one of our schools? Would he still have become great? Would he have had  the freedom to explore, to run outside to find God? A similar thought experiment was recently posed by Rabbi Dovid Abenson. Simply stated, he answers in the negative and bases his reasoning on three claims: 1) Jewish education used to produce more geniuses and first rank Torah scholars than it does now; 2) the reason for the decline in Jewish genius is that we administer medication to students who do not fit the mold, thus inhibiting their development for the sake of the teachers’ convenience. In other words, today’s Abayes are being designated “problem children” and perhaps diagnosed with AD/HD and put on Ritalin, thus preventing the expression of their natural curiosity and genius; and 3) this problem can be solved by devoting adequate professional resources to it.

Rabbi Abenson is correct on one crucial point: schools often deal with outliers by pressuring them to conform. Yet each of his premises is flawed. Regarding his first contention, America has in fact produced its share of Jewish genius of both the rabbinic and general variety—both Feinsteins and Einsteins. Interestingly, much of that genius has been exported to Israel.

The critical flaw, however, is with his second contention, which mistakes the symptom for the disease and therefore misdiagnoses the problem. Overmedication is not the issue; rather, if a significant minority of students seem ill-suited to our schools, it is because formal education, by its very nature, is a Procrustean bed, designed for collective, rather than individuated, instruction. If we have trouble dealing with “out of the box” students, it is because our classrooms are quite literally boxes. Abaye finds God by escaping from the stifling atmosphere of the instruction cubicle. We, however, try to retrofit the child’s mind to our preferred mode of instruction.

Things were probably no better in the earlier generations, either. The bored genius may have gotten the individual attention he needed, but the hyperactive genius—the Abaye of the day—was more likely to have been “diagnosed” with “shpilkes” (the Yiddish equivalent of “ants in the pants”) and shipped off to be a shoemaker’s apprentice at age 7 than to have had his genius discovered by some discerning professional educator.

For this generation’s Abayes, medication can be a game-changer if used properly. That is, medication should not be treated as a cure for AD/HD for the simple reason that AD/HD is not a disease that needs curing. It means that the mind is wired differently, which presents certain advantages and disadvantages. Medication is one of several tools and strategies that can be implemented in the attempt to maximize its advantages and minimize its disadvantages.

This brings us to Rabbi Abenson’s third point: how to enable exceptional children to thrive. As noted, the classroom environment is itself not conducive to children like Abaye. Indeed, the Talmud records (Kiddushin 29b) that when Abaye opened his own school, its students were driven to distraction by a demon that took the form of a seven-headed monster—an apt metaphor for ADD.

The amazing thing about genius, though, is that it yearns to be expressed. If the greatest impediment to its expression is a structured learning environment, then parents and teachers must devise a way for the child’s schooling to remain somewhat unstructured. Sometimes it means allowing the child to explore, think, do homework, or read ahead, and sometimes it means allowing the child doodle, space out, or take an extended bathroom break. The school environment can be supplemented by extracurricular educational opportunities or unstructured home learning. It may be worth exploring a shortened school day for such children, as long school days can stifle. Until the paradigm of instruction changes, we may not be able to offer such kids much more than coping strategies to get him through the day having learned something, not gotten in (too much) trouble, and without feeling too imprisoned. To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, the goal is to ensure that one’s schooling does not interfere with one’s education.

This column first appeared in the print edition of Intermountain Jewish News

About the Author
Elli Fischer is a translator with rabbinical ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate who is working on a PhD in Jewish History from Tel Aviv University. He is the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed's "Peninei Halakha" series in English and co-creator of HaMapah, a project for the quantitative analysis of the history of halakhah. His writings have appeared in numerous print and online media.