Why is it that failing the Brandeis Literacy test is not actually an educational failure?

As an educator invested in Jewish and Israeli education, I was alarmed by the headlines regarding the recent Brandeis Jewish illiteracy study. The thought that I, as an educator who have been involved in leading Birthright trips as well as many other Israel educational trips might be in some way responsible for the ignorance in the Jewish world frightened me.

After the initial panic I decided to investigate the study. On the one hand, this study used some very interesting data that without a doubt created great tools of measuring Jewish knowledge. However, on the other hand, I truly believe there were quite a few points that negated the need for alarm in regard to the outcome of what we expect from the Birthright program.

Before we discuss the questions that were chosen to determine the level of knowledge regarding Israel, it’s important to understand who the typical participant of the program is.

The average Birthright participant today is a Millennial. The Pew Study from 2010 states that this generation leads in the importance of absorbing immigrants into society. This generation also defines himself as the most liberal and is more supportive then other generations to ensure equal rights (as seen in chapter 8). This gathered data might indicate that we are talking about an approach that celebrates diversity and the belief in the acceptance of many different points of view. This approach sees the diversity as an advantage. The reason I am mentioning this is in order to introduce the importance of narrative. If the average participant can accept people from different backgrounds it indicates that he\she will be more interested in the narrative or “the story” that the person in front of them brings. In other words it is not what you teach me that counts. What matters is who you are and what your story is.

“If it was not processed it never happened” is a quote that I heard many years ago and believe is extremely relevant. This generation is more interested in wrestling with the information in relation to their personal journey than getting facts. The reason Birthright is such a powerful experience is not because it gives a crash course in the history of Israel/ conflict/ society etc.( if this were the goal I would hate my job…), but rather it is a unique opportunity for individuals to try and see where they fit in the big picture of the Jewish story. If we truly want to provide this information it should only be a means to get to an end. In other words, it is not that important to know who built the Western Wall (King Herod)  it is a lot more important to figure out what makes it a significant or insignificant place for me and the reason why.

Now that we have gotten a better understanding of who our Birthright applicants are it is important to evaluate the data from the study.

There is no doubt that there is massive lack of knowledge and in an ideal world people should be more educated. There is also an alarming negative correlation between the amount of knowledge people have and the expression of their opinions. This unfortunate reality has many drawbacks, one of which being the lack of ability to have an educated discussion or express political ideas regarding Israel.
Having said all of that I wonder if it is really reasonable to expect knowledge from people who are possibly confronted with information for the first time in an environment filled with so many distracters?

One of the questions in the study shows a picture of Israeli generals (Dayan, Rabin and Narkis) entering the Old City of Jerusalem at the end of the 1967 war. As an educator, do you think this picture is the most relevant piece of information to present to someone who might be emotionally overwhelmed by coming to the Old City for the first time? After years of saying “ Leshana Haba Beyroshalim” (next year in Jerusalem ) and maybe even being the first one from your immediate family to come to Jerusalem after 2,000 years, where do you think their minds are? For arguments sake let us assume that he\she saw the picture and heard the story of 1967, would it still be likely to assume that this is the piece of information they will remember and hold on to for years to come?

I have gone through the questions and I am not surprised at all that the numbers of correct answers were so low. In my opinion, the study tried to examine information that is not being delivered on trips and it is not a bad thing. This type of information should not be the objective or the main message of these kinds of trips. The main reason is that for many of the participants this is not a trip but a personal journey and details and dates fail to emphasis that.

Anyone who has worked with this generation will tell you that if there is one question these participants might ask, it is “how does this relate to me?” Our job as educators is very different from the job of educators 20 years ago. The job of educators from the dawn of time was to hold knowledge and pass it on. Today, as an educator, I am not capable of knowing even half of the information that exists in the smartphones that are held by participant in their pockets.

So what is our job? I believe our job is to pose questions. Our job is to be a mirror for their journey and to challenge them to inquire and make the connections between their individual lives and the greater
story of the Jewish people. Our job is to remove ourselves from the stage so they can come up and figure out who they are.

Sometimes if we are successful we are able to start a process that might lead to the desire to acquire more information that will create a better foundation for their identity. Once they have gone through
that stage it is then that they need to take the test which I am sure they will pass with flying colors.

About the Author
Ayal Beer is an educator and social worker who has been working in the field of informal education for over 7 years, his work has been in the fields of gender, social change, leadership building, environmentalism, and Jewish Israel-diaspora education. In the field of social work Ayal is focused on social change in the world of trauma.
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