Sunday, February 22, 2009

A mini screed about "illiteracy"

While my actual screed is in the shop, I threw this one together in response to a concern (read third hand) that there is an epidemic of illiteracy amongst the Orthodox student regarding knowledge of Hebrew(biblical/textual/conversational).

Warning -- I write the way I think. Rarely. But when I out.

How many of our students do we really expect to be the “top” group? If we look back at the history of the education system, we can produce examples of genius, but we gloss over the masses who never made it either through the system or beyond the system. For every Einstein, there are probably tens of thousands of Weinsteins (no offense to the Weinsteins I know…you are nice people but not Nobel Physicists). When we lament that our students are not on par with the great ones, maybe our expectations are too high.

In the Old Country, we had big name yeshivas and from them came the brilliant rebbeim and poskim who have crafted our religion and our way of life. But were there others who made it through the yeshivas (and many yeshivas had stringent entrance exams so not everyone could even get in) and went on to lead lives of mere existence? Why do we bemoan what we call the relative ignorance of our graduates now – was there a higher percentage of demonstrable brilliance a generation ago? Did simply being in the Rov's shiur mean that everyone who left it is an authority?

Let’s assume for a moment that there was more brilliance back then. That 150 years ago, the yeshiva system in Europe was churning out brilliant talmidim who could all speak Hebrew fluently (ignoring that modern conversational Hebrew would not have been either the method of nor the goal of education) or who could pick up any random texts and understand it in the original and could write their own responses to it in Hebrew. What else was expected of them? Did they have to know Calculus? Did they yeshiva want them to be able to analyze Hamlet, or maybe speak a third language? Were these brilliant students also on a team of some sort, practicing and competing? Were they confronted with the societal influences and pressures that modern suburban life throws at students today? I’m no historian, nor a sociologist (in fact, it would be quite a long list were I to enumerate all I’m not) but when we attempt to educate students in such a broad range of subjects, while leaving them time to exist outside of school, and preparing them to score high on external measures, it is no surprise that they do not reach the level of fluency attained by someone who spent significantly more hours on one single task. Ulpan works because it is based in immersion, not two 45 minute classes twice a week. Living in Israel is an effective way to teach Hebrew because of the survival aspect of immersion.

I went to High School at sat with a rebbe for 3+ hours every day learning. I’m not saying that this system works for everyone, but it inspired me and groups of others to focus and learn. Had I gone to a school where Talmud study was broken into 45 minute chunks with review sheets and tests like any other class, I might never have developed a love for the free floating ideas and the extended tangential arguments which surround and outline the whole flow of discourse. By turning our central educational goals into discrete chunks of time which allow the students to turn off that part of the brain as they have to go and fill up on the other subjects which we demand they be familiar with, we stop many students from connecting on a more meaningful level. Where do our gedolim come from? Programs which have Torah learning more extensively and consistently – kollels, Yeshiva programs with morning seder, afternoon seder, night seder and more of the same the rest of the time. Simply put, we are trying to teach too many different things, all on a rigorous level, and then wondering why our students don’t have the level of mastery in any of them that students 150 years ago (who studied less “stuff”) reached by the age of 18. We create this sense of egalitarianism of content and wonder why only a few rise above the basic level, but in fact, they still do. Two hundred years ago, there was no “Torah UMadda” – science was studied when it helped unlock Torah, or by the few who pursued careers which allowed them to choose a secular field and immerse in it – a choice and chance reserved for the most naturally intelligent.

The miracle is that, despite our educational system, not because of it, we have some students who can still connect and can reach those heights. In the same way that 150 years ago, there were Torah scholars who DID know Calculus and Philosophy and Astronomy despite the relative dearth of direct education in those areas, we have students pulling 5’s on the AP Calc tests, getting perfect scores on the English SAT tests and still being able to write, in Hebrew, chidushim developed from the relatively short time spent in the Torah instructional setting. In fact, I would suggest that because of the ubiquity of publishing options, and the pervasiveness of general literacy, more chidushim are being generated (in English and in Hebrew) now than were being written in the Old Country and that back then, students in the yeshivas weren’t also writing papers published in journals of Psychology and medicine on any frequent basis. 

The complainants will reiterate, though, that our concern is “basic literacy” in Hebrew, not advanced skills, and we should be concerned because of the volume of English translations that our students don’t know basic enough Hebrew to be able to engage a text on its own. I’m sure that Rashi recognized that people didn’t have the basic literacy of Aramaic to be able to read the gemara without help (including the occasional French translation to complement explanations in simpler Hebrew), and maybe Onkelos saw that the commoner couldn’t understand the Hebrew of the Chumash. The Rambam saw that the perplexed people were ones who spoke Arabic. To worry about a student who admits that he is functionally illiterate in Hebrew in 11th grade is to assume that everyone who has gone through that many years has the interest and capacity to learn more than the most basic Hebrew. I went through many years of math education, but my acquisition stopped at some point in grade 9 and the skills I retain place me at about 8th grade math. I tried pleading my ignorance to my 11th grade math teacher but he was uninterested and, I’m sure, didn’t go to any peer group to try to find alternate methods of instruction to deal with me. My science knowledge? I’m good with isolated bits of trivia through grade 11 the same way (or even less so) that I’m sure the illiterate student can read isolated Hebrew words, prayers and phrases at that age. The difference is that people can accept that I didn’t become a scientist and yet people assume that being comfortable in a foreign language is essential to “being” a Jew (gesundheit). Put an Israeli student who has had isolated classes in Yiddish in a yeshiva in a Satmar community and see if after 11 or 12 years of “classes” he can follow a shiur in Yiddish. The Satmar students had their math classes in Yiddish also, and went home and read Yiddish newspapers. Did our 11th grader do anything with his Hebrew after class? Was he taught Chumash in Hebrew or in English, using Hebrew as an explicative tool (in a biblical mode)? 

An important point is not only that we try to teach too much, and not only that we try to teach in small chunks instead of letting students gravitate to a specialty and then immersing them in it, but that more young people are in the schooling system than in past generations. People who, 200 years ago wouldn’t have continued into “higher” education are now going to high school, college and beyond. If our schools are often populated with large groups who, in the past, would not have been there, to presume that we can generate a proportionate number of “top” students when we are effectively adding to the lower groups is a fool’s errand. In a population of 1,000 students, only 100 will be in the top ten percent. In the past, those 100 went through schooling and 10 graduated as the geniuses. Now, all 1,000 are in school and we worry that only 10 end up as geniuses? True, probably some of those other 900 wouldn’t have gone because of access and economy, but some of the “top” 100 were there because they were big-money, so the original assumption that the top 100 exhausted the pool of intelligence is as flawed as the assumption that all 100 were actually intelligent. Not every student is in a top shiur, so do we complain that after all those years of education, only a small percentage can understand a tosfos even in English? To worry that there is an illiteracy and an inability to have “basic text skills” (which can’t truly be quantified) is to say that all students should succeed to that arbitrary level because that level has a certain significance. It doesn’t. Not everyone has a gift for languages and Hebrew is a foreign language. When we excuse students because of language learning issues, we excuse them from French or Spanish, and only in the rarest cases do we eliminate conversational Hebrew because somehow we think that as Jews, it should be “natural” to learn Hebrew. Not every student can acquire math so to say that one has to leave high school with “basic trigonometric skills” because one has decided that no one can survive in the world without them ignores that many people can still pay their bills and find significance in their shopping experiences without trig.

To sum up, our population, our approach, our content, our goals and our expectations are so all over the place that we shouldn’t be punishing ourselves for our failures but recognizing that pulling ANY success out of this morass is more noteworthy and, sometimes it seems, miraculous.

1 comment:

  1. Points well taken. Remember Volozhin at its height had maybe 400 students and all the students in Yeshiva Gedolas in Europe before World War II (age 13 and above) numbered in the 10,000s total. Now you have some 3000. students each in Lakewood, Ponovitch, or YU alone. Most Jews then were functionally illiterate having left Yeshiva after their Bar Mitzvah to learn a trade and possessing the ability to read Hebrew from the siddur or to recite tehillim but with little comprehension of Hebrew let alone the Aramaic of Gemara. Today we have 100,000s of students learning post Bar/Bas Mitzvah with the expectation that most learn at least through the age of 19 or 20 after 12 years of day school and a year or two of study in Israel. If we can inculcate in most a love and appreciation of Torah and observance and a desire to continue learning (even in translation) as a participant in a rabbi's shiur or daf yomi then we have accomplished a great thing. At the same time, as always, some will advance to complete literacy in Tanach and Gemara and the a few will reach greatness as our future gedolim.


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