Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do we hate learning?

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

A brief dyspeptic thought on our educational system, in both schools and synagogues.

A few weeks back I heard a rabbi observe that our Jewish education system actually hates learning. He was talking about a certain weakness in our schools regarding special education, but I took it in a somewhat different direction: Much of our school and synagogue educational system hates the process of learning. We would prefer that our students simply know everything; we would like to avoid the learning, itself.

Contrast the way we learn with the way we eat:

I enjoy eating. I’m a closet foodie; I like ice cream, hamburgers, green vegetables, maple syrup (Good Canadian that I am), pasta, fish, bread, you name it. I like reading recipes. If I could eat constantly and not worry about the time, cost, and health involved, I would. I don’t want to be full. I don’t want to come to the end of an eating process.

A parallel in learning would be to say, “I want to learn. I enjoy sweating a text, analyzing and wondering and questioning and suggesting and rejecting and straining my brain to climb the mountain and then smash the mountain in little pieces. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to finish a course of study.”

But many of our schools don’t encourage that; we teach our frustrated students (adults as well as children) easy tricks of memory or shortcuts to pseudo-comprehension. We get lazy in explaining difficult topics without the difficulties, and we teach our kids to get lazy. We would be happy if we could give our kids a pill or a neural implant that would provide instant knowledge; the only reason we teach them math rather than rely on calculators is our concern that a calculator may not always be available. We don’t really want them to learn. And so this is what we teach them: Knowledge is good, Learning is bad.

To use another analogy, it’s a little like working out at the gym: Some people enjoy a good workout, like to sweat and strain and push their limits. But sometimes we get bored during our workout, and we just want to be done with it and emerge looking good. We don’t want the workout, we just want the results.

We don’t want the learning, we just want the knowledge, and I believe that’s corrupting and destructive. The Torah’s mitzvah is to learn, not to know. The search really is what matters.

I’m not a schools expert; I don’t know enough about educational administration to say, “This is how it oughta be.” But those are my two cents.


  1. Unfortunately, I think you're right. That's probably why I hated school; and even dropped out. When I got to yeshiva, it was a revelation. The engagement with Torah, real effort at learning, at comprehension, the idea that both the knowledge and the process/effort are worthy. (Somewhat reminiscent of Rav Soloveitchik's insight regarding why the Rambam in hilchot Talmud Torah uses nearly redundant language in two halachot.)

    University wasn't much better. Quit that once, too. Despite having two college degrees now, I still hate the way school is done. But I would love to be back in yeshiva. Maybe becoming a teacher for a first career was my revenge... ;-)

    I wonder how many other kids are victims to deep disappointment with the way school works?

  2. Excellent thoughts.

    I often see that kids are only rewarded for the end result, like finishing mishnayos, and not rewarded for the effort involved in learning.

  3. This could be tied into a general distaste for the idea of work or the actual work itself. In general, most people would be more than happy if things would just "miraculously" happen for them without their having to put in any effort. It's why so many ideas are floated for how life could be improved, in general and for Klal in specific, but nothing ever comes to fruition--no one wants to do the work necessary nor do they see it as something worthwhile in and of itself.

    We've become over-focused on the end goal without appreciating how we get to that goal. We've sort of become like little kids on a car trip to somewhere, who are constantly asking "Are we there yet?!" and never really seeing the scenery outside the car windows. Ideally it should be both the journey and the destination that are important.

  4. Neal, that's a good point. For that reason I looked for ways to reward displayed effort or involvement when working out grades. It was tough, because it is not a quantifiable measure, like 'right' or 'wrong' answers. I wanted my HS students to understand that being involved in Torah, effort in Torah is a value in itself. Rav Soloveitchik says we can see that in the way the Rambam formulated some of hilchot Talmud Torah.

  5. R' Mordechai-
    Yes, this is my concern as well.


    Agreed. We have crammed people's schedules so tight with our time-savers that all activities, even fun ones, have become repugnant.

  6. Actually the learning aspect was one of the things I loved about Daf. I remember the first time I heard "Teiku" and asked what the real answer was. You said that there was no real answer and then I started to realize that what we were studying was less about the answer and more about the process.

    Maybe kids are taught to value knowledge over learning, but when we adults engage in Daf Yomi and other study pursuits, it sends a message to the children (or at least I hope it does) that learning never ends -- and can actually be something to look forward to doing...

  7. Rav Asher Weiss-Talmud Torah: Hebrew

    Analysis of the mitzvah to learn – Ladaat (simply to know torah) and Laasot (to do HKB”H’s will).

    Joel Rich

  8. We have to decide what the goal is in Jewish education. If the goal is to impart a love of learning than we have to redesign all the tests we give in Yeshiva to deemphasize content and focus on comprehension. Do Talmud teachers in Yeshiva have time to grade essays?

    This post brings to mind an incident that happened to me in elementary school. Each year in the beginning of the school year the teacher would explain the custom of not blowing the Shofar on Erev Rosh Hashanah by saying that we confuse the Satan by making him think he missed Rosh Hashana, thereby throwing off his concentration. Around the 3rd or 4th grade I asked how is it that Satan hasn't caught on by now. The teacher said that we she said wasn't meant to be taken literally but had to be understood at a deeper level. When I asked her to explain she replied to the effect of, "You are not capable of understanding it." She didn't offer to check into it and get back to me.

    If teachers want to impart a love of learning they had better be prepared to support a love of learning. Otherwise they should just admit that they are just interested in imparting information and collecting a paycheck.

  9. I agree that the schools might be where we see the problem, but the focus on grades might be coming from the parents. I see lots of parents who actually care about grades in elementary school, and I cannot imagine why. Is it just competitiveness?

    A great idea is to ask kids to grade their own performance, based on how hard they worked and how much they engaged with the material. They are usually quite honest. (Of course, if they actually brought those grades home, the parents would scream!)

  10. Fruma-
    I certainly hope it sends that message to the kids. Either that, or "Why didn't Mom and Dad learn that stuff in school?"


    Then I'm guessing you agree with me..?

    Good point; yes, parents are often entirely complicit.

  11. My point is that we have to decide if the primary function of Yeshivot is to impart a love of learning. Do we send out kids to Yeshiva to learn to love to learn, or do we send them so they can get the essentials on how to be Jewish?

    Hypothetically, suppose we start a Yeshiva or similar type of school whose purpose is to instill a love of learning. How would we measure performance? How would we decide if the teachers are doing a good job? It is one thing to give tests on subject matter, but how do we determine if students are increasing their love of learning?

    Laya, I would love to live in the alternative universe you live in where children can be trusted to give accurate assessments about their performance. Many of my classmates in high school had no problem with cheating on tests.

  12. Marc, if teachers are competent and care, they will find time to grade essays. At least every so often. Nearly all my tests were composed mostly of questions requiring short answers. My assignment usually involved writing at least a few paragraphs, and some creative thinking. One of my daughters, when in mid-elementary school or so, commenting on the time I had to put into grading tests. She suggested that I write mostly multiple choice tests. (Wonder where she learned that?) I couldn't and wouldn't do it. I knew darn well that wouldn't encourage students to think and consider and show me what they can really do. I still think that is the case.

    I also tried to give my HS students the heretical message that the grades just aren't that important. And that they didn't have to go only to Ivy League schools. That last wasn't always well received.

  13. R' Scher-

    I suspect that most of the pressure to get into Ivy League schools comes from the parents. I will grant the inevitable self-driven high school student whose goal in life is to be the first frum Valedictorian of Harvard or Yale, but most in my experience most students were mainly interested in YU.

  14. I share your concern regarding love of learning, but aren't you over-simplifying the process? Your theory of learning fits the Brisker model, but some schools of thought (those who encourage halakhah le-ma'aseh) do think the purpose of learning is to know what to do. Without the feeling of accomplishment of having been able to understand something, why would a student be motivated to learn? In some cases, it is davka exposing the students too early on to iyyun (before they have basic skills) that causes the frustration and disillusionment with learning; in other cases, over-intellectualizing a subject can come at the expense of simpler answers to problems that fit the issue better. In the end, each student is different, and will like (or dislike) learning for different reasons.

  15. Sort of like hearing versus listening. But I look at "learning" as the superficial rote and "knowledge" as the higher madrega. Maybe it's because I partially think in Hebrew.

  16. Joseph-
    Indeed, I am oversimplifying. As with many topics on which I write, I wish I had the venue and time for expanded writing, but such is not the case right now.

    Interesting, but why would thinking in Hebrew shape that?