Sunday, May 29, 2011

Unschooling and a Culture of Instruction

[Please read this: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands up for Israel at the G8]

This morning, toward the end of Psukei d'Zimra, I was invited to give a dvar torah during Musaf. I agreed reluctantly; I don't like to speak without planning, but I also believe it's important to take advantage of opportunities to discuss Torah.

I talked about the classic description (Shabbos 88b) of HaShem holding Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jews, demanding that they accept the Torah, even though they had already volunteered that they would accept the Torah. I offered my own take: That the Jews needed a Culture of Instruction, in addition to the Culture of Volition instituted by their ancestors with their independent pursuit of Gd. Voluntary acceptance of Torah is wonderful, but it must be complemented by a feeling that the will of Gd is compulsory.

The same idea applies to the gemara's assertion (Kiddushin 31a) that there is more reward for fulfilling a mitzvah one has been commanded to do, than in fulfilling a mitzvah one has accepted voluntarily. Certainly, there are several explanations for this idea, but one may be that the Culture of Instruction is critical to service of Gd.

Someone who serves Gd voluntarily, because the ideology resonates with her or because the mitzvos make sense to her, might well reject some particular philosophical point or practical commandment. Volition is wonderful for its elevated use of Free Will, but it must be supplemented with Instruction.

This connects with the end of Parshat Bamidbar (4:19) as well, in which we are told that each Levi was assigned a particular task in taking care of the Mishkan. Sforno comments there that no Levite could rush ahead and take a job based on wanting to do it; each person was given his role. To me, that's part of the same idea; although certain jobs were, indeed, up for those who volunteered, the Culture of Instruction was part of the Mishkan as well.

This afternoon, someone approached me in shul to tell me about a contrasting idea found in an article in today's National Post: Not a Textbook Education talks about "unschooling", or the idea of having children learn through day-to-day life activities rather than through studying required texts. I know little about the field; from the article, it sounds like children are given a lot of latitude, living an unregimented day, and are exposed to different subjects on some level. They then choose what to pursue, and how to pursue it.

I don't know just how extreme this is in practice, so I can't comment on the system. Is it truly open-ended? If a child says, "I don't want to learn how to multiply," or, "I'm not interested in understanding civics", is he left to use a calculator and ignore the political process? If so, I'd be pretty uncomfortable; I do think the Torah's Culture of Instruction is needed, because ignorance of certain fields will make a person a poor citizen.

On the other hand, any parent could tell you that an extreme Culture of Instruction could be just as bad for a child; stifling creativity, mandating a system in which Volition is worthless, will get us nowhere.

So that's what's on my mind this evening.

1 comment:

  1. This is why our Torah stresses both love and fear of HaShem.