Adapted from the original French article by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal –
Those of you who have read a few of my articles will likely note the importance I attach to decompartmentalization. Without doubting my university education and the education I received from my family, I am convinced that the best learning takes place at the crossroads of perspective. Moreover, I am convinced that truly sensible and transformative learning cannot occur in clear sterile learning spaces.
I hold this to be true for all learning. Imagine the metaphor of tomatoes grown above ground, where they are given artificial assistance that maximizes their size and yield. On the outside, we are simply given a tomato, and we can indeed eat it. Yet, if you go through an in-depth biological analysis, you will see that it lacks many of the nutrients and features that make tomatoes so rich. The tomatoes will also be homogenous in shape and color, each one a carbon copy of the other. If you are looking for a beautiful heirloom tomato, the type you can find at health markets, you will find all kinds of colors and shapes. Of course, these heirloom tomatoes won’t have the predictable taste and yield that the cultivated above ground tomatoes may have, which can also be cultivated all year round.
So, let us come to the nimshal of the mashal (significance of symbol.) A soilless education, seen from the outside, manages to tick all the boxes: we give the children information, and they may even be able to reproduce it. Yet, it takes place outside its natural context, lacking deep roots. Did the children take meaning from what they have learned? Have they taken ownership, understanding how this information may relate to other things they know and their own actions? Will they be able to utilize the information outside its original context and the classroom, expanding the scope of the knowledge they have received, and thus making them more knowledgeable, cultured and autonomous people? Will they even remember it in two weeks after the dreaded written quiz? Isn’t it a bad sign that all children are remembering and repeating the exact same things over and over again in a lesson on the consequences of WWI for Europe? Or on the ramifications of photosynthesis for our planet?
I remember seeing a fantastic documentary a few years ago about a school in California that was titled “Most Likely to Succeed.” The school promotes teaching through interdisciplinary projects, without grading the students or screening new students based on academic excellence, thus ensuring social equity in their recruitment. (If intrigued, I highly recommend watching the movie!) One of the experts interviewed had the following observation regarding interdisciplinary education. In adult life, and even in the lives of children outside the schools, subjects are not cut into homogenous 45-minute sequences. Some matters take 5 minutes to process, while others take an entire lifetime! Sometimes we can devote ourselves entirely to one subject, but at other times we take pauses and come back later after a mental detour. Additionally, the problems we encounter, especially the most interesting ones, never involve a single knowledge (ie. mathematics) or single technique (ie. trigonometry.) It is often necessary to utilize several concepts, tools and modes of reasoning. Unfortunately, a day at school is structured the other way around. The movie also spoke of other absurd differences between school and real life: children are punished if they help each other during an exam, or if they use outside resources. Both of these are considered cheating in school, but are positive behavior in the real world.
These gaps are true in regards to Jewish matters as well. The gap I want to speak of in this article is between topics in Judaism. When I was in school, we had a chumash class, which was separate from our mishna class, which was separate from our halacha class, and so on. Each class took place at different times, scheduled at the beginning of the year, and for each one we had a different colored notebook. Outside the classroom, the Jewish conversation is exactly the opposite of this. Take a fairly iconic element of Jewish knowledge, the page of gemarah: if you do a treasure hunt on this page, you will find biblical references, different layers of rabbinical discussions composed throughout several countries, centuries and languages, different typographies, allegorical passages and legal references. Some of the comments refer to different episodes of Jewish history. How could one reduce this object to only one topic or material? Another object that illustrates my point are the Shabbat candlesticks. To explain them, we must utilize biblical passages, stories and rabbinic laws. We can evoke different parts of Jewish history (such as the practice, preserved to this very day, of the Marranos lighting candles hidden under a box,) we can study the history of art and Jewish geography by comparing the aesthetics of different candlesticks, open children to mysticism through Hasidic tales, teach them how to make a candle and which candles are admissible for this mitzvah and so much more. Once again, if we were to force this object into a single box for Jewish education, what would we choose? What would we lose in doing so?