Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Illiteracy Epidemic: A Response

Guest Post by Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Ed.D.

I asked R. Shalom Berger, one of the co-authors of Flipping Out?, to write down his thoughts about this provocative article by Dr. Shawn Zelig Aster in the Yeshiva College newspaper The Commentator: link. What follows are his comments and recommendations (cross-posted to his blog here: link).

We all know the inspiring story of Rabbi Akiva who reached the age of 40 as an illiterate ignoramus, yet through dedicated effort succeeded in becoming a Torah scholar of renown and a leader of the Jewish people. A less well-known story about Rabbi Akiva is his personal testimony that before he began to study, he had a negative - indeed, a violent - attitude towards those who did learn Torah. When describing his youthful desire to meet a Torah scholar so that he would have the opportunity to injure him, he specifically said that he would bite him in a manner that would break his bones (see Pesahim 49b).

Thus, the shepherd Akiva had two strikes against him. Not only was he an ignoramus, he also had a profound hatred for the institution of Torah study.

Click here to read moreWhat drove a person of this character to submit to the ignominy of studying the alphabet as an adult, sitting in the same classroom with small children? What made him change his attitude and his ways? According to numerous stories in the Talmud and Midrash it was his devotion to his beloved Rachel, the woman he married.

Jewish schools - in every generation, but especially in an era of openness and choices - have a crucial responsibility concurrent with their job of teaching Jewish literacy and texts. They have to also teach them to value, love and desire to participate in Jewish life (in educational jargon we say that we need to get students to develop in both the cognitive realm and the affective realm).

In his article, Shawn Zelig Aster laments the lack of preparedness that he finds in students entering his class after 12 years of day school education. Of course, many of his students have had another year (or two) of study before they descend on the Yeshiva University campus. What did they do during their year in Israel, which was, in theory, dedicated in its entirety to the study of Jewish texts? My friend and colleague Yoel Finkelman set out to study this very question, and in a research study that he tantalizingly titled "Virtual Volozhin" examined what goes on in those programs. What he found was that many of these institutions put more effort into socializing their students into the value system of the Jewish community than they do actually teaching them to study on their own. (Don't just take my word for it. You can see Finkelman's study early version here - DOC and final version in the book Wisdom from All My Teachers). Perhaps I should mention that in my own study on one-year Israel programs (see here), most of the questions that I asked related to issues of belief and practice - which showed marked "improvement" over the year - rather than accomplishments in text study. One question did ask how students graded themselves with regard to understanding a Hebrew Gemara shiur - 12% rated themselves as "excellent" at the beginning of the year; at the end of the year 16% gave themselves an "excellent" score. I would have hoped for better.

Which of those two goals is more important? Which responsibility is primary? Given a choice, should schools emphasize the mind or the soul? For different schools in different communities, for different teachers working with different students, the answers will vary. It is possible that a school that chooses to define its vision and goals as developing a student's Jewish identity, producing graduates who are committed to Jewish values, to Israel, etc., may be successful in attaining its objectives, even if it does not produce students who can parse a Jewish text. (I may or may not choose to send my child to such a school.)

It would be irresponsible to say that "real" knowledge is the ability to study Jewish texts and that belief and a sense of connection with Judaism is merely window dressing. Current educational theory recognizes that "intelligence" comes in all shapes and sizes, and that the ability to interact with others or to reflect on oneself intelligently (interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences), for example, must be valued together with the traditional modalities of literacy (reading, riting, rithmetic) - see Howard Gardner's work for more information on this - here. Nevertheless, Aster's question is a good one. Given that we expect all of our students to learn basic concepts of literacy, after 12+ years of day school education "Why can't Chani (or Moshe) read?" And more importantly, what should we do about it now?

There are many reasons why day school students don't learn to read, write and understand Hebrew.

  • Americans don't learn foreign languages.
  • Learning a language is difficult and time-consuming. It's a turn off (and, after all, we want to turn these kids on).
  • Since it is hard to learn Hebrew, our community has made many basic Hebrew books available in English translation.
  • Now that there are English translations, learning Hebrew is not all that essential.
  • Since everyone learns from English translations, it is OK that my child's teacher can't read Hebrew in the original.
I am sure you can come up with more. Of course, as Aster argues, any short term advantages of this system will become disadvantages when the more mature student realizes that he or she is functionally illiterate.

In many day schools today there in no culture of speaking Hebrew or of seeing knowledge of Hebrew language as a value. Responsible educators should see that as a challenge - there is a need to change the culture in order to accomplish both the cognitive and long-term affective the goals of Jewish schools. Difficult as it is, changing the culture of education is something that can be done. If KIPP schools can take traditionally low-achieving inner city kids and turn them into successful learners by engaging parents and students and creating a culture of learning (see here), our schools can do this with Hebrew language.

Learning to read Hebrew should begin early and be presented as something challenging, but attainable. Today there are a variety of available systems for teaching Hebrew in the classroom that make use of current pedagogic methods of language acquisition. Effective knowledge of Hebrew (and I am aware of those who claim that modern Ivrit and the language of Tanakh cannot be compared, but that is not our discussion at the moment) is essential for enjoying learning. I recall having the privilege of attending a course in pedagogy given by Nehama Leibowitz. After a few classes, a woman who taught 5th grade in a day school in the mid-West asked Nehama why her students enjoyed their secular studies classes so much more than their limudei kodesh classes. In answer to Nehama's question of when they started learning Humash, the teacher proudly said that they started in kindergarten. Nehama's response was that such children would never love learning Torah, since they never had the opportunity to learn its language. Her recommendation was that they should not start learning Humash until 2nd grade, devoting their time prior to that in learning the relatively small number of shorashim that make up all the words in Sefer Bereshit. Only when they could independently read and understand would they enjoy their learning.

A while back, I received a post on Lookjed, the Jewish educators' discussion list that I moderate as part of my work at the Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University. In it, an 11th grade rebbe in a modern Orthodox school described what he did in his classroom, and turned to the list for reactions to how he dealt with the student who admitted that he was functionally illiterate (to see the discussion, go to here. If such discussions are of interest to you, you can sign up for Lookjed at here). Most of the people who responded excoriated him for his willingness to test the student on themes and ideas, ignoring his deficiencies in simple reading and text recognition. While the author of the post took the criticism well, I felt that it was somewhat unfair, as he would have been hard-pressed to undo years of cultural messages and missed opportunities in the space of a twice weekly 45 minute Humash class.

Shawn Zelig Aster's call for a rededication of resources and attention to teaching Hebrew in elementary and high schools, however, is not being made from a high school classroom, but from Yeshiva University, whose abilities and resources far outstrip anything that a local yeshiva high school might have. Much as today's elementary school students deserve better training and preparation so that they will be able to feel comfortable studying traditional texts and participating in the mesorah, today's adult students deserve no less. Perhaps YU should offer serious Ulpan classes while its freshman are students in Israel, or require that its associated one-year Israel programs to do so. Maybe there should be a language prerequisite for attending Bible classes in YU, as well as remedial courses for those students whose abilities are not sufficient or for students who recognize that they have missed out on some of the basics. In the intensive Talmud programs it might be worthwhile to offer shiurim for students who need to work on their basic skills, even after years of day school study, and to make sure that the number of students in a given shiur remains small enough that individual attention can be paid to every student. These kind of efforts may make a real difference.

After all, it is never too late to learn. With the proper impetus, even someone who without the proper background can become a Torah scholar. Just ask Rabbi Akiva.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More