a serious ennui

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  • October 14, 2009

If the 1960s Hebrew school is really a thing of the past, then 1960s text­books need to be a thing of the past, too.

Cross-posted to TAPBB.

My wife and I went to see the Coen broth­ers’ lat­est film this week­end, A Serious Man. For me, it was a dou­ble-whammy must-see. First, I’m a huge fan of their movies. (“We’re talk­ing about unchecked aggres­sion here, Dude.”) Second, the movie pur­ports to be about rab­bis, Jews, and Judaism, and well, I’m a Jewish edu­ca­tor and my wife is a Jewish edu­ca­tor and soon-to-be rabbi. So suf­fice it to say that we were excited.

The film lived up to expec­ta­tions, and then some. It’s a deep and fas­ci­nat­ing look at Jewish life in 1960s mid­dle American sub­ur­bia, com­plete with a Job-esque exam­i­na­tion of a father’s quest to find mean­ing in his life. It’s rich with cul­tural and reli­gious allu­sions, and has a lot to say about the rela­tion­ship between Jews and Jewish lead­er­ship (espe­cially rab­bis).

But I have to admit I paid extra atten­tion to the Hebrew school scenes.

Twice in the movie we visit Danny Gopnick sit­ting bored in his Talmud Torah class. It’s as old-fash­ioned a class­room as you can imag­ine. The teacher is try­ing to show the stu­dents how to prop­erly con­ju­gate the Hebrew word for “to go,” dron­ing on “Hu holekh habayta, hi holekhet habayta, anahnu holkhim habayta…” The stu­dents are totally unen­gaged, they have no idea what’s going on, and their answers to the teacher’s ques­tions sug­gest that they don’t under­stand any­thing he’s been try­ing to teach them. They each sit star­ing at their books, totally con­fused at the mean­ing­less for­eign lan­guage printed in front of them.

(As for me, I sat there dur­ing that scene pray­ing. “Please don’t let it be a Torah Aura book…” Thankfully, the prop folks went with books from a dif­fer­ent pub­lisher. Whew.)

In a sec­ond school scene, the teacher tries to teach the stu­dents to say, in Hebrew, that they want to plant a tree in Israel. Not only are they all bored, but it’s clear that they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t care, and there’s vir­tu­ally noth­ing mean­ing­ful, worth­while, or redeemable about the entire enter­prise. The non-Hebrew-speak­ing audi­ence has no idea what’s going on either, which seems to be a very inten­tional choice by the film­mak­ers. As Naomi Pfefferman points out in the Jewish Journal:

The Coens chose not to sub­ti­tle the Hebrew les­son scenes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fic­tional classroom’s dron­ing sense of ennui.

Pfefferman is a gifted writer, and her choice of the word “ennui” is per­fect.

Ennui is “a feel­ing of list­less­ness and dis­sat­is­fac­tion aris­ing from a lack of occu­pa­tion or excite­ment” (thanks, New Oxford American Dictionary).

Jewish edu­ca­tion has come a long way since 1967, when the film takes place, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with and in many schools whose stu­dents, I can con­fi­dently say, never feel a “dron­ing sense of ennui.”

Schools are doing some amaz­ing things to make Jewish learn­ing excit­ing, engag­ing, and mean­ing­ful: expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing, fam­ily edu­ca­tion, flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing, and rethought cur­ric­ula. The entire idea of a sup­ple­men­tary (ahem, “com­ple­men­tary”) edu­ca­tion has under­gone a com­plete re-imag­i­na­tion (for the bet­ter!) in the past decade.

So if few of today’s class­rooms look like the one in A Serious Man, why are too many text­books designed for edu­ca­tional set­tings where chil­dren sit sto­ically at their desks as teach­ers attempt to mind­lessly drill facts and Hebrew read­ing skills into their heads? (And lets be clear: Computer games that mind­lessly drill facts and skills are just as bad. Being com­put­er­ized does­n’t remove the ennui.) We’re not sure why these sort of text­books still exist, but we know that we want to be part of the solu­tion.

Here are four sug­ges­tions for improv­ing the qual­ity of Jewish edu­ca­tional pub­lish­ing:

1. Jewish edu­ca­tional mate­ri­als need to be designed to serve the needs of the expe­ri­en­tial class­room. Good text­books aren’t col­lec­tions of facts and drill pages. They are tools that serve as the foun­da­tion for excit­ing learn­ing. The text­book pro­vides some core con­tent and “sets the stage” for imag­i­na­tive and engag­ing out­side-of-the-book learn­ing activ­i­ties. Good text­books also need to pro­vide a myr­iad of oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sion, debate, explo­ration, rit­ual- and bib­lio-drama, and artis­tic expres­sion.

In other words, a good text­book is a series of dis­cus­sions that have impact, that allow for self-clar­i­fi­ca­tion and self-actu­al­iza­tion, that build con­nec­tion, friend­ship, and com­mu­nity. The needs of Jewish learn­ing are very dif­fer­ent that those of sec­u­lar learn­ing. We don’t care about the abil­ity to review a chap­ter and pre­pare for a test, but we do we care about moments of intro­spec­tion and being the next step in a student’s becom­ing an empow­ered and involved Jewish adult.

2. Jewish schools need to strate­gi­cally and thought­fully inte­grate tech­no­log­i­cal tools into their class­rooms, and pub­lish­ers need to cre­ate mate­ri­als that are con­gru­ent with these efforts. For the past sev­eral years, Jewish edu­ca­tional pub­lish­ers (our­selves at Torah Aura included) have been try­ing to offer com­put­er­ized tools that are basi­cally dig­i­tized (or com­puter-gamei­fied) ver­sions of text­books. Furthermore, pub­lish­ers have seen edu­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy as the next fron­tier in pub­lish­ing, a new way to make a buck by sell­ing soft­ware that claims to make Jewish learn­ing “excit­ing.” That’s the wrong atti­tude. Instead of try­ing to use soft­ware to answer the same old ques­tions (“How do I get kids to prop­erly decode Hebrew?”), we need to be ask­ing a new set of ques­tions.

How can we uti­lize new tech­nolo­gies like Google Wave, twit­ter, and YouTube to allow for col­lab­o­ra­tive (hevruta for the new gen­er­a­tion!) learn­ing? How can com­put­ers help us to max­i­mize our finan­cial resources? How can the inter­net help us engage (and empower!) par­ents and fam­i­lies in new ways? How can we use tech­nol­ogy to open up the world of Jewish edu­ca­tion to bet­ter inte­grate the arts, sci­ence, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

Lots of smart peo­ple are think­ing about these issues, and we (both pub­lish­ers and our cus­tomers, Jewish schools) need to lis­ten. A bureau exec­u­tive told me recently that Jewish edu­ca­tion is miles behind sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion in these fields. That must change, and we as pub­lish­ers must be lead­ers, not fol­low­ers. We need to help teach­ers and stu­dents think about using tomor­row’s tech­nolo­gies, not pro­vide them with hokey and sim­plis­tic “edu­ca­tional” games or dig­i­tized flash­cards for iPhones.

3. Jewish pub­lish­ers need to re-exam­ine how con­tent is being used (and ought to be used) in re-imag­ined schools. I learned recently about a con­cept called “func­tional fixed­ness,” which is about how humans react to the world (and fail to “think out­side the box”) based on pre­con­ceived notions derived from our pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence. Functional fixed­ness is a cog­ni­tive bias that lim­its a per­son to using an object only in the way it is tra­di­tion­ally used.

As pub­lish­ers, we have a func­tional fixed­ness when it comes to Jewish schools. And, despite our efforts to cre­ate whole new kinds of cur­ric­u­lar mate­ri­als, many peo­ple have a func­tional fixed­ness when it comes to text­books. We need to over­come these fixed­nesses.

In order to cre­ate new types of cur­ric­u­lar mate­ri­als that might be use­ful (or even trans­for­ma­tive) in new types of schools, pub­lish­ers need to do a bet­ter job of rec­og­niz­ing the way in which schools are chang­ing. Then we need to react.

4. The Jewish edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment — of which pub­lish­ers are a part — must do a bet­ter job of chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion. A Serious Man takes cheap shots when it comes to Jewish edu­ca­tion. It’s not that hard to find an American Jew who can talk about how bored they were in Hebrew school. As blog­ger Danielle Berrin writes,

The film is fun­ni­est when mock­ing many of the cul­tural norms expe­ri­ence by American Jews: bore­dom at ser­vices, inef­fec­tual Hebrew schools and a near crip­pling fear of ascend­ing the bimah for a B’nai Mitzvah.

The inef­fec­tu­al­ity of our schools has sur­passed the point of being a prob­lem. It’s a “cul­tural norm.” Jewish edu­ca­tion has changed a lot since the 1960s, but lots of Jews don’t know it. (At least the ones I observed in the the­ater laugh­ing and nod­ding know­ingly at the Hebrew school scenes don’t know it.)

The renais­sance of com­ple­men­tary Jewish edu­ca­tion — the fact that so many syn­a­gogue schools are doing so much more than bor­ing b’nai mitz­vah train­ing — needs a bet­ter PR firm. We need to do a bet­ter job of show­ing the world that today’s Danny Gopnick’s aren’t always bored in ser­vices (because they learned how to mean­ing­fully par­tic­i­pate), their schools aren’t inef­fec­tive (because we worked hard to cre­ate vision-dri­ven schools that accom­plish more than rote learn­ing), and they are cer­tainly not ter­ri­fied of the bimah (because our syn­a­gogues are warm and wel­com­ing places).

As a pre­mière pub­lisher of Jewish edu­ca­tional mate­ri­als, we’re ded­i­cated to reshap­ing the pub­lish­ing indus­try and the field of Jewish edu­ca­tion. As schools con­tinue to improve so they don’t look like the one in the Coen’s movie, Jewish pub­lish­ing needs to change too. Unlike the pro­tag­o­nist in the movie, a sub­ur­ban dad who finds lit­tle mean­ing in his work (or his life in gen­eral), I love my job because I get to work on seri­ous issues like these.