Jewish Learning and Stress: A Path to Somewhere

The question is: Does Judaism have any wisdom or principles that should guide us as educators and parents regarding schooling and learning?

by Paul Steinberg

Each culture has its image of heaven. Native Americans call their conception of the afterlife a “Happy Hunting Ground.” Arab traditions often portray paradise as a desert oasis. Vikings aspire for Valhalla, the Hall of the god Odin, a place reserved for heroes slain in battle. Such images of heaven – our World to Come – reflect a people’s spiritual values through what they cherish and emphasize and aspire to here on earth.

So what of Judaism? In Jewish religious literature, the afterlife is portrayed in many ways, but the most compelling for me is as a yehivah shel ma’alah, as an “Academy on High” or a “School on High.”[1]  This is actually what we call it on the holiest night of the year, during Kol Nidre – B’Yeshivah shel Ma’alah, uV’Yeshivah shel Ma’atah. I love the image of heaven as an academy of souls learning with God as our loving teacher.

According to my friend Denise Pope, co-founder of ChallengeSuccess.org, however, the experience of school for many of our kids here on earth, here in America has not been the paradise that our Jewish tradition would have. Our schools have classrooms and teachers and books, and students, but many are missing soul.

Denise, a senior lecturer in the graduate school of education at Stanford and the academic muscle behind the celebrated documentary Race to Nowhere, has done tremendous research revealing a student body that believes that school is not about learning, engagement, or care for subject matter. Instead, students today “do school,” and “are walking zombies… with no time to be creative or really think.” School is about memorizing and regurgitating, it’s getting through the school day and developing strategies to just get the high scores, which is what they believe is the most important factor for success.

Here’s the data[2]:

Homework[3]: the average amount homework for middle school is nearly 3hrs per night. For high school it is nearly 3.5 hrs per night. The kicker though, is that only 20% of them believe that homework is useful, or that it prepares them for exams, or that it’s meaningful and relevant; they basically think it’s a meaningless waste of time. Other studies actually confirm that it actually is a meaningless waste of time, as there is no correlation between academic success and homework for students in grades below middle school, and a limited degree of correlation for students in middle and high school.

Sleep: The National Sleep Foundation as well a few other places that study sleep found that adolescents require over 9¼ hrs of sleep for a proper night’s rest. The actual average amount for a middle school child in America is 8 hrs and for a high school student, it’s 6 hrs per night. Our kids are terribly sleep deprived and more car accidents among teens are caused by sleep deprivation than by drunk driving.[4]

Depression and Drugs: About 1 in 4 kids between 7 and 17 are diagnosed as either depressed or have some sort of anxiety disorder.[5] And 30% of those kids abuse serious drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, buying them from the kids that actually need them and use them without realizing the very serious neurological effects they have on the brain.

Cheating: When kids are exhausted and stressed out they are prone to cheat. Only 5% of 11th & 12th graders say they have never cheated and only 10% of 8th graders say they have never cheated.[6] It’s not that they don’t know it’s wrong, they know it’s wrong, they just think of it as survival.

The bottom line from the studies is that adolescents see themselves as “robo-students,” about 75% of which are disengaged, don’t care about what they learn, and many check out.[7] And despite the stress, hard work, and emphasis on GPA, students somehow are not showing any improvement. Internationally, America’s educational ranking is dropping more and more, as other nations speed ahead, and we are now ranked in the lowest 25% in the world in math and science in the 12th grade.

So, the question is: Does Judaism have any wisdom or principles that should guide us as educators and parents regarding schooling and learning? Of course it does!

  1. Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, “Learning is greater than all of the mitzvot put together,” declares the Talmud. The school, learning, and the teacher are the most respected elements of the culture. “The sanctity of the school is greater than that of a synagogue,” contends Maimonides, the 11th century scholar.[8] A synagogue, the codes of Jewish law state, may be converted into a school, but a school is prohibited from converting into a synagogue, as it would be a sign of devaluation.[9] Let’s bring the respect and honor due to schooling and teaching that it deserves. We must work to create a system and community that makes teaching an esteemed, professionalized, and valuable position.
  2. Learning is about spiritual transformation through a broad curriculum. The ultimate goal of learning in Judaism is to learn oneself. The Kotzker Rebbe once remarked, “What good is understanding a text, if one does not thereby attain a better understanding of oneself?”[10] And we learn ourselves by engaging the various expressions, the different disciplines of mind and heart, modeled by the Jewish giants Maimonides and Isaac Luria each of whom valued all forms of learning from math to music to medicine. We must broaden the curriculum to the breadth of the human experience; we must value the arts – music and fine arts – physical fitness, languages, cross-cultural studies, and social sciences for they too reflect the self.
  3. Learning must lead to good deeds.[11] We are not supposed to be casual tourists of what we study – a good student is one who is committed to live what he or she learns. Learning is the safeguard against hypocrisy. When you learn to do the right thing, you are supposed to do it, for you cannot say you didn’t know. We must promote learning as a means to embodying ethics – learning as a directive to community service and to healing the world.
  4. Learning in Judaism is a value in and of itself. We call it learning for it’s own sake or Torah lishma. Think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, when he sings, “If I were a rich man.” Remember how it culminates, “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack … I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, seven hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all.” We work in order to make time to learn, not the reverse, not learning so that we can work. We must create a culture that values learning for learning’s sake. Reading something in non-fiction, taking a class, engaging in intellectual discourse is something we should all be doing. Learning is a life-long pursuit and adults should be modeling this behavior to kids and, perhaps, if there were more adult learners in our communities, there would be more understanding of what kids need in our schools.

Our tradition has successfully transmitted the value of education and learning from generation to generation for thousands of years because of these four principles. Given the climate in which we face here in America – a climate of stress, anxious ambition, and moral ambiguity – the Jewish tradition has a perspective of schooling that will help us navigate through these challenges and reclaim the magic of the heavenly experience of learning.

Rabbi Paul Steinberg is the Senior Educator at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, CA and is the author of the award-winning series, Celebrating the Jewish Year (JPS, 2009). He also teaches at the Graduate School of Education at American Jewish University and is working on his doctoral dissertation on the Bar Mitzvah at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

[1] B. Talmud, Pesachim 53b; see also many liturgical references, especially prayers for the dead.

[3] Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey, Robinson, and Erika A. Patall (2006). “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research 1987-2003,” in Review of Educational Research, vol. 76 no 1, pgs. 1-62. See also, “Hazardous Homework? The Relationship between homework, goal orientation, and well-being in adolescents,” by M. Galloway and D. Pope (2007) in Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (20)4, 25-31.

[4] National Sleep Foundation. (2006) Press Release 2006: Stick to routines. And Sleep in America Poll (2006).  sleepfoundation.org.

[5] Brent, D. (2005).  “Is the medication bottle for pediatric and adolescent depression half full or half empty?” in Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(6), pgs. 431-433.  See Anxiety Disorders Association of America, adaa.org.

[6] Galloway, Mollie K., Conner, Jerusha O., and Pope, Denise. (2009). Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences. Presentation at Challenge Success May Conference, Stanford, CA.

[7] See Alliance for Excellent Education Fact Sheet(2009) – www.all4ed.org/files/GraduationRates_FactSheet.pdf; see also “High School Graduation Rates Plummet Below 50 Percent in Some U.S. Cities,” Associated Press, April 1, 2008.

[8] Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Torah Study 4:19.

[9] Tur and Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 153.

[10] See AJ Heschel, A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), p. 107.

[11] B. Talmud, Berakhot 17a.

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