Content and Purpose versus Experience and Engagement in Jewish Education

Content and Purpose versus Experience and Engagement in Jewish Education:
The “Thinking Together: Philosophical Inquiry with Parashat Ha-Shavua” of the Covenant Foundation and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland offers a Both/And Alternative

by Dr. Jeffrey Schein

Being old enough to remember the “Thriller in Manila” fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, I found David Steiner’s August 7th eJewish Philanthropy account of the “match” between Danny Lehmann and David Bryfman (“Waiting for Superman: NewCAJE, Old Battle”) insightful and illuminating. The relative weight of experience and engagement versus purpose and content in Jewish education is a debate l’shem shamayim. In my judgment it is well worth another 15 rounds of debate beyond the initial staging at the NewCAJE conference.

The debate of that evening provided a very useful new frame for my workshop the next day on philosophical inquiry with Bible. I am currently the co-director of ‘Thinking Together: Doing Philosophical Inquiry with Parashat Ha-Shavua’, a project of the Covenant Foundation and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. Nineteen Jewish Educators in Cleveland have now been trained in the approach, and they are soon to be joined by educators in Columbus, Ohio, Florida, and California. I was eager to share information about the successes and challenges of the project as I of course did.

The Lehman-Bryfman exchange, however, reminded me there were larger issues to consider. Having experienced the debate the evening before, I realized that beyond information about the project participants might appreciate the implicit views of “experiential learning” (in general a “hot” topic at the conference) as embodied in our project.

Through the prism of this project, there is a false dichotomy in the positions of Bryfman and Lehmann. There is a third approach to consider. In the philosophical inquiry project we prize both the world of the learner and the voices of tradition. We like to refer to these as the horizontal and vertical dimensions of an inquiry.

The horizontal dimension utilizes sophisticated forays into the everyday life of the learner to explore the way the child makes sense of their world. Consider Abraham’s journey in Lekh Lekha. Along this horizontal plane we recognize that the child’s life is full of experiences with journeys. We ask questions like: What journeys have you taken? Does a journey need to have a place of departure? Can I take a journey while sleeping? Is a journey always exciting? Can it be boring but still worthwhile? Can we take a journey that brings us back to the same place we started?

Through the dialogue with and among the children the “semantic range” of a word or the “conceptual geography “of an idea is better mapped. More sophisticated understandings are gained. A learner who used to think that the idea meant one simple thing begins to see the rich tapestry of nuanced meanings embedded in everyday language and experience. As my co-director of the project Dr. Jen Glaser often observes, the goal is not only to help students think but to help them make “progress in their thinking”.

The vertical dimension of the inquiry enriches the learners understanding of an idea with the wisdom of Jewish tradition. In relationship to Abraham’s journey, for instance, three different understandings of journey are drawn from commentaries about the meaning of the Hebrew of Lekh Lekha. For Rashi for yourself means “for your own benefit”. For other commentators the journey is forward looking to the person Abraham will become. For Rabbi Naftali Citron of the Carlebach shul the journey is inward, to the person Abraham always was but had not yet discovered.

Project Judaic consultant, Dr. Howie Deitcher, observes that these references to tradition are explored in the same spirit of open inquiry as the experiences connecting to the relevant life experiences of the learner. Far from being sof-pasuk or wrapping the dialogue in a bow, the use of commentary generates more dialogue. It also ultimately reconnects with the child’s world even while retaining its independent vitality as a mind- stretching exercise. The philosopher Gadamer, the source of the moderate hermeneutics approach informing this aspect of the project, thinks of the subject/knower and the text as moving along two parallel planes that somehow manage to touch one another as their relative perspectives fuse.

As I explored both the vertical and horizontal dimensions with the learners in the NewCAJE workshop I felt the need to be pedagogically transparent. I shared with them my own educational soul-searching. Is it the experiences that engage the child or the content that informs the experience that should most guide my educational efforts? My uncertainty is clear. I would hardly know how to privilege the vertical over the horizontal dimension of the work or conversely the horizontal over the vertical. As a matter of pedagogic faith I believe these dimensions are highly interactive and intricately interwoven.

Which brings me back in a certain way to the remix of the “thriller in Manila/rumble in the Jungle” that occurred on July 29th at NewCAJE. I was aware at one point in the dialogue that both Lehmann and Bryfman might have claimed John Dewey for warrant for their positions. This of course depends totally on which pages of Dewey’s Experience and Education one might choose to quote. Recognizing that this 1938 volume was written in part to restore balance to the most extreme claims of progressive education to be student-centered, one might turn here to the observation of the Dewey scholar Herb Kliebart. Kliebart noted that pushed to choose between the “logic of the discipline” (content) and the “psychologic of the learner” (relevant experience) the truly Deweyan move was to reject the dichotomy entirely and to instead search for the part of the “larger educational process” to which each belonged. Viewed from this perspective, Jewish content and Jewish experiences are arguably interconnected dimensions of the same educational coin.

As our colleague and Dewey scholar, Daniel Pekarsky likes to remind us all education is experiential. The real question is what kind of educational experience are we providing: good or bad, rich and layered or flat and canned. Given the larger contours of Dewey’s thought, one can add that the very notion of an experiential education is arguably a profound redundancy. Philosophical pragmatism hardly allows at all for an idea or a phenomenon that is not grounded in experience.

What Dewey’s pragmatism does encourage, however, is a rich dialogue between theory and practice. The “experiential learning” wars will continue and hopefully more nuanced and sophisticated educational thinking will emerge from them. Simultaneously, I would suggest we begin collecting all the most creative examples we I’d like to call “dichotomy-breaking” teaching where the worlds of the child’s experience and of Jewish tradition are both honored. Then the “meta” dialogue about the different roles of experience and engagement and Jewish purpose and content will itself be grounded in the world of educational practice and begin to point to the “wholistic” theory of experience we desire.

In closing, I’m struck that David Steiner chose to make a connection between the NewCAJE debate and the movie Waiting for Superman in the title of the August 7th article. One can appreciate the literary allusion and still wonder out loud if it’s truly apt. Much of the pathos of the movie is related to the mazelot, the constellation of vagaries by which a child’s fortune is sealed positively or negatively according to whether they have won a lottery to get into a prestigious charter school. The purposes of summer education conferences like NewCAJE and the Siegal Summer Institute in Cleveland are fueled by a more hopeful framing of educational possibility. The seeds of experimentation and creativity sowed during these conferences can be reaped in the form of better teaching during the year 5774. Hopefully there is enough collective agency and effectiveness within our communities of Jewish educators to believe that it will be a good educational year. At least that is the educational promise I choose to cultivate as Rosh Hashana and the new year approach.

Dr. Jeffrey Schein is Director Adolescent Initiative and Special Projects at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and Project Co-coordinator for Thinking Together: Philosophical Inquiry with Parashat Ha-Shavua.