The Goal of Learning is to Become Better Co-Learners:
A New Paradigm for Jewish Education – Idea #4

Photo courtesy Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies (eJP archives)

By Dr. Bill Robinson

This installment focuses on the point of the jewel called Being in Relationship. As explored in the second article in this series, Martin Buber offers us an ideal vision of Being in Relationship in which we experience the person in all his/her/their entirety, not mediated by our own particular needs or desires. This he calls I-Thou, in contrast to I-it relations where the other is treated as a means to our ends. We spend most of our life in relations of I-it; yet it is I-Thou to which we should aspire.

The full flowering of I-Thou relations is to be found in his exhortation for Community, as compared to Collectivity.

But who in all these massed, mingled, marching collectivities still perceives what that is for which he supposes he is striving – what community is? They have all surrendered to its counterpart. Collectivity is not a binding but a bundling together: individuals packed together, armed and equipped in common, with only as much life from man to man as will inflame the marching step. But community, growing community (which is all we have known so far) is the being no longer side by side but with one another of a multitude of persons. And this multitude, though it also moves toward one goal, yet experiences everywhere a turning to, a dynamic facing of, the other, a flowing from I to Thou.

Community is the desired and destined state of humans. Thus, true education, for Buber, is toward (the character traits one needs for) Community.

In this article, following Buber (as well as many others), our core idea is: All life (and thus all learning) is relational.

All that we take for granted in our lives are the product of relationships, of which we are often not fully aware. For instance, while you’re sitting at your next meal, consider: How did the food in front of you get there? What are all the relationships among people and institutions that made it happen?

Similarly, consider your goals in life. With whom will we need to work with or depend upon to achieve our goals? While we may have been taught the myth of the lone inventor (think Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs), their success actually rested on teams of people working together and was built upon inventions that came before.

In both cases, who we have become and where we are heading in our life is reliant upon those who came before us and those who walk alongside us, as well as (arguably) significant doses of luck and grace. As a side note, our daily tefillah recognizes this and thus can be seen as a helpful practice that focuses our attention and cultivates the requisite openness and gratitude. In the Avot prayer of the Amidah, we recall the worthiness of those who came before us; in the following Gevurah prayer, we recognize that our future success rests upon the grace (loving kindness and compassion) of God.

Relationships are the warp and woof of our social lives. In the early 19th century social psychologist, George Herbert Mead, showed the ways in which we form our identity in relation to others in our life. The contemporary positive psychologist, Martin Seligman, sees having positive relationships as essential to our flourishing in the world. Yet, while we are born into a web of relations, we need to learn how to foster the types of relationship we seek – with friends, co-workers, spouses, parents, community members, etc. Even the newborn learns through a process of mutual adaption of mother and child. We need to learn the ways to communicate successfully, the rituals of friendship and communal-belonging, as well as the virtues that enable us to develop those “positive” relationships that Buber calls I-Thou.

In addition to what we have learned at home during our first few years, we learn many of these virtues when we enter school. We learn them because they are essential to becoming good co-learners. At the core of progressive education, as articulated by John Dewey, is an understanding of the social construction of knowledge and, most importantly, knowledge of the self. Traditional education seeks to efficiently instill into learners, seen (more or less) as empty vessels, “organized bodies of information and prepared forms of skill.” In contrast, progressive education finds its goals in the cultivation of the learner’s capacities for freedom, self-expression, reflection upon experience, and dialogue, all nurtured with others in the context of the educational environment.

As parents of very young children know, we are faced with choice between traditional and progressive education when we choose an early childhood center for our children. Do we want the center to focus on teaching our children cognitive skills, such as spelling and counting? Or do we want them to prioritize the social and emotional skills they will need to be successful co-learners (and friends!)? We all want to say BOTH. But, in educational practice, there needs to be a choice (or at least a prioritization). Not the least because in the former approach, the child is a means to the attainment of educational ends; the relation of teacher and child emulates an I-it relation. Only in the latter, does the teacher truly approach the child as a Thou, seeking to cultivate a whole self that can learn with others. And, we know well that the child learns most from the modeling of the teacher.

So, what are some of the social and emotional skills (the virtues) that we are necessary to Being in (I-Thou) Relationship? These will certainly include “sensitivity, listening, wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, vulnerability, responsibility, and ethical commitment.” As we know all too well today, when these virtues are lacking the relational fabric of the civic society breaks down. We lose our capacity for civil discourse.

Judaism offers us a traditional practice through which we can cultivate these particular virtues that are core to Being in Relationship. It is called havruta text study. Elie Holzer and Orit Kent, writing in The Philosophy of Havruta,

define havruta text study as a learning format in which two partners collaborate in establishing a text’s meanings and engage in an open dialogue with the ideas of both the text and each other.

Havruta partners have the responsibility to ‘make the text speak,’ i.e., to generate together the best possible interpretations though which the text’s ideas may be expressed. It is in this spirit that we listen to the literary critic and novelist C.S. Lewis, who writes “The first demand any work of art makes upon us it to surrender. Look. Listen. Receive,” and “A true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as self-receptive as he can.” (37)

In havruta study, you learn to encounter both the text and your partner as Thou. In groups of learners, as each one becomes a partner to the other, they form into a true learning Community.

They go on to describe two phases in the practice:

The first phase of havruta text study thus consists of resisting the urge to “use” the text for whatever purpose until compelling interpretations can be elicited. It should be emphasized that the reception Lewis refers to is not a synonym for passivity. The term “reception” acknowledges that the text has the right to have its own say first, even if this cannot be achieved without the active involvement of the learner’s foreknowledge…
In the second phase, students engage in personal dialogue with the ideas and claims of the text and with each other, taking them into consideration and responding to them, yielding new understandings. This is achieved through a number of dialogical practices designed to help each learner achieve “self-understanding,” a concept that indicates that the student has come to understand himself in new ways in light of the dialogue…

In this second phase, the students bring their own life into the conversation. They read themselves into the text, and then read the text (its metaphors, tropes, and narrative structures) into their lives. As Buber’s close colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, asserted, contemporary Jewish education must be “a learning, no longer out of the Torah into life, but out of life, out of a world that does not know about the law, back into the Torah.” In actual practice, the phases may be fluid as long as we engage in respectful dialogue that truly listens for the voice of the text and the voice of our study partner(s).

As we can see in this too brief a glimpse …

Havruta text study is … at odds with many of the rather pragmatic goals of contemporary education, which is typically geared to prepare students to succeed in a competitive society oriented toward individual and collective financial success.
In contrast, our model of havruta text study … is characterized by the love and pursuit of wisdom (in the Greek and Jewish senses) and not only by the possession of knowledge. Above all, its educational success is marked by the cultivation of beneficial habits and dispositions of mind and heart.

Holzer and Kent go on to list some of those “habits and dispositions” (virtues) that are cultivated through havruta text study, namely the one’s I quoted from them above: “sensitivity, listening, wholeheartedness, open-mindedness, vulnerability, responsibility, and ethical commitment.”

In their model of havruta, and in Jewish education as a whole, the goal of learning is to become better co-learners! Havruta partners also learn the art of fostering true Community through reflection on their experience of actual Community as created through large-group havruta study.

It is important to note that havruta learning need not be solely or even primarily analytic and conversational. Members of our Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom (and others), bring to havruta study many spiritual and artistic practices. For example, learners may reflect upon artistic images as visual midrashic triggers, and they may be asked to reflect on their text-based experiences through painting or drawing. In addition, moments of guided reflection, meditation, and intentional movement enable the learners to enter into presence of one another and the text with greater openness and intention, and leave with gratitude. Moreover, conversation itself takes many forms. It may include close textual analysis, but it will also engage the learner through personal sharing, story-telling, and creative writing.

Finally, Cultivating the Dispositions (virtues) that ground our capacity for Being in Relationship through the Jewish practice of havruta is not just for teens and adults. Children of any age can participate, as long as we adapt the practices to be developmentally appropriate. Thus, young children can fully participate in “text study” through story-telling and imaginative play. And, the arts offer multiple avenues of expression and communication for co-learners of all ages.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.