Monday, August 07, 2006

Education and the Moral Imagination

The question of education and intellectual pursuit has always been near to my heart. For one, I have, since my childhood, always had a voracious appetite for knowledge of any kind. I devoured books by the legion - and not just the typical Hardy Boys fare. I happily admit that I was the kid who sat at the back of the library reading encyclopedias; I simply found them fascinating. Although some branches of learning have interested me to a greater or lesser degree over the years - science and mathematics at one point, political science, social criticism, and conservative thought for the nonce - I have always retained a fascination for knowledge itself. But the questions of education and knowledge have taken on greater meaning now that I am educating my own children in turn.

I’ll be frank: They're ignoramuses. Or at least, secular dummies.

Of course, they know more Torah at the ages of 7-10 then I knew at the age of 18. My eldest son, though not a Bar Mitzva, has learned all of chumash in depth, platoons of mishnayos, many blatt of gemara, halacha and more. But when it comes to any knowledge beyond the pages of a Torah sefer, they know next to nothing.

Now, some might take this as praiseworthy. After all, they have hardly budged beyond the dalet amos of halacha, the resting place in this world of the Divine Presence. And secular knowledge is certainly not intrinsically meaningful. My children are filled with the spirit of Torah rather than time-wasting ephemera. When they speak, the talk in terms of midrashim and the great Torah personalities rather than Stephen King and Bart Simpson. And the truth is, I too place inestimable value on these things. They are being educated in the manner a Torah family should be.

And yet...and yet...to a certain degree, they will always remain closed off from a great part of what makes me the person I am. It is unlikely they will ever understand or appreciate the many political texts that line my bookshelf. It is doubtful we will ever ruminate over the profundities of Burke, the economic insights of Milton Friedman or the sublime genius of James Burnham. Nor will they come to me for help in illuminating the meaning of a passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth or even for help with their Algebra homework.

Of course, the portrait is not really as grim as I paint it here. The local cheder is, thankfully, somewhat open to secular learning. Certainly they care enough to bring in relatively trained teachers for the secular subjects. The classes themselves are not treated - in terms of testing, decorum, etc. - with any less gravity than other subjects. And I do my best to supplement their paltry exposure to secular disciplines.

Another concern lies in the area of livelihood. If my children know nothing beyond the daf of a gemara, how will they support themselves in adulthood? Of course, if any or all of them excel in Torah, I will be happy to see them study in Kollel and possibly take a position in chinuch someday. But it is my firm conviction that if they are not going to shine in the field of Torah, that they will better serve the Jewish people as frum ba'al habatim. Certainly, I wish them to be prepared for the eventuality. I feel strongly that the age of 23, when a man is burdened by a wife and three kids and does not know how he will pay the next month’s food bill, is a rotten time to start contemplating remedial education.

So I do what I can. Most importantly, I keep them open to the idea and love of learning and knowledge in general. Of course, in a different time or circumstance, I would react differently. If my children were attending the typical American Jewish High School, where secular studies are deemed primary and Torah secondary, I might do the reverse - focus my efforts on showing my children the wisdom of Torah alone. At any rate, for now, I'm playing things by ear.

However, in the past year or two, I've had a few additional thoughts on the subject of education in general, and Torah education specifically. I don't know if I would label these thoughts a change of heart, but certainly there's been some movement. I've begun to question the essence of the matter: What lies at the heart of education? What is the purpose and goal of a liberal education?

When I was young, and Torah thoughts were far from my mind, I used to answer this question in strictly utilitarian terms. One has to progress through day school, I assumed, because this will gain one entrance to High School. High School is necessary only because it leads to University. And a University education is necessary because, as common wisdom dictates, "you can't get a decent job" without one. And what about disciplines that seemed irrelevant? For example, what possible use will I ever have for calculus, unless I work in a ballistics lab? I assumed these represented a sort of mental gymnastics - if one can calculate differential equations, then certainly he can keep the records of a business straight. Obvious timewasters such as physical education or "shop" were clearly meant to teach integration or social skills rather than primary disciplines. Again, this was always my assumption.

But then I began to read critiques of the educational principles at work today. I began to understand that the true purpose of what we call a liberal education is not the knowledge of any particular discipline per se, but rather something else entirely. In his The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom writes,

Those of us who can look back to the humble stations of our parents or grandparents, who never saw the inside of an institution of higher learning, can have cause for self-congratulation. But - inevitably but - the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons. All to the contrary, his narrow education, with the prejudices and pride accompanying it, and its literature which comes to be and passes away in a day and uncritically accepts the premises of current wisdom, can cut him off from the liberal learning that simpler folk used to absorb from a variety of traditional sources. It is not evident to me that someone whose regular reading consists of Time, Playboy and Scientific American has any profounder wisdom about the world than the rural schoolboy of yore with his McGuffey’s reader. When a youngster like Lincoln sought to educate himself, the immediately available obvious things for him to learn were the Bible, Shakespeare and Euclid. Was he really worse off than those who try to find their way through the technical smorgasbord of the current school system, with its utter inability to distinguish between important and unimportant in any way other than by the demands of the market?


I recall that the first time I read these words (as a teenager) I was literally taken aback. Could it be that we are not being better educated - and are thus less "wise" in some manner - than in the past? Of course, this was before I knew that there was indeed broad criticism of the educational system. And yet, even now, after so many years, I still find his words ominous. The government continues to pour vast sums of money into education, with little or less than nothing to show in return. And a nation that is failing to educate its children is careening down the road of decline.

A full critique on the what ills modern education is obviously beyond the scope of this post. I recommend anyone interested in the subject turn to Bloom's work, as well Henry Edmonson’s fantastic John Dewey & Decline of American Education, which I feel focuses directly on the root of the issue. I can make further suggestions to anyone with an interest.

But I would like to point out Russell Kirk's view of the ends of education, and the conclusions that I have drawn from his ideas. For twenty-five years, Russell Kirk wrote a column for National Review on educational concerns. He decried the state of the modern university from top to bottom, starting with the Presidents and sparing no one. Regarding the students, he commented that they view a diploma as "a means to material ends: the way to practical success, social advancement and general jollity." The professors, on the other hand, are too busy with the research necessary for advancement to worry about mundane concerns such as educating the students. But the biggest problem of them all was that the universities seem to have forgotten the primary goals of education.

What, according to Kirk, was the true end of a liberal education? The development of strong moral principles and habits - wisdom and virtue. Such an idea sounds shocking to our ears. (After all, isn’t there a "separation between State and religion," and what are morals if not religion?) Nevertheless, until fairly recently, the inculcation of wisdom and virtue was always viewed as the goal of a liberal education.

How is this accomplished? Kirk explained that true wisdom is taught through humane learning which develops what he referred to as the Moral Imagination, "the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment," and "man's power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events."

What he means is this: A person does not read the great novels simply to memorize the plot of the story (as is commonly the focus of testing), but rather to feel the lives and experiences of the characters, and to come to understand them. One looks at the choices the characters made, and sees the consequences of his actions, for good or ill. One touches, in some small part, the bravery of Samwise Gamgee as he trudges up the slope of Mount Doom with Frodo on his back. One shudders at the fall of Macbeth in his ambition. One cheers Guy Montag as he wrenches free of the anti-intellectualism of his age. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that the building of a moral imagination is necessarily or even primarily a conscious effort. Rather, the reading and careful study itself builds a moral and ethical vocabulary. (Also note that not every novel, or for that matter, every writer, is imbued with the moral imagination. Thus Kirk smiled on Bradbury, Tolkien, Dante, Shakespeare, and many others, but frowned on much of H.G.Wells and Twain.)

I find this idea of the moral imagination particularly compelling. When a person is confronted by a moral choice in life, he rarely consults a "table of ethics" in his mind to decide his action. Rather, the correct decision appears in his mind in the form of a feeling, picture or fleeting symbol. And those pictures and feelings are built over the years by a host of influences. I find this to ring true in my own mind. The sides of a moral choice spring to mind not so much as lessons written across a blackboard, or text on a page, but most often in the form of a story or parable, whether from the Torah, Chazal or elsewhere. Certainly I see it in my children. They speak the vocabulary of the moral imagination of Chazal. They’ve heard most of the stories you find in volumes like The Midrash Says, and the lessons of those stories are fantastically alive, real and accessible to them.

This seems to me to be why, when wrestling with the moral dilemma that was the wife of Potifar, the answer came to Yosef in the form of a picture – the face of his father.

And it also seems that this is one of the reasons Chazal themselves chose to clothe their moral teachings, the aggaditah, in the form of "stories" rather than simple statements of fact. Let's face it: which makes a greater impression, a dry statement that "you have to sacrifice for Torah," or the image of Hillel, frozen on a skylight because he just couldn't miss the shiur that day. Of course, this really requires no proof at all. But the Rambam mentions practically the same idea. Explaining the form of aggaditah, he writes,

They did this for very wonderful reasons: The first of them is to sharpen the thoughts and fascinate the hearts of talmidim (Rambam, Introduction to Mishnah).

The stories and pictures they produce live and breath inside us, fascinating us, in a way that the lessons alone never could. And remember that Chazal said of aggaditah,

Those who expound the Torah say: If you desire to understand the One who spoke and brought the word into existence, learn haggadah; through this, you'll recognize Hashem and cling to His ways (Sifri, Devarim 11:22).

Whoever possesses halachos, but does not possess midrah, has never tasted the taste of the fear of sin (Avos D’Rav Nosson 29:7).

Of course, this is not to say that the ideas expressed by Kirk are the sole ends of the Torah or a Torah education. For example, as the Chofetz Chaim stresses in the introduction to the Mishna Berurah, one of the goals of our Torah education is a solid knowledge of practical halacha. There are also mystical reasons for the study of Torah, as mentioned by the Ramchal in Derech Hashem.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the opposite is true: A Torah education does fulfill the primary goals of a secular liberal education, as understood by Kirk and other critics of modern, Deweyite educational methods.

All of the above has got me thinking lately. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the question of whether my children are getting a good, secular education has been a real concern to me. And recently, I've begun to rethink the answer to my original question: Are my kids getting a good education? I’ve already stated that in terms of Torah learning, their education is top notch. But it now seems that by Kirk's definition, my kids are also getting a top-notch secular education, or a least a liberal education in the way it was meant to be taught.

This idea has fantastic practical ramifications. Lately, there has been much ink spilled over the question of whether or not the Chareidi educational systems in Israel should bow to pressure from the Ministry of Education to implement the so-called core-curriculum. Those who cry "yehareg ve’al ya’avor!" do so primarily for two reasons: to keep foreign ideas out of the Torah educational system, and to prevent the cycle of capitulation to coercion, followed by further demands. But to these two, I add a third - simply put, we already have a core-curriculum, one that inculcates moral and ethical wisdom, the true ends of education, otherwise known as the Torah.

Of course, concerns about parnassah are legitimate, and I assume that critics such as Harry Maryles will jump straight to this point. Yet I think that we can achieve great clarity when we realize that some people seem to confound education and parnassah, using them interchangeably, when they really are only vaguely related.

The fact is, the skills one uses on job rarely bear any relationship to most of the information gathered in school. Why, for example, should an accountant be forced to attend college? Certainly, the vast majority of his studies have nothing to do with his profession. Similarly, there is no real need for a lawyer to study Chaucer. The solution, I feel, is not to push some nebulous and fruitless idea of "more education" but rather to focus on job training.

True reform - and this is the key - would consist of breaking the arbitrary and terribly damaging marriage of university education and most professions. Instead, why not allow for a more brief "degree" in the courses specifically geared toward the profession? Why not allow, as an option for those interested, any promising high-school graduate to simply take the LSAT, or some similar means of testing, and enter law-school immediately (I know of one or two cases where this has in fact happened in the States.) A year could even be devoted to studying the skills necessary to pass this test. This has already been done for such studies as computer literacy. (A friend of mine took the Ministry of Education computer course in systems administration, and the class was literally able to accomplish in 9 months what the average Israelis took 2 years to learn. So there’s something to be said strictly for the mental acuity that Torah studies provide.) But much work can and should be done in the future.

Kirk himself advocated divorcing education from training. But he did so not as a means of assisting the students, but rather as a primary means of saving higher education itself. It seems to me that nobody would benefit from this arrangement more than the universities, which could refocus on true liberal learning.

As another example of possible reform, take the example of government jobs in Israel, the pay for many of which are linked to education. This means that a terrible teacher, who happens to possess a Doctorate, will get paid much more for a teaching job, one with a Bachelor’s Degree, who is a gifted teacher. Why not make pay dependent on skill and performance? Beside the obvious benefit to initiative of those already on the job, it would also have the benefit of allowing those who have the skills necessary for a specific job, but lack enough golf electives or classes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer 302 to qualify for a degree.

To me, this is where the solution to the problem of Chareidi parnassah lies. "Education" is not the answer. Training in specific skills, coupled with an openness to the idea that even white-collar jobs do not intrinsically need a college degree, is the answer. Among the other advantages, it also applies to those who are already adults, and obviously cannot recapture their youth to catch up on that Advanced Algebra, a discipline they will never need in life.

And as for my kids, well...yeah, sure, I'd love to discuss the thought of Russell Kirk with them someday. But I'll comfort myself in the knowledge that they are the truly educated ones, the ones possessing both the Torah knowledge and the Moral Imagination to take them to the greatest places in this world and beyond.

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