Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Disorder In Class: A Look At Three Classrooms


Three scenarios of classroom disorder flashed through my mind today. All were very different, yet shared a common denominator.

   The first location is the English class in a yeshiva. Not all English classes in Yeshiva are disorderly. Some yeshiva administrators have high behavioral and academic expectations. In those yeshivas where this is not the case, students quickly pick up the message that they are not to take English seriously. Gerry Albarelli tells the story in his book "Teacha Teacha" of his year teaching in a chassidic yeshiva and paints a vivid picture of the experience.

The second scenario of classroom disorder was one that I experienced personally, that of  a CCD class. CCD stands for "Confraternity Christian Doctrine" and it is a class that is taught once a week for a couple of hours. The class deals with all aspects of Catholic teaching.
When I was in such classes, they were taught by nuns whose clerical garb was melting into the sartorial mainstream like the vestiges of snow in early March. The best way to describe such classes is that they were exercises in crowd control.

In one class, a boy I remember as Kevin suggested that we be allowed to tell jokes.

"As long as they are suitable for a nice Catholic boy." the sister primly replied,

"In that case, forget about it." Kevin answered.

That was one of the quiet moments. Most of the time you could hear the classes outside the building.

The last example I heard of persistently disorderly education was afternoon Hebrew school. I heard about it from my friends who belonged to synagogues. I always felt sorry for them missing three afternoons of play a week. It seemed to me like they were being kept after school for being Jewish. A Jewish day school with afternoons free for play made a lot more sense to me.

I heard occasional stories from kids who were motivated to Hebrew literacy and Jewish commitment through their day school experience. I heard a lot more stories about boredom and acting up. In many cases, a bar mitzvah marked the end of a Jewish education.

One friend of mine told me of his life back in the 1930's he took a brick in his jacket one day to brandish at his Hebrew school teacher who had hit him one too many times. Although that was his last day in Hebrew school, he still grew up, appropriately enough to be a Jewish militant, dishing out the same pugnaciousness to anti semites who thought that Jews were an easy mark.

One common denominator to all of the experiences I have summarised is that each class had been labeled as secondary in importance. In yeshiva, English studies were secondary and in after school religious instruction, both Jewish and Catholic, it was clear that secular studies took priority.

In any recipe, you have a list of ingredients. When you bake bread, flour and water figure most prominently. If you leave out yeast or eggs, if they are called for in the recipe, you will have something that can be referred to as bread that might be barely edible.

A religious Jew who neglects secular studies may well find himself stuck in a lower paying job that soaks up time that could have been spent learning Torah or with his family. Failure to learn secular studies ultimately results in diverting time away from learning Torah.

Conversely, a person who is adept at secular studies but cares nothing for his or her faith and traditions does not pass these traditions on to the next generation. The achievements of such a person are far less likely to strengthen a faith community. At the extreme, they could become a money making machine divorced from a moral foundation.

While working in a bookstore years ago, I helped sort out the library of an old German doctor. His medical textbooks had pictures of burn and frostbite victims and a copyright date in the early 1940's. It was clear that these were the infamous photos of Nazi medical experiments, in which prisoners were burned and frozen. It was a chilling and graphic illustration of what happens when secular knowledge is detached from morality.

There are three dimensions to education.

The first is practical knowledge, reading writing, math and science, that one needs to earn a living and function in the world.

The second is education that enables one to appreciate the world, its beauty and the origins of its civilisations. A person who is properly educated in this regard is never bored. For them, every tree is a lesson, every word on the printed page is an artifact in a museum.

The third and most important dimension of education is moral. Freedom from fear of one's neighbours comes from internalised restraints. A society in which a Seeing Eye is a factor is a society that has far less need of undercover and secret police. Societies in which public order, with its roots in  moral restraint prevails is a society in which wealth can be accumulated without fear and enjoyed. Moral behavior is tied to public order, which is tied to prosperity.

Education does not end in school. Ideally, the classroom is like training wheels on a bicycle, it is a means of support until one can learn on one's own.

Whether one places a higher value on religious or secular studies should be immaterial. Just because something is less important does not mean that it is unimportant. It is far better to think of the various sorts of knowledge as ingredients in a recipe, none of which should be left out and all of which should be added in the proper manner and sequence. Sphere: Related Content

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