Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bittersweet Taste of Summer...

This time of year is always so bittersweet.

Working in a day school, who’s calendar still remains built on an agrarian society, means that like many of my colleagues, and certainly the millions of students across the country, we look forward to the summers to unwind a little, catch our breathes, and recharge our proverbial batteries in preparation for the next academic year. We evaluate the year gone by, and we assess where and how we will make our necessary changes to ensure another successful, innovative, and “upgraded” experience for our students when they return to school in the fall.

However, even with the wonderful summers to enjoy the privileges of “two months off”, seeing the students leave for the summer is always a little sad… even if understandable and expected. That being said, this year, as I stood giving my charge to the graduates during their graduation ceremony, I noticed while looking out at those 36 young adult faces, that they too expressed a similar bittersweet sense of happiness and sadness.

Upon asking these graduates about their bittersweet expressions I was (very pleasantly) surprised to hear their appreciation and acknowledgment of their recognition of having been provided a Jewish day school education. These students understood that they were moving on from an environment that had prepared them for a high school experience with a perspective and an outlook on life that their contemporaries had simply not been offered.

In today’s increasingly high stakes educational environment, I meet children all the time who describe their education as being “force-fed knowledge” like it was disappearing or becoming ever extinct. Ironically, as information becomes more easily accessible it seems as though the common American education system is perpetuating an outdated model attempting to deal with unprecedented access to unlimited information using the same old model of education built on limited access to information. This persistent need to focus more on our children’s ability to regurgitate information in order to demonstrate “knowledge” rather than gaining “wisdom” to evaluate and synthesize the knowledge must be addressed beyond the day school’s walls.

I specifically differentiate between “knowledge” and “wisdom” because as a Headmaster of a Jewish day school I have come to understand, and even appreciate and embrace the fact, that knowledge is knowing the information, whereas wisdom is knowing what to do with the information!

Our Jewish heritage and traditions never called our great texts “knowledge literature” rather it has always been recalled as our “wisdom literature”. At the Seder we never identify the child who is knowledgeable or similarly the ones who lack the knowledge, rather we mention the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask. Interestingly, the way our Haggadah describes each of these is in direct reference to their ability to ask questions; never is it described as what knowledge or information these proverbial sons possess or are able to potentially regurgitate back to the adults at the table.

And what about common culture? If one does a quick Google search for the term “wise owl” or “wise old owl” one gets 1,100,000 and 341,000 results in 0.12 and 0.21 seconds respectively. However, try “knowledgeable owl” and “knowledgeable old owl” and you get 666 and 2 in 0.16 and 0.04 seconds respectively! Not that this is scientific by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly demonstrates how the masses use/identify these terms!

One of the most significant things that make Jewish day schools so unique is the ability for a child to graduate the day school experience and see the world through a “Jewish lens”. This ability to see things that others see, but from a perspective that generates questions and continued curiosity and learning is unique to how we today should be quantifying and even qualifying “successful education”. For a child to ask questions and think critically about what they see, and to not always take what they see for granted or even as the only option, is what has helped the Jews survive when other mightier, wealthier, larger, and even nobler sovereignties, dynasties, commonwealths and empires have fallen.

Unfortunately however, common knowledge tells us that the Jewish community is less connected, less involved, less affiliated, and less Jewishly educated than it has ever been historically. Yet, ask most Jewish educators and our collective wisdom will tell you that we just have to question whether what we are offering as a Jewish community is meaningful, useful, beneficial, and worthy of “becoming connected” by the marginally affiliated?

For my students, and in my microcosm of the world, I am proud to say “yes”. Yes, our students are unquestionably connected, and graduating with wisdom beyond their years. But as a Jewish educator, committed to ensuring an active, vibrant, and sustainable Jewish community for future generations, here I am disappointingly less confident!

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