The Great (Fake) Debate: How Should We Think About the Outcomes of Jewish Education?

Dr. Jon A. Levisohn and Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress

At the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) Conference in June 2016, we presented a mock debate about the desired outcomes of Jewish education. We used that opportunity to take extreme positions, intentionally overstating our respective sides to highlight the differences. Here we present a truncated version of that debate, employing two fictional characters as our stand-ins to make it clear that neither of us would endorse the strong version of the positions that are presented here. A complete version of the debate will be published in Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education, edited by Jon A. Levisohn and Jeffrey S. Kress (Academic Studies Press, forthcoming).

Abraham: What do we want to accomplish in Jewish education? Here’s my view, Sarah. The most important outcomes are “Whole Child,” or “whole-person,” or what I would prefer to call “Jewish developmental” outcomes. We want students to find relevance and meaning in this tradition as it plays out outside of the classroom. We want them to make Jewish friends and find a sense of belonging in Judaism; to experience Jewish pride; to see how Judaism can inform important decisions, deepen moments of emotion, and provide support during challenging times; to feel a sense of responsibility for others and tikkun olam; to come to see themselves within the flow of Jewish history; and to be prepared for “citizenship” within the current and emerging Jewish community.

Sarah: Well, that all sounds lovely. But I believe that domain-neutral outcomes—the kind of “Jewish developmental outcomes” that you are talking about—are bogus, artificial constructions. We invent them and then we turn around and we believe in them as if they’re really real.

Let me use the example of “Jewish identity.” Psychologists and sociologists invented this idea because they want a quick and dirty way of capturing a whole set of phenomena. Rather than talking about a set of Jewish practices—ritual practices like candle-lighting on Shabbat and fasting on Yom Kippur; communal practices like giving to Jewish Federations; social network robustness like how many Jewish friends you have—the researchers can assemble an index of these various phenomena and call it “Jewish identity.” Some people do better on the index and some do less well. Before you know it, we’re talking about Jewish identity as something that can be measured, that some people have more of than others.

That’s not a bad thing in itself. But there’s no justification for turning the idea of “strengthening Jewish identity” into a goal of Jewish education. There is no “Jewish identity” muscle in the body, which then controls our candle-lighting and Federation-giving. And since there’s no “Jewish identity” muscle, we shouldn’t expect that Jewish education is going to strengthen it.

But it gets worse. When we focus on domain-neutral outcomes, we disrupt the connection between the outcomes and the pedagogic practices that produce them. In the case of Birthright Israel, when we focus on the domain-neutral outcome of more Jewish babies, we disrupt any connection between the outcome and the pedagogy of the Birthright trip—the careful sequencing of sites, the creation of spaces for reflection and group processing, the mifgash with Israeli peers, etc. So education becomes even more of a black box than it already is, and our research on outcomes cannot help to improve the quality of the education.

But let’s think about the alternative. The more that educators are focused on a subject-specific capacity, the better and sharper their planning will be and the more focused and constructive their assessment will be. The educators will actually find out whether the students have learned what they wanted them to learn, and if they haven’t, they will have to adjust their pedagogy accordingly. Moreover, the educators will be able to articulate to the students what it is that they are actually learning, and if they work at it, what they’ll be able to do—and they’ll be able to do that in a way that provides the kids with a sense of actual accomplishment within the domain. The students will feel like they’re making real progress toward clear, articulated goals. All of this is driven by specificity.

Abraham: You make a compelling case, but I still find the domain-specific outcomes you support to be artificial, distracting, and distancing.

To start with, you seem to be proposing a surprisingly sharp differentiation between the various academic disciplines. Surely students of Talmud are also, inevitably, students of Hebrew and Aramaic language, students of Bible and biblical interpretation, students of Jewish history, students of law, students of folklore, and on and on. They’re doing all this at the same time. You can’t avoid crossing domains—and that’s a good thing. We want students to walk away not only with knowledge of these subjects, but also with a big picture of how they are related to each other, that there is a value system woven throughout the tradition.

And let’s not forget that a lot of learning in schools happens outside of formal domain-based settings to begin with. Where in a domain-specific approach do we account for what students take away from Shabbatonim, for example? In what domain do we file the feelings that accompany the celebration of Shabbat with their friends? Domain-specificity preserves the sort of fragmentation that we are seeking to overcome.

You’re worried about instrumentality, about using education for some other purpose. But I’ve got no problem seeing Jewish education as instrumental. Once we talk about desired outcomes, then instrumentality is unavoidable. What we want is for Judaism to become part of who learners are. For some reason I don’t understand, the term “identity” has fallen out of favor to describe this. So substitute whatever term you like, as long as it encompasses Judaism’s intersection with multiple domains of human experience. This is what Maimonides proposed when, in the 12th century, he declared that the purpose of the entire Torah is the improvement of the body and the improvement of the soul. There is no reason to take for granted that deep subject-matter mastery is sufficient, or even necessary, to achieve this. In fact, it can turn off those students who find the material too challenging or irrelevant.

Sarah: I am glad you brought this up. If you ask me why I really care about the issues that we’ve been talking about, it’s not the case that I want a relentlessly cognitivist education that will end up being meaningless to the students—or worse than meaningless. On the contrary, I want to encourage Jewish educational practitioners to structure their curricula so that they will be deeply meaningful to students. And I believe that the way to do that is to do real, serious work on something of value, in a way that makes sense to students and that leads to a sense of real accomplishment and even mastery. The only way to do that is to define a particular domain and focus, focus, focus.

By the way, you still haven’t talked about the impossibility of measuring developmental outcomes.

Abraham: Impossibility? That would be news to generations of psychologists who study the topic. I admit it is harder to measure developmental outcomes, but this only means we need to work harder to develop better assessments. And, just because we can assess domain-specific outcomes more easily doesn’t mean we should.

We won’t find the relevant outcomes in the assessment of domain specific competence even though subject matter knowledge might help achieve them. Jewish education should prepare Jews to participate in contemporary Judaism. While it might be nice for students to be able to interpret Judaism’s roots in primary texts, we have to ask ourselves what it takes to participate in contemporary Judaism. The answer involves negotiating the conflict of commitments that emerge from living with multiple identities, between cultural norms, as well as negotiating Judaism’s tensions between particularism and universalism, and communalism and individualism. One needs a stance on the nature of obligation in an era of choice. And, students should have experience with the joy and meaning of living within community.

These Jewish developmental outcomes are not subject specific, but they’re not exactly subject neutral either. They transcend subject matter divisions and should be addressed and assessed as such.

Sarah: I’m not entirely convinced, Abraham. I still worry about providing students with an educational experience that is challenging and meaningful, that provides them with a sense of accomplishment and mastery within some particular domain. I think that the idea of making progress is key, and it almost doesn’t even matter to me what they make progress in. But as for us, I do think we’ve made some progress. Thanks for participating with me in a mahloket le-shemshamayim, an “argument for the sake of Heaven,” which is the Rabbis’ term for the things that really matter. Which is really what we’ve been talking about all along: what really matters in Jewish education.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is the Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Dr. Jon A. Levisohn holds the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University, where he directs the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. He is co-editor with Jeffrey S. Kress of Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (forthcoming) and the co-editor with Ari Y. Kelman of Beyond Jewish Identity (forthcoming).

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