This week I came across the article regarding lack of standards and testing in Judaic learning. I read it with interest and then shuddered: the testing battle has come to the Jewish education and the educators are believing that more rigorous testing and standards will produce better prepared learners.
There are a few fallacies about learning that the article assumes.
Fallacy #1. Learning is linear.
This works very well for schools that have to keep track of a large number of students. Set up a curriculum, stick with it, slowly, yet steadily progress to more and more difficult material, and the knowledge and skills will follow. However, most students can attest to either being bored out of their minds when they already grasped necessary skill, yet the teacher is still spending time on it, or being lost when the material is not understood and the teacher does not spend enough time reinforcing. Most educators know that occasional detours are necessary to help those who are left behind, and enrichment material is needed for those who have mastered the skills.
Outside of the classroom, students tend to learn those areas that interest them. If an area will require a certain set of skills, as long as the fire and motivation is there, those skills can be acquired in an astonishingly short period of time. If this were not true, baalei teshuva would never be able to catch up in reading Hebrew, mastering Rashi, gemara learning. Moreover, many yeshivas and seminaries find that motivated students can master in a year what their peers spend six years learning in day schools.
Fallacy #2. Lack of skills at a college entry level is a reflection of insufficient day school education.
When I was entering Stern College for women from a small brand-new high school, I was assessed as to the level of my Judaic knowledge. Being a conscientious student, I tried my utmost to show the best that I could accomplish so that I would be placed in the higher level, more intellectually-stimulating classes. I overhead another woman, also coming from a small high school, planning on hiding her knowledge of Hebrew, so that she would get placed into lower, easier classes. Perhaps that is not the case for all students, but if one sees no value in furthering one's knowledge, and no use in their skills, then Judaic education has failed to impart a more important message than technical mastery.
Fallacy #3. Judaic studies can be compared to secular studies.
Math is the easiest subject to test objectively, so all the assessment and testing arguments tend to center on math analogy. There are clear advantages to being math-literate, and it is easy enough to test one's knowledge. However, to compare Torah learning to math does the former great disservice. More than one passionate educator has told me how Torah is our heritage; it is given to all Jews, and everyone has to strive to carve out a portion in it. Some will master Biblical Hebrew and learn it in depth with the commentaries. Some will have to read Chumash with translation. Some will find that Jewish history or philosophy is their passion, Some will love the intellectual rigor and back-and-forth of Gemara. Some will be taken with the poetry of HaRav Kook, or the logic of Rambam. To say that one is not meeting benchmarks in Torah learning is to cut one off from his heritage, from his portion of G-d's wisdom. There are many interpretations of Torah, cannot we allow one to tap into communing with the Divine on a track beyond Gemara? I have been told stories of students who failed davening because their lips were not moving fast enough. I have heard of students who are great at memorizing the material, spitting it back on the test, and then not being able to recall or apply any of their knowledge. By placing Judaics in the same category as secular studies, one lowers it to a subject to be conquered and put behind.
Fallacy #4. All day schools will benefit from the same benchmarks.
Where I live, there are three day schools: one is yeshivish, one is Modern Orthodox, and one is Chabad. Each one of them bills itself as a community school, so they are not rigid in their definitions. However, a yeshivish school would probably be interested in assessing Aramaic vocabulary and Gemara skills, a MO school would focus on mastery of modern Hebrew and Israel's history, and a Chabad school would lean towards knowledge of Chassidut. What will happen to the students when one system of assesment will be applied to all? Will they all bristle at the centralized planning instead of imparting their unique flavor to Judaism?
Fallacy #5. By high school graduation, the students must possess all the skills and the knowledge that they will need for the rest of their lives.
In America, we are obsessed with graduation. We make a big party, followed by infamous note burning of all the burdensome knowledge. Not only we graduate from high school, but we also graduate from middle school and even kindergarten. We love to celebrate the end. The Judaisms' view is the direct opposite. The Hebrew word לחנך means to educate. However, the same word also means to inaugurate. An inauguration is a process through which an object is designated for a specific use from this point on. An inauguration has a beginning, but no end. When we are truly educating students in Judaics, the message is that one can always grow in Torah learning, even if he does not have a specific set of skills yet. A high school student, while appearing very mature and set, is still quite early on in his quest of knowledge. The attitude towards learning that one carries out of his Jewish day school education is more important than the skills. If one believes that there is a whole wide world of learning waiting for him, one will not let a lack of skills in an area get in the way. However, if one is constantly assessed and held to the external standards, one might easily fall into the trap believing that once those standards are reached, there is no need to further learning.
Instead of promoting external standards, I humbly suggest pursuing initiatives which allow each student to explore material at his own pace. We need a Khan academy for Judaism. We need to support initiatives like the Mercava and Sefaria. We need to invest in better apps and better infrastructure. We need to focus on building relationships between educators and students as a bedrock of מסורה transmission. But more than that, we need to teach all the parents and all the teachers that each student is unique and different and needs to be taught according to his needs.