People who know me or my work in the goyishe world sometimes ask me how my traditional Jewish education — which mostly involves learning to carefully analyze texts — influences what I do in math education. “You’re super-duper pedantic but you read things closely,” they say. “Isn’t that a result of a life studying Talmud?”
The answer I tend to offer is something like: Who knows? I have a lot of friends from yeshiva, but most of them aren’t nearly as annoying as I am. So, really, who’s to say? Besides, I also studied philosophy, and philosophers aren’t exactly the most easy-going people of all-time either. Maybe philosophy is why I’m such a pain in the ass.
Some people have stories about how their upbringing or education has made them who they are today. But memory is a funny thing; it’s hardly a reliable witness. If we’re honest, how sure can we be about what made us who we have become? All this sort of backwards-speculation is just guessing, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
OK, throat cleared, let’s speculate.
I was a good student, but I wasn’t a quote-unquote genius. That’s partly a matter of personality but it also accurately reflects the fact that nobody was ever, like, dude, Michael is breaking the system!
But, yes, ok, I was smart in school and made to feel that way by grades, peers, teachers, etc. I knew there were things I could do that others could not. The things people tell me I’m good at now are things that people were telling me then: that I ask good questions, that I read carefully, that I write clearly (if not quite, you know, beautifully).
Sarah HANNAH Gómez, in her tweets, says there’s a problem with gifted education. She was gifted, told she was smart, but never told to engage with classwork, to push herself, to really do anything at all. She says this is endemic to education and that teachers need to figure out ways to engage their most gifted students.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: in my yeshiva we were taught that we had an obligation to learn, and that obligations were a big deal. “Obligation to learn” means there’s optional Talmud class on Wednesday nights, and also on Sunday afternoons, and also on Thursday nights, and aren’t you going to stick around for it? Aren’t you a serious student?
There were silly parts of this culture, as there are of any culture. Kids trying to out-macho themselves by staying up late, attempting pious acts of learning into the early morning. For some kids it caused a lot of stress, when they were tracked into a middle shiur or out-shined by their classmates. There were stupid competitions about who could learn the most, and there was also a ridiculous award ceremony every year to honor the school’s top students.
(Though, I should add, being a “top student” didn’t mean you were a genius. It mostly meant that you took your studies seriously, logged a lot of hours, and also were a moral exemplar in the eyes of your teachers.)
I can’t imagine a gifted student at my high school somehow getting the message that he didn’t have to learn. That you had an obligation to learn was pretty much the whole point of the school.
You might wonder what our non-Jewish studies classes looked like, whether the same verve was applied to these other classes.
Based on what I saw, nah.
A lot of my other high school classes were a joke. There was not an obligation to e.g. know the Roman emperors or get really good at balancing chemical reactions. I remember reading a lot of textbook chapters during my free period, right before a 30-question multiple choice test.
(Many teachers used the same tests each year, and there was a shady tradition of kids saving the answers and inputting them into TI-83s, which they might get away with using on some test. This worked best for Mr. Rosenbaum’s AP Biology class, since you could often legitimately ask to use a calculator to help with genetic probabilities. Mr. Rosenbaum told us he was mystified why so many of us nailed the multiple choice but put no effort into the essay.)
Looking at my life since yeshiva, though, I think somehow I got bonked with the weird idea that there is an obligation to learn anything, especially if you can. I think I can thank my yeshiva for that idea, and I think that’s the sort of education that Sarah HANNAH Gómez wished she had received.
The yeshiva is an educational institution rooted in scarcity. Your towns and cities needed scholars and rabbis, but how many people could the community support? You need wealth to support equality of opportunity. Post-Holocaust, though, many have found that wealth.
Yeshivas today hold together two ideas side-by-side: the historical belief that some students really are iluys, savants, and are destined for greatness, and the more democratic belief that each student has an obligation to reach their own potential.
My read of the culture is that the drive for equity is subservient to that towards serving giftedness. The reason for equality of opportunity is because everyone has an obligation to explore their own giftedness — the difference between local and global maxima.
(A story that has become popular: Reb Zusha lies on his deathbed, shaking in fear of the conversation he’ll have after he dies. “When I get to Heaven they won’t ask why I wasn’t like Moses; they’ll ask why I wasn’t more like Zusha.” One must imagine himself like Zusha, terrified.)
American schools, as Gómez points out, are largely not like this at all. In fact, they’re sort of the other way around, which makes sense for an institution borne out of plenty, not scarcity. American public schools exist for the least among us. (Initially, out of concern that left unschooled they would rip society to shreds.)
American public schools are the mirror image of yeshivas. The drive to teach gifted students comes out of a drive for equity, the belief that schools should teach everybody.
So, which is a better system? Should giftedness be subservient to equity? Should equity be subservient to giftedness?
The popular answer is that schools can achieve both, that neither concern has to be subservient to the other.
The way that plays out in yeshiva is that there’s a universal obligation to study — and therefore teach — each student to their ability. But no such obligation exists in mainstream culture.
I don’t really know how teachers, in general, think about the needs of the few vs. the needs of the many, the majority of class.
I know, for me personally, I experience this as a tension in my classrooms. I both want to help every student (I really do believe in an obligation to learn) while also making sure that gifted kids get to develop their gifts.
When I say I experience this as a tension, I mean that my efforts in one direction get in the way with my efforts in the other. There is no synthesis, no one way to teach that gives each student what, ideally, they would get.
I think Rochelle Gutierrez describes this well as the “inherent contradictions of teaching mathematics from an equity stance”:
Although teachers must recognize they are teaching more than just mathematics, they also have to reconcile that fact with the idea that, ultimately, they are responsible for helping students learn mathematics. Teachers who are committed to equity cannot concern themselves with their students’ self-esteem and negotiated identities to the exclusion of the mathematics that the students will be held responsible for in later years. Yet preparation for the next level of mathematics must also not be the overriding feature of a teacher’s practice. In answer to which of the two foci are important (teaching students or teaching mathematics), I would answer “neither and both.” It is in embracing the tension…”
That tension I feel as a teacher is the same tension I feel about myself as somebody with gifts. (Trite but true: we all have some.) You have to know that your gifts really are gifts — you really are gifted — also, nobody gives a shit about your gifts. You have an obligation to learn, and everyone has that same obligation. The more time you spend wondering if maybe you really are special, the less likely you are to do anything of value. This is the old growth mindset mantra, and it’s true, but it should only be concerning if you actually do want to do something of value.
So I think there’s maybe no way to solve this cleanly in mainstream US schools. The main thrust of classroom teaching is the need to reach everyone; gifted students are just another everyone. At the same time, there really are gifted students and they really do have different needs. And every inch in one direction takes away an inch in the other. As Labaree puts it, from the perspective of schools and teachers someone has to fail,
The tension is real, but I do think there’s something that would have helped a student like Gómez. Parents, teach your children: there is an obligation to learn.