Monday, May 12, 2014

Bechukotai 74 - Materialism and Learning

Governments, schools, parents and the media exclusively focus on one benefit of education: how it is positively related to one's earning power.  Students agree that the chief benefits of a university education are to increase one's earning power and to be able to make more money. (I prefer Judith Shapiro's reason for investing in one's education - .  “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.")

 The Bible – Torah seems to be giving the same advice.Leviticus 26:3 if you will follow my decrees and observe my commandments and perform them ……אם בחוקותי תלכו ואת מצוותי תשמרו ועשיתם אותם,   a list of material blessings follow. Because the phrases seem to be repetitious the Sifra explains – if you will follow my decrees as' toiling and being engaged to intensive Torah study',   אם בחוקותי תלכו- שתהיו עמלים בתורה   then material blessings will come your way. Study hard and you will gain financially.

The research however says that materialism has a negative impact on learning and the efforts to promote learning by impressing on teenagers  and  pre-teens  the financial benefits of education may be in fact counterproductive.

Materialism's negative effects on school performance are that it undermines intrinsic Mastery orientated learning and shifts the learners' attention from competence development to   competence demonstration. Thus materialism is associated with lower intrinsic Mastery goals and higher extrinsic performance goals and higher extrinsic performance avoidance goals. Materialistic students believe that 'having' material possessions are the prime indicator of success and status, and essential to their happiness and well-being. Eric Fromm says that these students have also a materialistic extrinsic orientation to knowledge and learning. They 'have' knowledge so that they can pass an exam, get good grades or a degree …..But the content does not become part of their own individual system of thought, enriching it and widening it…This leads to superficial learning and lower Mastery goals. Materialistic kids tend to give up on the chance of learning by choosing a performance-oriented task and exhibit much less persistence. Materialism is further enhanced by negative social motives -  engaging in social comparisons as their self-esteem and self-worth is dependent upon their  ' achievements ' in comparison to others, behaving or appearing in certain ways or possessing certain material goods. They also tend to also avoid challenging tasks as not to appear unsuccessful or incompetent. The positive effects of high performance goals are often short-lived and together with high performance avoidance goals there is a significant   deterioration in learning outcomes over a 1- year time period. Kids who adopt a performance goals orientation usually see intelligence as a fixed entity – they have a fixed mindset and see failure as something personal.  They then seek to repair their negative feelings and overcome self –doubt   by using material possessions, seeing them as good ways to impress peers and gain status and thus avoid peer rejection.
Kids who adopt an intrinsic Mastery goal orientation have a growth mindset, are self-accepting and view failure as mere information as what needs to be improved or worked on.

The problem with materialism is that it does not buy much in terms of happiness and well-being. According to Self-Determination theory S.D.T, intrinsic goals such as self- acceptance, mastery, community feelings, affiliation etc. satisfy our innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness and hence bring fulfillment, intrinsic reward and pleasure. When these needs are frustrated people tend to seek compensation from extrinsic goals such as materialism. In turn extrinsic goals further frustrate these innate needs as they are guided by external influences, such as rewards or approval from others and therefore are less likely to bring happiness. In addition excessive concentration on external rewards can distract people from intrinsic endeavors and interfere with personal integration and actualization.

So what about our verse from the Torah that seems to imply – study hard and there is the promise of financial reward. The blessings really are not a reward but God providing support and more opportunities for authentic learning. Learning is not 'instrumental' but has intrinsic value. Education – John Dewey said, is not the preparation for life, but life its self – how much more can we say of the study of Torah. Ameilim Ba'torah is intensive study- toiling in Torah, being creative and enjoying the learning. The reward for learning, is the intrinsic reward of the learning itself - s'char mitzvah = mitzvah , the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.

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