Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Noah 76 - The Tower of Babel, A lesson for educators

The parasha of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent dispersion brings to mind the totalitarian dictatorships and  communistic states , whose leadership  in the name of some ideology or defense against possible threats 'made a name for themselves' and called for absolute uniformity and obedience to the state. The rights of individuals must be sacrificed for the success of the state and its goals. The leadership under Nimrod managed to persuade and convince people to put their trust in a leadership whose advanced technological skills - made bricks and mortar instead of using stone and clay – would take care of any environmental and any other threats.  All the people shared this common purpose with the state and there was no dissension or opposing opinions or perspectives. Nimrod even used religion to further his goals and introduced the sacrifice to God of predators like lions in order to glorify the ideals of 'power, government and kingship' that would have absolute power and control over the people. God realized that powerful and controlling governments with the help of technology would try to make ' a name for themselves '. This would be at the expense of (1) looking to God for spiritual solutions to man's problems and (2) seeing the state and society as being there to serve the individuals rather than individuals being there to serve the state. In fact the Midrash describes people mourning the destruction and loss of bricks, while the death of builders went unnoticed.

It would seem that a controlling society, one that demands uniformity and everyone sharing the same opinions is not conducive to spiritual growth and the creation of a caring society. In the fact, it seems the opposite is true. In a comment about his years spent at Shor Yoshuv under the dynamic leadership of Reb Shlomo Freifeld, Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn said it was also the fact that the boys were both brilliant and non-conformists that created a dynamic and spiritually empowering and uplifting environment. -  Yet control, compliance and conforming seem to be what drives parents, educators and teachers, today.

In a classroom setting, it is quite understandable that a teacher should have classroom management skills and be able to ' control' a classroom so to create an environment conducive to learning. But in many schools and classrooms the ultimate goal has become order and conformity where rather than treating discipline as 'instrumental to mastering academic content' teachers reverse those ends and means. They maintain discipline by the way they present course content. If the goal is order and conformity one would choose a traditional approach to education – teacher lecturing and doing most of the talking, text books, work sheets, tests and quizzes and extrinsic motivators like grades , honor rolls, competition and praise to get the kids to learn. One certainly would not choose a classroom where kids are encouraged to construct meaning and share their unique opinions, understand ideas from the inside out so the approach would be collaborative, kids also learn in pairs or groups, open-ended, project-based and driven by students' interests and a love for learning. When it comes to discipline and behavior – both positive and negative, teachers who have a need to control, will keep the locus of control with them, using rewards, praise, punishments and consequences to get compliance and in this way promote the most primitive form of moral behavior – helping a kid to ask – what will be done to me or what will I get if I do XYZ.? Instead teachers can give up control and let kids participate in deciding what goes on in the classroom, reflect on values, motives – not simply behaviors - and goals so kids learn to ask – what type of classroom do we want, what type of person do I want to be, what are the consequences of my behavior on others, how can I make a contribution and if I have ' screwed up ' how can I do Teshuva and engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution.
In the classroom and home the evidence is overwhelming in favor  of supporting the autonomy of the child , so  that he feels self-directed and connected to his inner –being ( neshama)  as opposed to a controlling environment where compliance and not  independent and creative thinking is encouraged. As educators we can learn from  the teaching of R' Eliezer who said that he had never said anything that he had not heard from his Rabbi and then we see in the Avot De' Rabi'Natan  where he is reported to have given a sermon and said over novel thoughts and chidushim that no one had ever heard before. R' Chaim Shmulevitz resolves this apparent contradiction by explaining what R' Eliezer meant when he said that he never ever said anything that he had not heard from his Rabbi. This cannot be taken literally because ' being a tape recorder' and only repeating what one has learned is certainly nothing to be proud of. R' Eliezer explained that whatever he said was something that he was sure his Rabbi would say or agree with. So R' Eliezer was being very creative in his learning and at the same time very authentic. There are 70 faces-facets to the Torah and this is intended to encourage us and our kids to construct and find personal meaning in what we learn and do so we become more connected to Hashem and His Torah. The lesson of the Tower of Babel is to warn us of the dangers of being controlling and not encouraging personal and creative thinking for our kids' spiritual growth and development. Instead of  being ' controlling' and trying to motivate kids , we can inspire them and help them connect to their learning, create the conditions to help them motivate themselves and become caring long life learners.

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