Once upon a time, people could actually think, so they weren’t interested in asking other people to think for them.
Of course, this was before the invention of public school and the introduction of compulsory education with its standardized tests and encouragement of uniform thinking.
Most of us are not aware that the model for almost all Western schools, which has found its way into our religious schools, is the Prussian Educational System which was developed back in the 18th century. The Prussians were losing wars, and one of the reasons seemed to be that the troops were not following the orders of their superiors the way they should. Something had to be done to train a new, more compliant generation of soldiers.
Original proponents of the Prussian Educational System were proud of their goals which they made no effort to hide:
- Obedient workers for the mines.
- Obedient soldiers for the army.
- Well-subordinated civil servants in government.
- Well-subordinated clerks in industry.
- Citizens who thought alike about major issues.
Thus was born the Prussian model for education which has been wildly successful ever since then in spreading around the Western World. Designed to be extremely competitive with frequent testing and a standardized grading system, only a small percentage of students would manage to be successful. Those elite few at the top scholastically would then be trained as leaders in the military, in business, and in governing the masses.
However, the vast majority of students would be made to feel mediocre or worse, and once their low self-esteem was internalized, they would be taught how not to think for themselves and to take orders and follow rules that were set in place by the elite few who towered above them. Most importantly, the masses could be trained to be ideal consumers who would buy things that they didn’t necessarily need.
Under the Prussian system of regimentation and learning by rote, most students would also be willing consumers of the ideas and outlooks being fed to them.
If you think that literacy improved under the Prussian system, think again. In the US, literacy rates are lower now than they were before the institution of compulsory schooling in the mid nineteenth century, meaning a smaller percentage of the population have basic reading and writing skills than they had over 150 years ago.
The results are in. The Prussian approach has been used for so many generations of school children that people are writing and reading less, buying more, and generally believe what they are told by the powers that be. Most people’s self-esteem is on the floor, and self-awareness has to be taught to adults in special workshops when they realize they are desperate to have some.
Plus, as is common in people whose minds have been cut down to size, there is almost zero tolerance for people who appear to hold different beliefs or are in any way different from ourselves.
Basically, most of us have outsourced our minds and let others called “The Experts” do our thinking for us.
The transmission of Torah values and Torah wisdom was never meant to be taught using such a system, and yet this is the way it is generally taught in our religious schools. This is a tragedy of immense proportions because the Torah contains a blueprint for a sane, ethical, and meaningful life, but not when it gets reduced to a list of points to be memorized for a test or a competition for the number of Rashi’s commentaries that a child can rattle off.
A mind which is vibrant and alive will be filled with myriads of questions when reading and studying the Torah, but when that mind is trained to answer “correctly” and has been programmed from an early age to memorize and spit back, the questioning muscle is atrophied.
Chumash or Navi become just more dry subjects to endure in the morning’s roster of scheduled subjects. By the time a teenaged girl has graduated high school, she’s had enough with this dry learning by rote, and the chances are slim that a love of Torah can be reawakened if it was ever kindled in the first place.
When parents are told that their four year cheder boy who can’t concentrate on learning the aleph beis is “deficient” and will probably not succeed in the educational system, then there is something terribly wrong.
A dreamy four year old hasn’t yet learned how to play the game of answering correctly and may very well not be ready to learn to read, but with such a standardized educational system in place with rigid schedules for when skills are introduced and mastered, this child is doomed to failure.
If school age children don’t love learning Torah, there’s little hope that they will want to open a Tanach and dive in after they’ve left school behind. The question is: How can we teach so that the children love to learn and will continue loving to learn when they grow up? Obviously, it’s not enough to point out the dismal failure of the current educational system.
Perhaps a beginning step is to realize that we have been utilizing an educational model that was developed by the Prussians to make people into good soldiers who don’t think for themselves.
Bad enough that they’re teaching history and science the way the Prussians advised, but it makes absolutely no sense that the Prussians dictated to us, the guardians of Hashem’s Torah, how to teach Torah to our generations.
It’s time to step out of the box in which we’ve all been locked in by this tyrannical system and think of new ways to approach learning—ways which do not depend on brutal competition and fear of failure, memorization and rote learning, and conformity. It’s time to take our minds and the minds of our children out of this self-imposed galus and return us to our natural state of inquisitiveness. It’s time to rethink the whole concept of school and how different it might look when the goal is to ignite a passion for learning and build thinking and feeling human beings.