The Black Box Problem

Jewish Education has a black box problem. Scholars of Jewish education often seem overly concerned with the outcomes of educational experiences, often at the expense of the experiences themselves. “Put kids in,” goes the logic of the black box “and you get Jews out.” Much of the literature about the “impact” or “effectiveness” of day schools or taglit-birthright has little to say about the experience of those educational endeavors by students or participants.

This is not a matter of Jewish social science being too focused on in-marriage or religious behavior, developing an affinity for Israel or any of the other conventional/normative measures of Jewish life. It’s a slightly deeper problem, I think, than shrinking membership rolls of synagogues or diminishing financial contributions to Jewish organizations.

I think it is a problem because such outcome-oriented analyses undermine and instrumentalize education, failing to take seriously the dynamics of education wherever it might take place and however it might look. Focusing so completely on outcomes generally (not necessarily on specific outcomes) at the expense of education undermines both the agency of students and the hard work of teachers, administrators, camp counselors, and others involved directly in Jewish educational experiences.

Of course, there are exceptions (Joe Riemer’s book on congregational education and Shaul Kelner’s on birthright come to mind). But those few stand-outs are narrowly focused, highly detailed accounts of localized phenomenon. They work in a different way than do the large-scale, big-budget studies that praise or critique education almost solely on the basis of its “impact,” instead of appreciating or even asking about educational experiences on their own terms.

Despite the prominence of Jewish education on the agendas of foundations and communal organizations (who do a great deal of good work, I should add), the lack of information on the content and experience of education remains a huge gap in our understanding of how Jewish life in the 21st century works, and it turns precisely those mechanisms in which professionals and families, communities and individuals invest so deeply into simplified black boxes.

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