The Dangers of Comfort

This post is by Matt Williams, a PhD student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

I was struck by a recent story that appeared in Slate about what contemporary education looks like. The article is about three white male students who filed a formal complaint against their professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) which resulted in an official reprimand from the school’s administration. The complaint was that the professor, Shannon Gibney, led a discussion on structural racism (societal level sociological phenomena that appear, at least in part, motivated by racism) in her mass communication class, a conversation that left those three students feeling uncomfortable.

It’s worth noting a few things. One, the students expressed their frustration and discomfort in class and the professor encouraged them to file a complaint. Two, the discussed sociological phenomena were historical in nature (like the Jim Crow South). And, three, Gibney has since filed an appeal.

Now, the racial politics of this story are, by themselves, both important and fascinating. But, the following line struck me for different reasons:

“When colleges and universities become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know. When colleges are in the business of making customers comfortable, we are all poorer for it.”

This attitude, thick as soup in the for-profit Massive Open Online Course culture of Silicon Valley where I live, is worth thinking about in the context of Jewish education as well, where the impulse to “meet people where they are at” has become something like conventional wisdom.

Certainly, envisioning Jewish education in the 21st century that is dictated by the logic of a consumer marketplace might have some benefits (enhanced professionalism, greater efficiency, and more choices for the consumer). But I wonder what the costs are.

Or, to put it another way, what place does discomfort play in this new educational vision? What happened to asking students to extend themselves in order to consider new data and even potentially troubling ideas (playing in Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development,” if you will)? What place do those values have in a world where I could always chose the most convenient credential as well as the most accessible form of Judaism, and in which educational service providers are ready to “meet me where I’m at?”

This is a hard question for Jewish education researchers and Jewish philanthropic organizations since most of the metrics of analyses have been calibrated to affective measures, i.e. how do you feel about your Judaism after consuming this particular service? If the goal is to feel better about your Judaism post facto – how can we account for the discomfort intrinsic to learning?

In the end, I wonder if Jewish education’s push to professionalize and adopt the structures of 21st century learning could possibly truncate the more transcendental aspects of Jewish life and limit Jewish learning to the maintenance of one’s own perspective as opposed to opening space for the possibility of understanding something more, something that might make you a bit uncomfortable, and leave you richer for it.

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