Hearts Over Minds

This post is by Jonah Hassenfeld, a student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

Last Thursday, the AviChai Foundation published “Hearts and Minds,” the largest research study of Israel education to date. Given the popular debates about Israel in the American Jewish community, you might expect day schools to be divided when it comes to Israel education. But the report found that in all schools, from Centrist Orthodox Yeshivot to Community schools, administrators, teachers and parents agree on the most important outcome:

students should love Israel (pages 9-14).

The study is unmatched in its breadth. Researchers examined 95 out of the 286 non-Haredi day schools in the United States, surveyed 350 teachers, and over 4,000 students. In addition, they conducted site visits at more than a dozen schools and even accompanied three schools on trips to Israel.

But as I read, I started to wonder whether love of anything makes sense as a primary educational goal. Although math teachers and Talmud teachers might hope that their students come to love geometry and the legal debates of the sages, would they rank love as the top priority above mastering content and developing sophisticated ways of thinking? Think about it this way: would a Tanakh teacher be satisfied if his or her students graduated loving Tanakh, but without the ability to read it alone or with little knowledge of its content?

It has become commonplace in Israel education to caution against uninformed love. Books like Israel Education Matters and Loving the Real Israel argue that unless students grapple with the complexities of Israel, the emotional connections they build may well rest on unstable foundations. Those works argue that only by facing the complex realities of Israel’s past and present including the social, religious, and economic divisions within Israeli society as well as, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, can students forge a deep, lasting relationship with Israel.

But according to the report, most schools don’t see it this way. The authors explain that Israel’s place in the curriculum functions as a kind of glue that holds school communities together. They recount a board member of one school saying, “Parents complain about Hebrew, English, all sorts of things—but not Israel. It’s taught in a very beautiful way, so no one is offended.” Making sure no one gets offended, however, hardly represents an inspiring curricular or communal vision. The authors conclude, “The more a school teaches about the complexities of contemporary Israel, the more that school undermines a precious consensus point.” In other words, many schools can’t approach the study of Israel in any complex way because they risk “upset[ting] the equilibrium” around what can sometimes be the lone topic of agreement in the community.

This conclusion suggests that schools can only maintain consensus about Israel as long as they neither look too closely nor study it too carefully.

In fact, according to the report, when you get down to practical details, administrators, teachers and parents may not agree as much as it appears. For example, while many parents want schools to teach Israel Advocacy so that their children will be prepared to counter anti-Israel rhetoric on campus, administrators, who work hard to develop students’ critical thinking skills, understand that an advocacy approach “just won’t work for most teenagers.” Some teachers expressed frustration that “attempts to nuance discussion about Israel are not always welcomed warmly.” School heads readily admit that those “who disagree choose not to enroll their children.” The researchers also hear about cases of students “who felt marginalized due to their more critical perspectives about Israel.”

While a handful of teachers may teach a more complex approach to Israel, these efforts are overwhelmed by the explicit and implicit messages that feeling a certain way is the ultimate value and the chief educational aim.

The upshot is that schools can agree on the goals of Israel education as long as they emphasize the affective and avoid the critical and intellectual. This message has been received at all levels of the Jewish world, from the recent decision by the Conference of Presidents to exclude JStreet to the ongoing arguments over Hillel International’s guidelines for student groups. While the report trumpets the seeming agreement across all stakeholders about the central place of Israel in Day Schools, it reinforces the underlying logic: American Jewish communities cannot yet tolerate significant and informed debate around Israel.

When you teach students about anything – including Israel — you run the risk that they may develop their own opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. This, in fact, is the aim behind much of the emphasis on cultivating students as “critical thinkers,” and is a key value in liberal education. But if you establish a particular feeling as an essential educational outcome and insist that everyone must feel the same way, then you run the risk of not educating anyone at all.

  2 comments for “Hearts Over Minds

  1. Ellie Klein
    May 5, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    It is important to differentiate between elementary and secondary education here. What does it mean for a 3rd grader to be a “critical thinker” vs. an 11th grader? What are the cognitive aspects of learning that would play into the kind of expectations we have of our day school students? Finally, many day school students do not continue their Israel education past 8th grade. What should our expectations be of pediatric Israel education vs. adolescent Israel education?

    • July 6, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      For younger grades, it’s foundational facts (and myths) similar to how American History is taught. Key people and events. A scaffolding strategy will make it possible to address more and more complex information as the students get older. A solid historical foundation will help students process the news and learn at a higher level in secondary schools and beyond more than a “love of Israel.”

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