I just got finished teaching a course that I love — “Curating Experience: Learning in Museums.” It has nothing to do, explicitly, with Jewish education, but it is an extended examination of the ways in which people learn in the structured but informal spaces of museums, with an emphasis on art and history museums. There are a number of art and history museums that focus on Jews and Jewish experience, and I bring my experience as a visitor and a museum professional to bear on the course itself.
And the question of how to attract the attention of self-directed, often distracted, highly social humans is, I think, a question with which Jewish educators struggle regularly.
One week we were talking about “transformative” museum visits, and we went around the class sharing our own experiences in an effort to understand if we shared some commonalities. It turns out that we did. A shared quality was the apprehension that something we did not think could be possible was, in fact, possible. It might have been a Rothko or a Pollock. It might have been an historical document or a science experiment. But the impression that each of these transformative experiences shared was a sense that the world was a little bigger and more interesting than we had initially believed it to be. Instead of filling us up with new knowledge (as a common metaphor of learning goes), art and artifacts seemed to empty us out a bit – to create space for new knowledge and new experience to emerge.
I had the good fortune to get to host class in the Anderson Collection at Stanford, which has an amazing collection all the time, but is currently host to a show by the artist Nick Cave. Cave makes outsized “sound suits” which populate the hallway just outside of our classroom. They are gorgeous, complex, sophisticated instantiations of the politics of visibility, race and space in America. They are also breathtakingly crafted. Each week, I’d see these colorful, exquisitely crafted sound suits as I entered class, and each week, I think, my horizon got a little bit bigger.
That is something to which Jewish education could aspire, I think, even without the sound suits.