By Aharon Hersh Fried
It has been widely noted and accepted that Chinese (and other students of Asian background) outperform American students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curricula. A number of explanations for this phenomenon have been offered, none being very convincing or going beyond tired clichés. But in February of 2013, David Brooks wrote an Op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “The Learning Virtues” which more convincingly addresses the issue.
In this article, Brooks reviewed a thesis promulgated by Chinese-American author Dr. Jin Li to explain these differences (in her book “Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West”). She writes that as a teacher both in China and the United States, she found Chinese students being “aflame” and excited to learn, while she found American students to be “not much interested” in learning; giggling in class and goofing around. She wondered why, and reviewing decades of research concluded that Western and East Asian people hold fundamentally different beliefs about learning that influence how they approach child rearing and education.
As Brooks puts it, the simplest way to summarize Dr. Li’s findings is that Westerners tend to define learning intellectually (and instrumentally), while Asians tend to define learning morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world, while Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self. To the Asian student, the goal is not the specific subject and its utility; the process of learning is its own goal. Becoming a sage is equally a moral and intellectual state. It is not intelligence that counts as much as effort and diligence, and a love of and reverence for learning and for teachers who make this learning possible. Reading this, I wondered whether these or other such differences could also underlie and inform the current controversy surrounding yeshiva education.
Brooks notes the historical roots of this diversity of thought, with the inherent difference in the way the intellectual and moral impulses are fused in the Chinese culture but separated in the West, which is based on Hellenistic culture. In the Hellenistic tradition religion and science were seen as being at odds with one another. He ends with the observation that “cultures that do fuse the academic and the moral, like Confucianism or Jewish Torah study, produce these awesome motivation explosions.”
Reading Brook’s article naturally made me think of the Yeshiva system and the community in which it thrives, and by which it is supported; in practice, emotionally, and spiritually. This system certainly imbues our students with this love and reverence for learning. The moral commitment to study and learning is instilled in children from the earliest years.
The very first celebration for a Jewish boy that he is conscious of is the haircut he gets at age three when he is taken to the Cheder (primary school) and in the company of a group of first graders led by a Rebbe (teacher) reads the Alef-Bet off a honey encased chart, licking the honey off the letters, so as to taste the sweetness of the letters. His mastery of reading, is celebrated with a Siddur party, followed about a year later by a Chumash party (in which he wears a crown) to signify the beginning of Torah study. These celebrations continue through school for students, each time they complete a chapter of Chumash, Mishna, or Gemoro, and often when they complete a book or significant topic in the Secular class. Children are regularly tested and allowed to “show off” their learning each week at the family Shabbos meal and are rewarded for it. Good wishes given to the young, at any age, without fail include the wish that they grow up to be “Upstanding Jews and great scholars.”
Children sing songs like “it’s better to learn the Holy Torah than to get a thousand candies or lollipops”, and are intimately familiar with stories of saintly scholars who would not go to sleep, would study standing up, or with their feet in ice-cold water, ceasing to learn only when they “dropped” from exhaustion. (Dr. Li actually tells similar stories of Chinese scholars who would tie their hair to a ceiling beam to keep them from falling asleep during their studies.) To be a good person is almost synonymous with being a scholar devoted to his learning.
And they enjoy the learning. In the Yeshiva classroom, the greatest achievement a student can experience is to ask a good “kushya” (a question presenting a dilemma, problem, or contradiction in the topic or text being studied) which then busies his teacher and classmates, or offering a possible solution of such a kushya, or to a kushya his teacher has presented. The students experience the joy of growth that comes with the give and take of disequilibrium and its resolution. I once heard my former Dean, Karen Bacon of Yeshiva University describe it as such, — “there is something intoxicating about this learning.”
And this love of learning is meant to make one a student for life. Those who have been taught to read critically and with joy as children, to respectfully challenge and seek to understand basic premises, continue to be curious, inquisitive learners as adults. Visit many Chassidic or Yeshivish synagogues any morning at 4–5 a.m. (or even earlier) and you will find people who spend their days running businesses or practicing professions, immersed in Talmud study-pairs or in larger study groups, prior to morning prayers. And the same can be said for the nights, from about 8:00 to 11- 12 midnight and beyond.
But, those unfamiliar with the Yeshiva curriculum will ask, “Can the mindless chanting of scriptural phrases, or the equally unthinking chanting of prayers while swaying in rhythm be expected to fashion an intelligent understanding of issues, not to speak of building and encouraging critical thinking skills?” It is all too easy to criticize and even to ridicule that with which one is unfamiliar.
The Yeshiva curriculum from the outset involves thinking about ideas, critically analyzing the texts they are based on, and how they relate to life. Large chunks of Talmudic Learning demand understanding of ideas fundamental to mathematics, to logic, and to science. How else would one explain the finding in an academic study (Dembo, Levine, Stiegler 1997) comparing students of Ultra-orthodox Israeli schools with students of Mainstream schools on their comprehension of a Geometric misconception. The study found that despite the ultraorthodox 12- to 14-year-olds’ having received no instruction in geometry, they more often solved the geometric misconception problems than did mainstream peers who had received extensive instruction in the subject. Only mainstream 16- to 18-year-olds who had been exposed to the most advanced mathematical curriculum did somewhat better on the misconception task than did orthodox age peers.
The authors offer two possible explanations for their findings, the second of which is relevant to our discussion. I quote:
“Second, the emphasis of orthodox education on promoting careful text interpretation, consideration of alternative viewpoints, and general reasoning skills may promote advanced reasoning, even in the absence of specific instruction about the content area. The emphasis in orthodox schools on autonomous learning, produced through sociocognitive transaction between peers responsible for their own progress, may also contribute to the impressive performance of these students.”
I believe the Yeshiva curriculum contributes to the development of the most fundamental aspects of life; conscience, morality and ethics, the love of learning, and to strong reasoning abilities. As Andrzej Szczypiorski, the Polish philosopher, wrote in an essay, “I believe that the contemporary world needs a conscience more than a new generation of computers.” Are there some areas of knowledge that should be strengthened in the Yeshiva curriculum? Of course! But these changes need to be done carefully, with awe and respect for the value of what is there, and with the trepidation of possibly deleting or even weakening crucial aspects of it.
Dr. Fried is Associate Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University