Philosophy of Learning 1

How do we learn?  (or how did the Common Core curriculum, written by some smart people, miss the mark so widely?)

The Jewish world has a particular set of ideas of what is learning that are encapsulated in the morning service a Jew is supposed to recite every day. In our day where the methodologies of learning are changing with technology and global economy, this Jewish approach argues that the act of learning is still the same. Moreover, this particular approach to learning is more comprehensive and (one would hope) more effective than the methods being applied in public school curricula and often in college level curricula. For the non-Hebrew reading person, not knowing Jewish liturgy or Hebrew is not an obstacle for understanding the points this essay but my argument demands I reference the source text in the original:

וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל, לִשְׁמֹֽעַ, לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד, לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה..

“. . .and You have placed in my heart the ability to understand and discern, to hear, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to uphold all the words of learning of Your Torah with love.”

The Hebrew above is a phrase taken from the morning service. The blessing is Ahavah Rabba (“With Great Love” has God given us. . .) from the Shemah and Its Blessings קריאת שמע section. Buried in this ancient text is a philosophy of how we learn that is very different from the mainstream of Western Thought that begins with Socrates and his foundational ideas (e.g. the Socratic Method). Jewish learning enters into the Western Canon at various points in time and a student will recognize the methods. The uniqueness encapsulated in this blessing is the number and depth of the approaches.

Unusual in Jewish history, all of the earliest versions of this blessing all agree on this text. There are no variants (Ismar Elbogen “Jewish Liturgy”). The blessing is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 111b) although not all of its contents. Centuries later among the various written sources that stretch from Babylonia to the north coast of Africa through Spain and Europe continuing on to Russia, all extant prayer books or commentaries use the same wording for this sentence. Recognize that this exact wording remained intact over both thousands of kilometers and a thousand and a half years.

If from our most ancient available sources there is unanimous agreement, then it follows that this philosophy of learning was not only accepted but it was practiced. The opposite of controversial, this philosophy was concrete and confirmed through use. The Talmud has expansive examples of all sorts of methods of learning, including climbing a tree and hiding in the leaves to memorize Bible passages that the students were supposed to have already committed to memory (the art of procrastination). For quick access, the Talmud is unwieldy. The prayer book reduces a great deal of belief and learning that Talmud aggregated into an easily accessible daily repetition. This partial sentence on learning is one of those well done, concise reductions.

According to this blessing, learning and the love of learning is a gift from God. Rabbis are lifelong learners first and foremost; they are scholars. The ideal for them is “Let your house be a meeting place for the Sages, and sit amid the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (Pirke Avot 1.4 though the quote is earlier, 2nd century BCE). In the rabbinic mind, if one receives a gift from God, then one is obligated to make the gift orderly and use it. This line in the blessing is the rabbinic presentation of the elements of learning.

There are eight methods of learning, which I will translate literally in parenthesis and contextually in modern parlance afterward:

  1. לְהָבִין – (to understand) comprehend/analyze concepts or abstraction
  2. לְהַשְׂכִּיל –(to discern) common sense
  3. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening
  4. לִלְמֹד – (to learn) book learning
  5. לְלַמֵּד – (to teach) teaching
  6. לִשְׁמֹר – (to keep, to guard, to observe) to practice or practice with repetition
  7. לַעֲשׂוֹת – (to do, to make) learn by doing, practice wisdom
  8. לְקַיֵּם – (to uphold, establish, preserve) memorization and recollection.

To clarify any misunderstanding, these eight approaches are not types of knowledge. Knowledge (דעה) is an entire philosophy unto itself. These eight methods lead to knowledge.

In the next essay I will explain each of the eight methods as I develop this idea into an article. At first glance does this presentation make sense?

P.S.: I am so impressed that WordPress can publish a foreign alphabet.

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