Monday, January 29, 2007

File under really bad ideas...

For Purim, should we dress the baby up as:
  • Balaam's ass
  • Haman's ear
  • A pig in a blanket

Friday, January 26, 2007

WAY too close to home...

In a comment from anonymous to Renegade Rebbetzin:

"One pattern I see in both men and women who have gone through divorces is that one or both were surpressing their character for one reason or another. In many cases they used the Internet as an outlet, but in their real lives they were not acting like themselves. The problem is that their spouses and families in fact needed them to be themselves, married them because of their characters, and could have gotten through all the stress and issues if they had been themselves and used their strength and skills in their real lives instead of relegating them to virtual worlds. "

OK. Enough with the hints. Therapy appt on Monday.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Middle Class Myth

Last week, MoChassid posted a bit about Charles Murray's education critique in the context of yeshiva youth. He included a link to Murray's second article in the series, on the over-subscription to college.

The money quote (from Murray):

"a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing. It is a screening device for employers. The college you got into says a lot about your ability, and that you stuck it out for four years says something about your perseverance. But the degree itself does not qualify the graduate for anything. There are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers. "

My father's father barely completed 6th grade, and after fighting in WWII worked at a job where his health was so broken he was disabled by his early 40's. My father's mother, with some high school, was able to hold down a desk-job that supported their family into her 60's. On the other side, my mother's parents had high school diplomas and both had desk-jobs that kept them supported, if not well-off, all their lives.

My parents have Master's degrees. I (ran away screaming from a PhD program when I) was ABD.

The whole thing got me thinking about how distorted our view of society is, including this myth of the fabled Middle Class. Anyone who knows social history knows the reason for spiraling college-level education is the need to maintain a distinction between classes in the face of the overwhelming American myths of meritocracy and progress. How do we keep our underclass, our lower classes, our middle classes, when everyone has a chance to succeed? Why, we simply keep raising the bar of minimum requirement.

Once, college may have meant critical thought, reasoning, erudition. Today it is the default position for those who have no understanding of the historical basis of the "Middle Class" (originally "middle classes," plural) - those beourgeoisie who took over practical decision-making (and nation-making) from the "decadent" elites of their own societies during colonialism in part through the hegemony of their value system. (Who are the best people with the best values? Why, us, of course!) By creating and living new hegemony valuing delayed-gratification, moderation, order, rationality, and of course, tea-and-crumpets, they were able to make themselves feel better about not being Nobles, look down their noses at the lower classes, and create some extraordinary economic and political successes that solidified their place as a new power in English society. The corruption of these values into contemporary American Middle Class-ness says, "I have the right values, so my work is valuable, my children are special and gifted, I represent America, and I am therefore entitled to any material or social gain I want."

Plenty of j-bloggers have picked up on the parallels with the current yeshiva system (No Yid Left Behind). Of course the driving force there is not economic distinction, but another kind of hegemony: "I have the right (Jewish) values, so my study is valuable, my children are special and gifted (and if they're not we won't talk about it), and I am therefore justified in any wacky thing I might think or say."

Unfortunately, Murray's analysis of what this over-education means for Americans is also applicable to today's Jewry:

"They are taking away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion that they know something they do not. (A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.) Traditionally and properly understood, a four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people."

Or, as Mississippi Fred McDowell puts it,

"When you tantalize the masses with some of the things studied in Harvard, they become semi-learned... But this is what many people are today and they're not going to not have opinions. The boxing fan may be wrong, but 1) some boxing fans are knowledgable enough that they do have a right to an opinion and 2) they're going to have an opinion regardless of whether they're right. More arcane fields, say, the study of Punic paleography, don't come with hangers on with stupid opinions.

" have got to expect that people who learn a little will have opinions. It is not arrogant or shameful--it is human nature, and the laymen would have opinions about medicine too if every layman was encouraged to dabble in advanced medical journals, indeed, to have a seder in medicine at least once a day, which is just what we are doing in the sphere of Torah, knowing full well as we do that not all laymen will ever develop into talmidei chachamim."

The problem for me is that I WANT people to get a college education, because college is usually the first place they are exposed to ideas and people that challenge their long-held assumptions about the way the world is. I want it to live up to the expectation that every single student will have life-changing revelation about critical thinking, not so much that they will take away facts, understood or not. But I'm afraid I am deluded.

On the other hand, I WANT every Jew to get a good Jewish education, to the best of his or her abilities and inclination, EVEN THOUGH (in the wrong hands) it may reinforce a world-view that discourages critical thinking (aside from "but Rashi said/but the Rambam said" fisticuffs).

So, how can both goals produce something other than a mishmashed, misunderstood, mire of misbegotten self-righteous certainty? Good teachers, maybe. Teachers who remember, as we learn on Pesach, that each student is different and requires a different approach.

Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Israel's Lesson

In B'reishit, Chapter 49, Ya'akov, now called Isra-El, reveals some of the insight he has gained from his own struggles.

Remember that this is the man who was maneuvered into stealing another's place and blessing, stealing from his own brother. Who saw his children fighting with each other, even selling one of their own into slavery, because of their father's favoritism.

At the end of his life, this is the truth Israel spoke:

Each of you is different. Each of you is unique. Each of you has strengths, and weaknesses, and I will not treat you as if you should all fill the same place. Each of you has a place in the world and in relation to each other.

First he blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, elevating the younger ahead of the older - is this the repetition of the old, dysfunctional favoritism that has plagued the last several generations? (Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Yaakov, Yoseph and his brothers...) But no, this is simply how he reveals to all his chilsdren that the pattern has changed: because the older grandson does not complain, is not jealous, and is seemingly happy for his brother.

Then he blesses his sons, each according to his blessing. Most commenters find a similar message in this passage:

"Achdus" (Unity). The Ari HaKodesh comments that when the two "yuds" of Hashem's name are written together, the letters can't be erased. However, if one "yud" is higher than the other, it is not the name of Hashem and can be erased. The reason for this is that the two "yuds" must not be rivals and must consider themselves equal; only then do they symbolize Hashem. Similarly, two Jews can evoke Hashem's spirituality only when they work together harmoniously, and not when one considers himself above the other. Egotism leads to destruction and rivalry and hatred can only cause the downfall of B'nai Yisroel. It is when Jews are united and accept each other as equals that B'nai Yisroel can thrive and flourish, and bring credit to Hashem and His Torah.
--Lilmode Ul'Lamed (Rabbi Mordechai Katz)

Keys To Survival. Jacob, feeling his death imminent, summoned his sons and said "come together and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father." "Come together" and "listen to Israel your father" are the dual keys to the survivial of the Jewish people. Factionalism is a luxury Jews cannot afford. G-d chose the entire Jewish people, not just certain segments of us. The second part of the verse, "listen to Israel your father," reminds us that the true source of strength throughout our history has been that of the Torah and our faith in G-d.

--Reflections on the Sedra (Rabbi Zalman I. Posner).

both as quoted on:

Even Rashi explains that the blessings mentioned here indicate, not just a single blessing for all his children, but specific individual blessings for each one, according to his strengths or character.

This form of blessing and vision for his descendants, and their community, is entirely new. No longer does only one child carry the blessing and obligation for maintaining the covenant. Israel no longer has to choose between his children, but may bless ALL of them, and recognize the good and bad in each one, as they contribute to the larger whole that will be the tribal family.

So, that's all very nice, but what's the point?

Factionalism. Fear of losing one's place as a leader of Yisrael, or perhaps one's livelihood as a leader in the Jewish community. Jealousy or perceived threats from seeing each other excel, growing great in skills and ability and self-realization as a leader of one's community. I don't know the full story, but I do know that it saddens me greatly when I see this kind of division between the leaders in my community, even more so when they are my valued friends.

I look forward to the day when all those who have gifts to offer the community are welcomed and encouraged by all its leaders, when we begin to recognize that everyone has a useful and divine place in the community, and we are able to bless each other, each according to his blessing.