From the Bookshelf

From the Bookshelf: John Dewey, Education and Experience

There is a classic fable of the ant and the grasshopper. During the summer months when food is plentiful, the grasshopper simply enjoys the experience, while the ant spends all its time hording up food for the winter. When winter comes and the food supply disappears, the grasshopper suffers severely while the ant lives comfortably.

This story teaches the importance of preparing for the future by saving in the present. However, John Dewey, perhaps the greatest educational philosopher of the 20th century, sees things differently when it comes to how we learn. We often subscribe to a mentality that everything we do is in preparation for the future. Dewey thinks that such a mentality is terribly misguided as an educational ideal. Here is what he writes in his short yet deep book, Education and Experience:

“When preparation is made the controlling end [of an educational program], then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

One classic Jewish example of this mentality is the religious school preparation for bar or bat mitzvah. Kids are told, “Learn how to sound out Hebrew, learn how to chant these prayers, learn how to read from the Torah…because you need to do it for your b’nai mitzvah.” And many kids do learn and therefore have a successful ceremony, but when all of the preparation is done for the sake of a future event, when that future event comes and goes, any incentive to keep learning comes and goes as well.

The real future that we should be preparing students for is a future in which they can have an active prayer life, a future in which Jewish ritual is not done for a single ceremony but has ongoing meaning for its own sake. So if we take Dewey seriously, we recognize that the future we are preparing for is one in which Jewish experience is relevant, meaningful, and doable  – and therefore we should teach students at whatever age to have Jewish experiences that are relevant, meaningful, and doable right now.

As Wendy Grinberg writes in eJewishPhilanthropy: “Why have worship services during religious school? It is not to prepare the child to lead services at the age of bar or bat mitzvah or to participate in services as an adult. We have worship services for second graders because second graders are spiritual beings who need an outlet for their own hopes, thoughts and prayers.”

One who experiences a relevant Jewish experience that meets developmental needs in 2nd grade will probably learn to find relevance in Jewish experiences as an adult.