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Finally, advocates for technology in education argue that the new approaches are essentially more effective than the old ways. It’s not only that they appeal to the child, but that they offer possibilities of teaching and learning that are fundamentally different and richer — more powerful than what we have been doing up to now.
There is no doubt that digital education offers promise and potential for those of us in Jewish education. But let us temper enthusiasm with some reservations about what this all means. What the focus on technology often neglects is an examination of the fundamental purposes of the entire enterprise of Jewish education itself.
Of course, all education has something to do with the acquisition of knowledge and skills. This is certainly true of Jewish education as much as it is of education in the general culture. We want our students to be “Jewishly literate,” to use a phrase that has become popular in recent years. We want them to be familiar with the ideas, practices and values of the Jewish tradition from ancient to modern times. We want them to know the history of our people and the accomplishments of our civilization across time and geography.
But the goal of Jewish education goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge — it is about entering into a culture and cultivating a deep connection to that culture. Or, to put it another way: Jewish education is an initiation into wisdom and love. By “wisdom” I mean that we hope that our students will come to see the Jewish tradition as a source of insight about the way they should conduct their lives. At times that tradition may confirm their own beliefs and values; at other times the tradition will make students uncomfortable, challenging them to think and to live differently.
When I say “love,” I mean that our greatest hope is that students will not only come to respect the tradition but also come to love and value it. The question of how education can foster love is one that has been debated by philosophers since the time of Plato, but my favorite exploration of this question is an essay by professor Joseph Schwab, who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In his essay “Eros and Education,” Schwab argues that the way that students come to care about a subject is by caring about the teacher who values that very subject. It is only the beginning of the journey, but it is the crucial step: If I admire my teacher, I come to care about what my teacher values. My admiration for my Bible teacher starts me on the path of loving the Bible. Hence the core of Jewish education has to be in the relationship between the student and the teacher. No MOOC can create that relationship. Yes, digital methods can become tools for teaching, in the same way that education has always employed “technologies” — whether they be quill pens and blackboards or iPads and smartboards in the classroom. But the real goals of Jewish education will not be achieved without teachers who not only know how to use these tools well, but who also know how to create the possibility for that human relationship in learning that Schwab describes. Ultimately the challenge remains what it always has been: developing teachers with knowledge, skill and human empathy.
Barry W. Holtz is Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.