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by Emily Messinger
Philosophers – Jewish and otherwise – have long shared their individual insights into the philosophy of education. For educators, such insights can teach us about our students, how we relate to them, the challenges we offer them, and the ways we shape them into the best they can be.
From Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue focusing on the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship, we learn about the importance of creating holy and authentic relationships. Buber’s I-Thou relationship represents a sacred, respectful, and meaningful dynamic that occurs among and between two people when they are in true dialogue and feel mutual respect, appreciation, and admiration. Both individuals feel as though that have something to add to and learn from an I-Thou relationship. Buber also believes that God’s presence exists and is, in fact, further brought into our world through the interactions that take place in I-Thou relationships.
Nel Noddings, an American philosopher known for her work in the philosophy of education, teaches us that caring and moral education are as important as – if not more important than – students’ academic studies. Teachers are responsible not only for creating caring relationships in which they are the “carers,” but are also responsible for helping students develop the capacity to care. More than telling students how to care, teachers must model this behavior through their interactions with students and others in the classroom. Only when students feel cared for will they learn to care for themselves and others.
John Dewey, a twentieth-century American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, urged us to make the learning experience personally meaningful and authentic for students. It must be built on prior interactions and knowledge, and be expressed in concert with real life experiences outside one’s learning environment. Dewey also stressed the importance of teaching to the student, acknowledging that there are myriad ways to connect with, educate, and influence our learners.
Finally, we must take into account the teachings of Jewish philosopher and theologian Franz Rosenzweig, who proposed that rather than starting from Torah and leading into life, learning starts “from life, a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah.”
Using the teachings of Buber, Noddings, Dewey, and Rosenzweig as a foundation, it is critical that we see our students’ education as did Socrates: “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” We must create I-Thou relationships that honor their uniqueness and individuality, as well as design lessons that are relevant and meaningful to them and their lives. Even as we hope to teach our students that Judaism is a living, breathing religion with the potential to be a positive, enriching part of their everyday lives, we also must convey how important it is for them to be proud Jews who value, honor, and respect themselves, each other, their community, and the world-at-large. To do so, we must behave not only as committed Jews, but also as caring and loving teachers, friends, and role models.
By extension, our schools and synagogue communities must strive to challenge the intellect of our students while also offering them opportunities to nourish their souls. It is critical that we help students see how Judaism – as a culture, religion, people, and place – can enhance their lives and, we hope, lead to lifelong personal practice and connection with the Jewish community. Unlike secular learning environments, our religious schools can offer students (and their parents) opportunities for spiritual connections – through Mussar, tikkun middot (nurturing character development), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and other avenues. We have the ability – and, indeed, the responsibility – not only to teach Hebrew, holidays, and history, but also to ensure that our students grow into well-adjusted, emotionally developed human beings.
Let us take the teachings of these philosophers to heart so that more than just filling our students’ vessels, we kindle the flame of education in each of them.
Emily Messinger is the director of teen engagement and the co-interim director of congregational learning at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA.