Redeeming Jewish Literacy

Dr. Jon A. Levisohn

Literacy has always referred to the ability to read, to decode and make sense of written texts. More than a technical skill, the ability to read provides a person with a gateway into whole worlds beyond their immediate experience, worlds into which they otherwise have no access. But in 1987, E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy changed how we think about literacy in fundamental ways. His argument was straightforward. In addition to decoding, readers need to understand a text’s cultural references to make sense of that text. Without that background knowledge, technical abilities will not get you very far. “To be culturally literate,” Hirsch declared at the opening of Cultural Literacy, “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.”


Cultural Literacy was published at around the same time as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and for many people, they became linked as two sides of the same curmudgeonly coin. They both criticized the contemporary American educational system, and both seemed to be nostalgic for a time when everyone knew what they needed to know. Hirsch’s motivation, however, was a noble one. He noticed the educational achievement gap based on economic inequality, and wanted to do something about it. If poor kids did not have access to the necessary cultural references in their home environments, then their schools needed to provide that access to help them compete with wealthier kids who did have that access. If their schools as currently constituted were not invested in giving them what they lacked, then the schools needed to change.


From that conviction, it was a short jump to the solution: composing lists of the important terms and concepts, and teaching them through direct instruction. After all, Hirsch wrote, “Knowledge of words is an adjunct to knowledge of cultural realities signified by words.” Or to put the point even more succinctly: “Specific words go with specific knowledge.” Cultural Literacy included lists of such words, and Hirsch followed up with more lists and books, with curricula, and even with a school reform movement (the “Core Knowledge” movement).


Nor was Hirsch’s influence limited to cultural literacy in the public schools. His basic framework—the idea of “literacy” as comprising not a capacity to read, but rather a set of facts held in the head that serve as a conceptual foundation for reading—found expression in other arenas as well. For example, Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy and Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy captured some of the energy (and perhaps a healthy fraction of the sales) of the “cultural literacy” movement. And in case we are wondering about the relationship among these books, consider their dramatic subtitles: What Every American Needs to Know (Hirsch); The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish People, Its People and Its History (Telushkin); What Every American Needs to Know [about Religion]—and Doesn’t (Prothero).


What these books have in common, and what their subtitles make explicit, is the idea that what someone needs to know, a specific set of facts, is contained between the covers of the book. But why? For these authors and those who were influenced by them, the original rationale of scaffolding the reading of challenging texts had long since been displaced by the desire to identify and catalog all the knowledge that they deemed important. Someone who does not know these things, they claimed, is illiterate.


So what began as an important insight into the ways in which reading is a culturally located enterprise of meaning-making became transformed over time into a set of connected beliefs about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. First, the insight became transformed into a curriculum of isolatable facts. Second, in some settings, it became transformed into a pedagogy of direct instruction. After all, if you are convinced that students needs to know something quite specific and concrete, why not just tell them that thing! Finally, it often became transformed into an approach to assessment—an approach that focuses on recognition and identification of the terms and concepts that, it was claimed, are so fundamental.


We can see the belief about assessment in the work of Stephen Prothero, who developed a “religious literacy quiz” that he has administered to college students at Boston University and elsewhere. He asks questions like, “Name the Four Gospels” and “Name the holy book of Islam.” These questions are notable for two reasons: first, they seem to have clear answers, and second, for the most part, they seem like questions that reasonably intelligent and well-educated people ought to know. Because the answers can be assessed objectively, and because ignorance of those objective answers seems indefensible or even appalling, the quiz takes on a veneer of impartiality and objectivity. We are then inclined to follow Prothero when he tells us that students with certain backgrounds score higher or lower on his quiz, or more generally, when he laments how much students do not know.


Something similar happened more recently with the work of my distinguished colleagues at Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, in the Israel Literacy Measurement Project. What, they asked, should students know about Israel? How can we assess that knowledge? These are good and important conceptual problems. The project then approached these problems by developing a bank of multiple-choice questions, such as, “Who is the current prime minister of Israel?” and “With which Arab countries does Israel have signed peace treaties?” Alas, CMJS discovered that students are largely Israel-illiterate. To be clear, the authors of the study did not propose a curriculum or a pedagogy; their focus is assessment, and their approach to developing the test bank questions was deliberative. By validating the instrument, they proposed that others might use this assessment to determine whether their students are learning what we want them to learn about Israel: “The test bank is available to [others] and tests can be customized through item selection to assess knowledge gained over the course of a particular program, trip, or classroom experience.”


The sensitive reader will have guessed that I have serious concerns about this entire approach. First, scholars such as Sam Wineburg have documented the ways in which standardized tests almost always “discover” that kids, no matter what age or from what background, don’t know enough. This pattern has repeated itself for decades, in fact since the beginning of standardized testing. This strongly indicates that the problem is not these particular kids and their particular education but the approach to assessment itself, an approach that is designed to reveal gaps in knowledge. Rather than devising an instrument that tells us the facts that students do not know, how might the landscape look different once we understood what students do know?


The second worry about this approach, articulated by Jonah Hassenfeld in a column in the Forward about the Israel literacy work, is that there is scant evidence for a correlation between knowing isolated facts and being able to do serious thinking within the particular subject. Nobody is opposed to facts, of course. But the particular performance of correctly choosing among four possible answers in a multiple choice test is not foundational for higher thinking about Israel, any more than knowing Hirsch’s cultural literacy terms is foundational for reading complicated texts. Facts are not the building blocks of meaning. Instead, we operate with what psychologists call “schemata,” larger frameworks into which we organize information; we learn (and retain) facts only when we contextualize them in some schema, narrative or conceptual framework. That is where we ought to focus our pedagogic attention.


The third, related worry about this approach draws on a classic work in philosophy of education by Alfred North Whitehead. One hundred years ago, in 1916, Whitehead warned against “the passive reception of disconnected ideas, not illumined with any spark of vitality.” The term he introduced was “inert ideas,” which captures through an analogy with chemistry the ways in which certain ideas just sit there in the head (as it were), not interacting with other ideas, and importantly, not employed by their possessor for any constructive purpose. “Education with inert ideas,” he wrote, “is not only useless; it is, above all things, harmful.” But when we construct assessments that focus on individual facts, we run the risk of encouraging our educators to teach to those tests.


Where does this leave us? The alternative to literacy is illiteracy, and surely we do not want that. So let’s go back to the original understanding of literacy to see whether it can be redeemed for the purposes of thinking about Jewish literacy as a goal of Jewish education.


The first step in redeeming the concept of literacy is to recall that, before Hirsch introduced his particular notion of cultural literacy, it referred to a human capacity, not to words or concepts. Someone who is literate can do something that we think is worth doing. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote about the difference between two kinds of knowledge, know-how and know-that. Hirsch-style cultural literacy is know-that. But literacy is know-how.


If we keep that in mind, then we will stay focused on the question of how to help students do that thing better. Hirsch’s original insight is surely relevant: one of the reasons that students have trouble reading (at any level, in any subject) is that they encounter information that is unfamiliar to them. But the conclusion to be drawn is not that we should therefore teach them all that information in advance. Instead, the conclusion to be drawn is that we need to scaffold learning experiences to help students encounter and master increasingly difficult texts in whatever language those texts happen to be.


This leads to the second step: we should keep in mind that a person is not simply literate or illiterate, even though we sometimes use these terms. If we’re being precise, what we mean to say is that someone has the capacity to read a particular language. To state the obvious, a person can be literate in one language, like English, and illiterate in another, like Hebrew.


This is true with regard to literal languages, like English or Hebrew. But it is true with regard to metaphorical languages as well. So we need to think harder about precisely what languages we aspire for Jews to be literate in—and these will be multiple rather than single. The Jewish religious, intellectual and cultural tradition is far too complicated to think about it as one language. There is a language of, for example, rabbinic literature. There is a language of Jewish philosophy and theology. There is an entirely different Jewish mystical language, and a Jewish language of moral development. There is a language of Jewish history, and a language of modern American Jewish literature. In the contemporary world, there is a language of tikkun olam, and a language of Jewish film and Jewish music and Jewish dance. The more specific and focused we are in our teaching-to-read —the clearer we are about what specific languages we are teaching— the more successful we will be.


The third and final step in redeeming the concept of Jewish literacy is to remember that literacy is not valuable in itself but rather for what it enables. Here we can draw on the teaching of Michael Rosenak, who used the twin metaphor of “language and literature” to express the purposes of Jewish education. What we are trying to do, he proposed, is “to initiate the young into the language of a culture by way of its most cherished literatures.”


I have already noted above that it’s important to replace the singular “language” with the plural “languages,” since no one language encompasses Jewish culture. But the main point here is that, for Rosenak, we teach a language not via lists of words and concepts, but through literature, the finest and most articulate and “most cherished” expressions in that language. How do we become literate in a language? Rosenak’s response: by reading. This approach rejects the naïve opposition between “skills” and “content,” because understanding a language is not a content-neutral skill; you actually have to know the language!


That is not all, however; for Rosenak, the purpose of learning the language is not simply to read or to understand. Instead, after we have initiated the young into the language of a culture, our further and higher aim is for those individuals “to take part in the enterprise of making new literature.” This is a dramatic claim. Should every reader become a writer, a speaker, a doer, a builder, a maker, a creator of new cultural expressions? Yes. That is the ultimate goal. Rosenak is after active expression in the language, not simply passive reception.


We are not interested in producing people who know a lot, people who in Whitehead’s phrase have a lot of “inert ideas.” We want people who use the language, who use their knowledge for constructive purposes. So when we think about Jewish literacy—when we think about designing a curriculum in the literature of a particular domain, when we think about promoting particular pedagogies to cultivate literacy, and when we think about constructing aspirational assessments—we must always keep in mind that our purpose, in teaching students to read, is to cultivate the capacity and disposition to write.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016