Power and Ethics and the Textpeople of Jewish Education

Dr. Daniel Rose

Yuval Noah Harari and other futurists have predicted that, in the not too distant future, a majority of professions will disappear as their human workforce becomes superfluous, replaced by algorithms and Artificial Intelligence. Teachers are included in the list of those to disappear. I am here to tell you why I don’t think he is right—at least not about the teachers.

The power of the educator as role model

The educator conceptualized as an educational resource, similar to any other educational resource such as a textbook or artifact, is not a new idea. Plato and Aristotle recognized the power and impact of role models in forming moral consciousness and the influence of the teacher’s person and personality to teach virtues (rather than skills or knowledge). The obscure and somewhat awkward story in the Talmud of Rabbi Akiva, who insists on learning the most intimate lessons from his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua in a firsthand way, by following him into the latrine and by hiding under his marital bed (Berachot 62a), illustrates that this is also something that Jewish educators have been cognizant of for millennia.

More recent educational thinkers have also considered and described the impact of teachers as persons on their students. Heschel coined the term textpeople to describe the role of a Jewish educator; textpeople are “teachers from whose very being students can learn no less than from the literary materials they bring into their classrooms.” Buber spoke of the teacher communicating directly with her “whole being” and in doing so affecting the “whole being” of the pupil, and Parker J. Palmer wrote about teaching with one’s identity.

Sociologists see role modeling as critical to the process of socialization. Peter Berger frames this using the term “plausibility structures.” Belief systems are socially constructed and socially maintained. The plausibility of a belief is dependent on the social support this belief receives. For children to become socialized into the values and beliefs of a parent community, they must be exposed to social networks (plausibility structures) of role models who share these beliefs. These are our schools and youth movements, our teachers and counselors.

Some argue that frameworks of informal Jewish education find it easier to play to the strengths of role modeling, with its more familiar and informal relationships between counselors and participants, where boundaries are often hazy and the life and real world of the educator is more accessible. Barry Chazan identifies the holistic educator as one of eight core characteristics of informal Jewish education, describing the counselor as a “total educational personality,” educating by words and deeds alike, embodying the values of the institution. Perhaps it is this informality and familiarity that is the foundation of the relationship between informal educator and the educated that makes some uneasy. But what is there to be uneasy about?

The dangers of the educator as role model

To best provide for the potential impact inherent in role model education, the traditional boundaries that formal education place between teacher and student need to be blurred. The teacher needs to allow access to the real and private world they exist in outside of the classroom. This can be through conversation in and outside the classroom during the school day, or arguably more effectively through extracurricular informal activities outside of the school day (although obviously always within the framework of the school as an institution). Examples of these include shabbatonim, field trips, educational travel, and afterschool clubs and sports programs. Informal settings such as these encourage the development of deeper relationships and expose students to the educator as a real person, where the values they may teach in the classroom are played out in real life.

But of course when boundaries are blurred, risks are heightened. What if teachers do not embody the values of the school in their private lives? What if they are in fact negative role models modeling behavior or values that contradict those of the school and its parent community? Perhaps more likely is flawed role modeling. While adults are more equipped to process the nuances and complexities of adult life, an adolescent exposed to a struggling or flawed role model could be negatively affected.

Role model education presents a series of challenges to educational institutions at an administrative level. Can a school justify basing its hiring policies on how closely a teacher’s private lifestyle resembles the values and ethos of the school? Is it fair for the school to demand from its teachers that they carry the heavy burden of responsibility to model the values of the school in their private lives? Will this kind of pressure on the teacher lead to a feeling of suffocation, premature burnout, and even scare away high-quality educators from their vocation?

There are also those who, in our postmodern age, are fundamentally uncomfortable with values-laden education. Can we really be certain of what truth and right is, they ask. Our education must allow room for all approaches and positions on the ethical and moral issues that face this generation. What right does a teacher have to present personal opinions as if they were absolute truth? Even if teachers allow room for other opinions and truths in their classroom, their own opinions will wield more weight and gravitas, because of the nature of the unbalanced teacher-student relationship. This is indoctrination, they would argue, and discourages students from engaging in independent thought. Those of this opinion would assert that educators must leave their own opinions, and especially their own politics, out of the classroom, and strive for pedagogic neutrality at all times.

The deepest concern with emphasizing and encouraging relationships based on role modeling is the potential for outright abuse of the power inherent in the teacher-student relationship. This could take the form of the abuse of sexual tensions in the relationship, or the influencing of the student to immoral ends. More common is the pedagogic danger that the teacher rather than the student becomes the focus of the educational process.

Let our teachers go…

…and be themselves. And teach with themselves. Jewish education is not about skills and knowledge only. Jewish educators are in the business of socializing the next generation of Jews into Jewish society, Jewish culture and values, and into the Jewish people. They need to be allowed without fear to open their souls to their students to achieve these goals.

Informal relationships between teacher and student, within a transparent and clear framework of professionalism and ethically appropriate behavior, can and must be encouraged. This places an emphasis of responsibility on school administrations, who must supervise their staff carefully in this endeavor, offering advice and training, so that boundaries are clearly delineated. Yet even within these critical boundaries, there is tremendous room for the informal relationships necessary to encourage the process and desired outcomes of role modeling. The fears and risks explored above are no justification to take the heart and soul out of the teaching process.

School administrations not only have the right to orientate their hiring policies around the values and ethos of the school and parent community, but have a deep and vital responsibility to do so. This should help offset the risks of negative role modeling within the school framework. However, let’s take a moment to consider the potentially positive impacts of struggling and flawed role models on our students. These role models are not to be avoided, because they are the human face of education. They can inspire in a way that a more perfect role model cannot, because they represent an attainable model for students to strive for and achieve, whereas a saintly role model may actually result in feelings of inadequacy and alienation. The whitewashing of spiritual leaders and models is an inherently un-Jewish approach. Just open the pages of our foundational texts to find the greatest leaders in Jewish history with all their flaws and mistakes front and center for us to consider.

Finally, and perhaps most contentiously, schools should encourage their teachers to share their perspectives, including their own personal philosophies of religion and Judaism, and even politics. There is no reason why skilled educators cannot create classroom environments in which there can be free and open exchange of ideas, providing multiple angles to any dilemma or topic, including their own opinions and approaches. If the core values of the teacher are at odds with the ethos of the school, then the larger issue of a flawed staff recruitment process is at fault.

Yuval Noah Harari thinks education is about knowledge and skills. In an age where we watch with astonishment as the children we teach access all the knowledge in the world via the browsers on their pocket-sized devices and master skills of an infinite array of activities via YouTube videos, it is understandable that he has concluded that the age of the human teacher is drawing to a close.

But we know that education is more than skills and knowledge. Education is about civilization and society, values and heart. Socialization cannot be achieved by Artificial Intelligence and algorithms. Educators, teaching the souls of their students, using their souls as models, touching the hearts and souls of young people, is what education is about. As long as there are societies that wish to transmit their heritage and values to the next generation, the educator-as-role model will be vital to the process of education.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019