The educational psychologist Jerome Bruner (1915–2016) once wrote, “We might ask, as a criterion for any subject taught … whether, when fully developed, it is worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult. If the answer to both questions is negative or ambiguous, then the material is cluttering the curriculum.”
Bruner’s point is that, while academic accomplishment, college placement and career prospects are all important aspects of the work of schools, the ultimate value of an education must be determined by the kind of human being the student becomes.
When understood this way, it becomes clear that the purpose of education is the future self of the student. This is to be distinguished from notions of education as being in service of the workforce, the economy or the nation. Instead, education must be understood first and foremost as an investment in the young people in front of whom the educator stands.
The same is true for Jewish education. Aryeh Ben David, founder of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education, has shared that, after two decades of classroom experience, he “began to realize that the goal was not just teaching a good class and that the mark of a good class was not just students with a good understanding of the material. I came to see that the moment of truth — the true test of my teaching — occurred after the class was over, that it was measured in the way that students approached their lives over time. The goal of teaching was not teaching, it was living.
“For study to be great, the knowledge acquired needs to be transformative, a springboard for personal growth and change.”
But which behaviors reflect the realization of Bruner’s “better adult” and Ben David’s “personal growth and change”? The answer can be found in the words of Rava, the fourth generation Amoraic scholar of the Talmud, who wrote “the purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds.”
“Good deeds” here refers to all of the thoughts, intentions, speech and actions we engage in throughout our days and lives. As I understand Rava’s dictum, the purpose of wisdom is a life that is defined by good deeds in relation to all people. And since the Jewish tradition is also concerned with the appropriate treatment of animals and the responsible stewardship of the natural world, they too must be included in the injunction to dedicate our lives to good deeds.
In recognition of the fact that we will inevitably fall short from time to time, Rava also counts repentance as a quality of the wise person.
The beginning of wisdom is awe for God.
Put simply, the purpose of education is, first, to provide young people with the skills to navigate the adult world they will inhabit in the future (functional) and, ultimately, to guide them on their journey to becoming exemplary human beings (existential).
But how can our schools achieve this?
Immediately following Rava’s saying, the Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Psalms that offers a clear method for realizing this lofty purpose of education: “The beginning of wisdom is awe (often mistakenly translated as ‘fear’) for God/YHWH.” Which is to say that wisdom begins with the awesome recognition of YHWH, of the Was-Is-Will-Be, of the All, and of which we are, inexplicably, part. To be in awe of all of existence imputes value to all things; as Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things.”
To recognize the awesomeness of It All and, thus, the infinite dignity and value of all things can only lead to a felt sense of obligation to always think, speak and act in relation to others (people, animals, nature) in a manner that acknowledges this fact. To live a life of service, in service of others.
It is noteworthy that Abraham Maslow, the influential psychologist and scholar, came to a similar realization near the end of his life. He concluded that, more than self-actualization, which rested at the pinnacle of his famous Hierarchy of Needs, it is actually self-transcendence — i.e. growing beyond the self — that is the apogee of human accomplishment and that holds the key to realizing the fullness of human potential.
In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The essence of [each individual], [their] uniqueness, is in [their] power to surpass the self, to rise above [their] needs and selfish motives … There is no joy for the self within the self. Joy is found in giving rather than in acquiring; in serving rather than in taking.”
This, then, is the purpose of education: In addition to providing the practical skills and knowledge to navigate the world in which they live, a child’s education must cultivate awe for what is. Cultivating this awe-wareness can only lead to a life that is marked by good deeds — and repentance for the times we fall short.
Simply put, a wise person — a person who has received an education — is one whose life is exemplary.