Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Children Fail by John Holt

This book resonated with me personally because I experienced first hand the fear and terror that is often created in the classroom by people who perhaps mean well but do the opposite of actually teaching.  Holt observed that the traditional classroom is not an area of free inquiry and discovery, but rather a place where the child sits in fear of not knowing the correct answers.  He observed that most schools are answer driven instead of discovery oriented for the student.

Most classrooms are controlled by what the teacher envisions and determines to be what is good for the student.  Holt favors, however, a child centered classroom according to the child's level of inquiry. He shows in many instances all a child needs is a little bit of more time to contemplate without any fear.  Patience is required to allow those gears of thinking and processing to work in the mind of a young student.  Most schools, Holt claims, are geared toward the very brilliant student that does not need time to do figuring.  The consequences of such an atmosphere for many breed contempt for school.

I shall relate two poignant personal instances that had calamitous effects on my school experience that my parents worried whether I would ever recover to be a successful student.  These two instances emotionally shut me down to the extent that my parents were concerned about my shyness and timidity.  Thankfully, due to our move to the West Coast, and a very enthusiastic, sensitive and caring third grade teacher, I came out of my shell.

The first instance happened in first grade during a reading specialist session.  My class waited patiently for our spelling tests to be distributed.  The teacher would call out a name, and that person would rise from their desk and walk up to the teacher's desk to be greeted with some congratulatory comment with the test placed in one's hand.  I had not noticed anything untoward, as my name was called.  I rose and approached the teacher's desk, putting out my hand with a big smile on my face as my teacher offered my test to me.  I took the test into my hand, however, the teacher did not let go. Expecting some congratulations, I received, instead, a stern reprimand: "Gentlemen do not wear their sweaters around their waists!  If you think you are a gentleman, YOU WILL go back to your seat and return to receive your test as a gentleman!!"  I was so dumbfounded, so stunned I did not understand that she wanted me to untie the sleeves of my sweater that were around my waist and come back to the desk.  I returned to my seat completely embarrassed and sat down.  Everyone waited in deafening silence.  I did not know what do!  Some kind girl whispered to me to remove the sweater and go back up to the teacher!  I obeyed my neighbor's whisper, shedding the sweater and approached the teacher blanched with trembling fear.  She gave me my perfect score test with a smile, saying, "That's better, that's a gentleman!"  I was damaged...

The other instance happened in the second grade.  My teacher was an old angry spinster who always demanded quiet.  When one of the more popular students, an actual teacher's pet got yelled at, I knew the year would not go well.  It happened in late November, toward the end of the day, my teacher was up to her old tricks yelling for quiet and demanded that no one say a word!  She snapped at her pet practically bringing her favorite to tears.  I felt bad for my fellow student, yet I had my own problem at that moment: I needed to relieve myself.  I sat in fear knowing that the teacher demanded that nobody say a word - to me meaning one could not even ask to go to the lavatory.  So I kept looking at the clock hoping I could last until the bell would ring all the while holding in that which needed to come out.  My calculations fell short.  The bell would not ring until well after my teacher discovered the puddle under my desk.  "YOU MUST BE SICK! go to the nurse right now!" was her reaction and I removed my tearful self from the room and headed for the main office that housed the nurse's station.  I sat there until the bell rang and then was dismissed to go catch my bus home all the time crying.  When my brother asked why I was crying, someone offered a reason, "he's obviously crying because President Kennedy was shot!"  I did not offer a correction as the reason for my crying since at least I now had a legitimate reason and not an embarrassing one upon which to rely.  The day President Kennedy was assassinated will always be remembered as a national humiliation, but for me it was also a personal humiliation...

I remember that after my third grade year, my parents celebrated with a swim party.  My third grade teacher was invited with her family.  I felt quite embarrassed that my teacher came to our house.  It wasn't until years later that my parents explained to me that they wanted to express their appreciation to her for helping me have a successful year.  They explained that I was very shy and timid after living in New York and that they were frightened that I would never come out of my 'shell'.  They were grateful that my teacher took a special interest in my development and enabled me to have a very successful year.

She created a safe, enthusiastic atmosphere of discovery and friendship; there was no fear, no apprehension, no embarrassment: it was of the classroom John Holt had advocated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sabbatai Sevi: the mystical messiah by Gershom Scholem

This volume is a magisterial effort that exhibits the master craftsman at his craft.  If one is interested in understanding what a professional historian does, Sabbatai Sevi: The mystical Messiah is a perfect example.  Scholem reviews all the different accounts reporting on the rise and fall of Sabbatai Sevi showing his command of languages from Hebrew, German, English and French.  He shows his power of analysis of each source, exposing bias, some sympathetic, some hostile and some curious about the subject!  He enjoys dismissing Henrich Graetz based on the sources. Scholem tells the story of hope and anticipation of the Jewish Messiah by sifting through the labyrinths of mystical codes and ecsoterica of Lurianic Kabbala.

Scholem's thesis seems to be that by the end of the Medieval period the religious world was steeped in the esoteric world of mysticism (more so than Maimonides' rationalism and almost negation of Mysticism) to the extent that a pretender and his marketeer could fool practically the entire nation.  According to Scholem, virtually the entire Jewish world was swept up by the marvelous events surrounding Sabbatai's appearance.  How else could vociferous rabbinic opposition be drowned out by the wave of excitement.  The desire for messianic relief was so great that one's faith was challenged when voicing opposition.

Early on Sabbatai was recognized exhibiting odd behavior before he rose to prominence.  His behavior reflected extreme mood swings of elation and ecstasy on the one hand and melancholia on the other. These episodes gave rise to antinomian practice, either ignoring or blatantly violating Jewish law.  The rabbinic ban was imposed on him (although curiously without much effect).  Nathan of Gaza, a fellow mystic then becomes his John the Baptist and Paul of Taursis all wrapped into one person.  Nathan begins prophesying and interpreting Sabbatai's odd behavior as illustrious signs of future events.  He calls for preparation of the 'Kingdom of Heaven' much like John the Baptist.  He proclaims Sabbatai as the Messiah much like Paul did about Jesus.

What is fascinating about this tragedy in Modern Jewish History is the determination to believe that he was the Messiah.  Even after his apostasy, large segments are not satisfied that he failed.  Nathan even explains that his apostasy was part of a divine plan.  Even with his death, people are reluctant to give up hope or faith.  Only after the death of Nathan, his prophet does the Jewish world begin to feel the depression of their mistake.

A few rabbis, like Sasportas, and Samuel Halevi were steadfast in their disbelief.  Some gloated to say "I told you so" and some were diplomatic in tending to their flock to help heal the open wounds of despair. One is told that the great aged rav at the time who's classic commentary on the Code of Jewish law, known as the TAZ was a believer.  He died before Sabbatai's conversion to Islam.

Today, perhaps because of the embarrassment of this tragedy most of us are unaware of how influential this movement was.  The Jewish world would like to forget Sabbatai Sevi.  Reading about Sabbatai Sevi, however, enables one to reflect on the rise of Hasidism and the fears of Messianism as reflected in the concept of Hasidic lore.  One may gain a better appreciation of the Vilna Gaon' s opposition, that perhaps instead of being preoccupied with the Kabbalah and the coming of the Messiah (like so many are today) one should fix times for old fashioned Torah Study stressing the rationality of Jewish practice and law.  That one should keep in mind that Misnagged (Those who oppose)  idea of the coming of the messiah:  that he will come late on a Friday afternoon, when one's household is frantically preparing for the arrival of the Sabbath oblivious to everything going on in the world so that observance of Shabbos can be ideally accomplished according to the Torah law and Halacha.

May we usher in his coming when we least expect it speedily in our days.