Two Educational Systems

(An entire, unpublished essay)

"May G-d give beauty to Yefes, and dwell in the tents of Shem." (Bereishis )

It is well known that the culture and learning of the West have their origin and basis in the classical literature of ancient Rome and Greece. What is less known is that the Torah of Israel is a fully equal and competitive system.

It is not that easy to pin down what constitutes the essence of Western culture and learning, or what are its extents. However its roots, both its historical foundations and its conceptual basis, are clearly in ancient Greece, even though this fact has become somewhat obscured in the last generation or two.

It does not require deep perception or painstaking analysis to show this. It is a simple matter of continuity. The same books, the works of ancient Greeks and the Romans who continued their tradition, are and have been the objects of study since they were written. These works were always the main content of education -- at least since the revival of classical learning some nine hundred years ago by the humanists and also a thousand years previously, before the rise of Christianity. Education meant reading ancient Latin and Greek authors. In Germany in the early part of the twentieth century for example, a schoolboy in the humanistic gymnasium read Latin works for more than two hours a day for nine years (the entire span of the school) and Greek works during seven of those years.

As Moses Hadas, chairman of the Department of Greek and Latin at Columbia University, put it: from the time of Isocrates (a pupil of Socrates, an orator and teacher in the fourth century BCE), "education is . . . familiarity with a traditional library of books -- the same library, in effect, which continued to be the mainstay of liberal education in the Hellenistic world, in Rome, and, with vicissitudes of fortune, in Europe to this day." ("The Greek Ideal and its Survival," p. 89)

Educated people read these works during their whole lives, from Cicero in the first century BCE to St. Jerome in the fourth century to Dante Alighieri in the thirteenth century to Voltaire in the eighteenth century and beyond. Every educated person was familiar with a common core of classical works.

Clearly the existence of such a relatively stable and well defined body of work gave the educated a pool of learning that they could assume their readers would be familiar with. There was a common body of material that they immediately shared with any other educated person. But this is certainly not all, or even the main thing, that their reading of the classics did for educated people throughout the ages.

Primarily, the works of Greece and Rome, products of an advanced though pagan civilization, educated their readers in the most important two senses of this term: they provided a congenial conceptual context for rational thought and progress and, moreover, they thoroughly developed the intellectual powers of their readers.

The Classical Conceptual Context

We shall not attempt here to characterize the first component of classical education that we have called a conceptual context. Instead we will merely cite without comment two such characterizations made by distinguished scholars. For our purposes, at this point, the nature of this knowledge platform is less important than the fact of its existence, but it seems necessary to quote some descriptions in order to give the reader a better sense of what is meant by this very abstract idea.

Peter Gay, professor of history at Yale University, has characterized it as a critical mentality (p. 89). By this he means a commitment to approach the world in rational terms, and to live by and discover its deep order, to require and supply proof of assertions and conclusions, and to deal with the passing scene with dispassionate and quantitative analysis. It is, he says, this mindset that characterized the Greek approach to life and to learning which was transmitted to Europe and the West. This approach to life and its challenges provided the key to the way modern man perceives the world and knowledge of the world, and was the essential substrate for modern Western knowledge and civilization. This critical mentality is clearly traceable to the classical Greeks.

Moses Hadas describes the key Greek idea somewhat differently. He maintains that it is an approach to the world with man at the center rather than supernatural forces or something else. He quotes the famous saying of Protagoras, a Greek Sophist from the age of Socrates, "Man is the measure of all things." Life is for man to be lived, and man must strive for excellence in everything he does.

The difference between these two characterizations is in whether this or that is the key idea, but not in the overall description of the Greek mentality. All agree that the Greek approach is a supremely rational one that is grounded in the material experiences of this world. The emphasis on reasoning, on the material world of the senses, and an impatience with everything else (including religion and metaphysics) is clearly traceable to the Greeks.

This approach provided a basis that eventually led to modern life, including its culture, its ways of living its spirit, many of its values and its technology. It focused people's efforts on improving the way life is lived, and gave them the measures of success that drove progress towards the results -- both the accomplishments of technology and the less admirable aspects modern culture -- that are so familiar to everyone today virtually all over the world.

This is what is meant by saying that the works of classical learning provided a congenial conceptual context for rational thought and progress. This conceptual context that Greek thought provides -- a thoroughly pagan environment -- is worthy of further discussion, but it is not our main subject here. The Torah system does not share this conceptual context.

Developing One's Intellectual Abilities

In addition to the conceptual context provided by classical literature, we noted that it fully and thoroughly developed the intellectual powers of its readers. Generation after generation that was reared on the classics and virtually nothing else, grew up to become intellectually mature adults, capable of understanding and using the full range of human intellectual abilities.

Though people certainly vary in their intellectual abilities, there is no doubt that these remain latent unless they are exercised and developed. Just as the abilities of the body do not reach their full possibilities without intensive and extensive cultivation -- for example, all successful athletes spend many hours of training and exercise to reach the peak of their ability -- so the abilities of the mind remain dormant and stunted unless they are given proper training.

This is one of the functions of an education: to expose the maturing child to the varieties of reasoning as well as to the range of human experiences. This exposure, if it is thorough and comprehensive, challenges and brings out the abilities latent in the child and youth, eventually producing a mature adult who is capable of comprehending the thought of others and, according to his or her abilities, able to contribute new work.

This is the splendid achievement of the classical works: as generations upon generations can testify, reading the literary products of ancient Greece and Rome produces adults who are developed and educated in every sense of the word.

Modern western education (in the last hundred years or so) has departed from the classical model. Many adults in America and even in Europe have little exposure to the ancient classics. This is partly due to the replacement of the Greek and Roman authors with more recent writers (such as Shakespeare) who are equally effective in educating in this broad sense, and partly due to the preoccupation with educating towards results that emphasizes mental skills (such as mathematics) that are eventually most useful for being a productive member of society.

Over all these centuries, perhaps as much as two millennia, the Greek and Roman classics were the only means recognized for education in the West. The history of Western thought -- from the early pagans to the dominance of the Christian church to the revival of the pagan learning in the Renaissance and its dominance in the Enlightenment and thereafter -- is the story of the rise and fall and rise of these ancient authors and what they represent.

Within the broad stream of Western society and culture, there has been no competition in providing an education, though at various times there has been tension with Christianity. There was no real competition in education between pagan learning and Christianity -- the roughly thousand years in which Christianity were dominant are referred to as the "Dark Ages" when learning and education were minimal.

A Competitor that did not Compete

However, there is another, largely independent, body of work that is also effective in developing all of the abilities of the mind. This is the corpus of Jewish learning, including the Talmud and its many ancillary works as well as the Tanach (Bible), to which we will refer collectively as Torah.

For over three millennia the core of the Jewish people educated their children through exclusive study of the Torah. From the tremendous volume of high quality scholarly works they have produced, it is clear that this education was not lacking anything in the way of developing the intellectual abilities of the students. In fact, the material is so broad and varied that it appears that this should be the case, though it is difficult to prove this since there is no recognized catalog of the mental abilities that educated, competent adults should have.

It should be noted that the Jewish Torah does not provide the same conceptual context as the classics of Greece and Rome. The conceptual framework of Torah is very different and is not congenial to producing the achievements -- both good and bad -- of Western society. This is a big topic that deserves fuller discussion, but for a limited example of the difference in the frameworks see my essay "The Rise of the Science of Economics and the Idea of Gain."

Nonetheless, comprehensive study of the Torah does exercise and develop all the faculties and abilities that are latent in the human being. It produces adults who are familiar with the range of human possibilities as well as having all their intellectual faculties fully developed.

There are a number of reasons that this was never recognized. The main reason is that the Jews, for the most part, were content to pursue their studies and to live their intellectual lives wholly within the Torah tradition, a tradition, moreover, that places a very low premium on personal recognition. Great scholars were content to study on their own, without any great concern for recognition within the Torah community, much less the world at large.

The languages of Torah study, Hebrew and Aramaic, were not the main languages of educated people in most times. Though Torah scholars could speak to each other across vast gaps of time and space, they had no contact with the non-Jewish world. They did not need such contact.

Very often, such contact as there was, was very unpleasant (or worse) for the Jewish scholars. At various times Jews were called upon to defend their learning from accusations made against it by Christian or apostate priests. Win or lose the disputation, the Jewish scholar and the Jewish community rarely came out ahead.

It is not hard to see that the Bible is an educational document of considerable breadth. The writing ranges from good to superb, the content is quite varied, including narrative portions, poetic sections, and various kinds of discussions. Many varieties of human experience are depicted in the twenty-four distinct books that make up the Tanach.

The criterion specifically cited for inclusion in the canon is that the material be "needed for the generations." (Megilla 14a). "Many prophets arose for the Jews . . . [but there is no record of most of them] rather, a prophecy that is needed for the generations was written, and a prophecy that was not needed for the generations was not written." The most likely interpretation of this is that the material included in the twenty-four books of the Tanach is necessary for everyone to learn, in other words, that it should be part of his or her education. That is, that everyone should study the material in the Bible in order to get a general education. In fact, it is an explicit obligation for every father to teach his son all of the Written Torah (Yore Dei'ah 245,7). It is also appropriate for girls.

The Talmud is a much larger work and, though much of the material is legal in nature, it also encompasses an extremely broad range of knowledge and various parts exercise a range of mental abilities, as well as provide information and exposure about many different human activities and experience.

There can be no room to doubt that Torah study provides an education as complete as any other.

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