Tag Archives: Learning

Why “Useless” Knowledge Still Has Value

London Cab MediumI can’t get anywhere without my phone’s GPS (which my wife and I have named “Miriam”). We’re so reliant on it that there have been a number of times my wife and I have been driving even in our own neighborhood and said, “Wait —where are we? And how do we get home?”

It’s one thing for you or for me to get a little lost. But for London cabbies, that would be unacceptable. Taxi drivers in London need to have spent literally years studying every single back road, housing estate, bar, restaurant, park, and major or minor point of interest for over 25,000 streets. The test to become a London cabbie is often thought to be the hardest exam in the world, and it’s simply called “The Knowledge.”

But as a recent New York Times article asked, how important is the Knowledge in a world where everyone’s phone can have Waze to get real-time traffic reports, and can tell you how to get to whatever you want to see?

The Knowledge seems quaint and outdated today, but it still is being used. Why is that? As Jody Rosen, author of the article, suggests:

Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may be…philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge—for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity.

The Knowledge, then, is not simply an avenue to know whether or not to take Fishponds Road. It’s a belief that learning for its own sake has value.

And that philosophy is a very Jewish one—in Judaism, knowledge and learning have inherent worth. Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake, is to be celebrated.

In many ways, Torah and Talmud study parallel the Knowledge. Why do we need to know the intricate details of animal sacrifices that haven’t been done for thousands of years? Why should liberal Jews care about the laws of purity?

If we think of knowledge as purely instrumental, then the answer is “We don’t.” But there is difference between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is the result; learning is the process. And regardless of whether or not we use that knowledge, we all can strive to be learners.

As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches,

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life…

One of the laws of thermodynamics is the principle of entropy — that everything returns to chaos eventually. In the world of biology and physics, only the investment of new energy can counter the inevitable spread of disorder.

This is true of the spirit world, as well. Judaism has made a cardinal mitzvah out of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Jews studying together, the Mishnah teaches us, experience in the process the presence of God. (The Bedside Torah, 238-9)

There is joy in discovery. Curiosity is its own reward. The challenge of learning pushes us in new directions. Even if we might never use the laws of animal sacrifice, the simple act of studying our sacred texts is a sacred act, powerful in and of itself. As Artson says, “Go ahead. Learn a little.”

After all, even if a London cabbie could potentially turn on their GPS, ask them just how much value, pride and excitement they felt in their arduous process of learning. We might need or use all the knowledge we gain, but the simple process of learning for its own sake can be deeply spiritual.

Posted on November 13, 2014

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What (and How) The Simpsons Can Teach Us All

Simpson FamilyIf you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep. starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.

The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theoryscience and religion.

Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.

Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”

Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”

That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.

Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.

So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties': enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”

That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.

If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jewsand will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.

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Posted on August 21, 2014

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The Torah of Space Exploration

NASA_Mars_RoverWill humans ever land on Mars? Quite a number of people are trying to make it happen.

Buzz Aldrin has just published a book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. About half a million people are expected to apply for a one-way trip to Mars through the Dutch company “Mars One.” And even though it was a robot doing the landing, over 3 million people watched Curiosity land on the red planet.

Over 50 years ago, the nation (and the world) were riveted by NASA’s attempts to land a person on the moon, and bring him back safely to the earth. And when NASA succeeded, the whole world felt a sense of pride and awe when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the Sea of Tranquility.

In its way, space travel is its own reward. Yes, the space program has provided us with concrete benefits: GPS navigation, meteorological forecasts, and even treatments for osteoporosis. But what it truly offers us is inspiration and a drive to expand our knowledge.

Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, reminds us that the real value of space travel is how it captures our imagination, and how it motivates us to continue learning:

My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it’s a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there.

We humans are naturally curious creatures — we are born to explore. A mission to Mars excites us because we simply don’t know what we’ll discover, or how exactly it will add to our knowledge, or what new technologies will arise as a result. Even if we don’t immediately sense its benefits, it still has value, because the journey of learning is its own reward.

That’s the same message we get on Shavuot, our celebration of Torah, because the study of Torah, too, doesn’t always provide an immediate return on its investment. Instead, we study Torah lishmah, for its own sake.

Why? Because Torah is not designed to train us how to build a boat. It is designed to make us long for the open seas.

Jewish learning is never supposed to give us a final and definitive answer. Instead, it is supposed to inspire us, and to push us to explore beyond what we already know. Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz even titled a book Swimming in the Sea of Talmud because Jewish study leads us into the vast, challenging, and compelling unknown, which we do for the pure joy of learning something new. As they teach us, when we learn one text,

…there are a dozen new questions arising from [it]: Can this lesson be applied to other, similar situations? Is this lesson still applicable today? What would the Rabbis of the Talmud say to our particular situation, which differs slightly from the case they presented? Is the conclusion reached and the lesson derived from the text the most relevant and meaningful message? (Katz and Schwartz, 6-7)

True learning never stops; it pushes us out ever-farther into uncharted territory. As both space exploration and Torah study show us, each new discovery spurs new lines of inquiry; each new challenge forces us to create innovative solutions; each new venture helps us push the boundaries of knowledge.

Now, it is true that as vast as the open sea may be, it is not infinite. And neither, most likely, is space.

But human curiosity — our drive to explore and learn and grow — just might be.

Posted on May 16, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy