Monday, August 5, 2013


A big part of my thus-far largely untested unschooling philosophy revolves around teaching content to an interested youngster, and waiting to teach skills until he asks.  One hopes that as he gets older, particularly as his bar mitzva approaches, he will become interested.  A motivated adolescent should be able to learn the aleph beis in a few weeks, and from there, reading is pretty easy.  In a couple of months he'll be able to read fairly fluently, if he's interested in practicing.  Hopefully, he'll be familiar with the content of whatever he's been interested in until now (Elazar, age 6, likes learning about mitzvos, halacha, navi stories, and chumash stories), so some of the phrases and words will be familiar to him.  (Additionally, I speak very American Hebrew to my kids, which gives them some familiarity and some vocabulary.)

But clearly he will not be knocking back pesukim translation, mishna translation, rashi translation.  I hope he will get to it, but it seems to me entirely possible that I would have a 14 year old who isn't translating very much.

This morning I read a paper by Martin Lockshin: Teaching Judaica without Teaching Hebrew.  The gist is that he is opposed to it.

It might then be possible, admittedly, to inspire our students to love some Torah classics even if they do not really follow the Hebrew well. But our students will not be able to participate in the enterprise of interpretation, they will fail to appreciate what is at stake in half the disputes between ibn Ezra and Rashi, if they don’t have strong Hebrew skills. And the problem is particularly acute in Jewish classical texts where so many texts represent arguments about interpretation. So much of tannaitic literature centers around the true meaning of words of the Torah, so much of amoraic literature concerns the true meaning of the words of the tannaim, and so much of rishonim literature consists of disputes about the true meaning of the words of the previous classics. Our students who have weak Hebrew are shut out of all of these discussions, which constitute a significant percentage of Torah study.
I don't disagree with him.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing my children a disservice.  I, personally, have very strong skills.  It's true I went to schools that developed these skills (and I'm not sure if elementary schools today are up to par) and that I was in a very high pressured academic environment that I'm not sure I want for my children.   

I do think that not being able to learn in the original language is limiting.  I do think that a lot of nuance will be lost.  There is a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the Torah to leave open the possibility of different interpretations, and reading a translation closes that off.  The commentators are not usually deliberately ambiguous, but you often lose something in translation.  

Unschooling does not mean that your children automatically won't have good skills.  It does mean that they will very likely acquire them much later than is standard for kids in yeshiva.  My goal is not for my kids to lack skills.  However, it feels like unschooling is a risk in the area of skills, and I'd be foolish to not consider what my child's life will look like if he fails to acquire them, and to take that possibility into consideration when deciding how to educate him.
(I must add that if you look at the statistics of students coming out of our day schools, you will find a high percentage of their skills being pretty dismal these days, so perhaps I can argue that sending a kid to day school yeshiva also runs a risk of poor skills.)

I think this really comes down to my educational goals and also has to do with whether or not immersing a child in learning for hours a day at a young age is a value.  Post on that pending, hopefully.

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