Tuesday, February 25, 2020

I recently listened to an interview of someone discussing Abraham Maslow and his

1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review. Maslow was the first therapist to identify that each person has innate needs. He pointed out that whether in a mental health crisis or just progressing in life, people could reflect on these needs to help better their satisfaction with their lives and plan for a more meaningful future. This idea was groundbreaking in that previously, therapy was only for people with stigmatized illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. He called his patients “clients” in order to change the perspective they may have of themselves or that others may have of them. These clients could seek guidance to better themselves, independent of their current mental state. (For more on this, see p. 28 of Nashim Magazine’s Project Proactive Mental Health column, November 2019 edition.) Maslow knew that to have a successful and satisfying life, there is a hierarchy of needs and motivations that drive the entire human condition.

As I half-listened while navigating New York City traffic, I recognized the disconnect between the educational experiences of our children in the Jewish community and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So often in Orthodox schools there is a push toward more textual approaches. Both assessments and high school admissions depend greatly upon the ability to read and analyze texts. Students are often placed in resource rooms when they cannot excel in these specific areas. Students—boys, in particular—are pushed beyond Chumash to Mishna while their skills are still in the nascent state. Then, while still considered emerging learners in Mishna, they are thrown into Gemara. Both genders must learn Rashi, other meforshim and high-level analysis of texts. The drive to force students into intellectual pursuits is shocking considering where that lies on Maslow’s hierarchy…and that is besides the fact that we, as educators, know we are leaving many of our students behind in the dust when we rush forward to grab at the next level.

According to Maslow, the lowest level of needs is what we may have intuited. Food, clothing, shelter and health are among the basics for survival. What struck me as profound was that love and belonging—the feeling of being a part of something bigger than oneself—is foundational to the next level of esteem, recognition and status. Belonging to a group, whether as small as a family or as large as school, religious group or community, comes early on in the hierarchy. And yet, the expectations in schools are to push for textual academic achievement, starting as early as preschool. Students are grouped based on these specific skills. Some meet with the communal message to reach for self-actualization—Maslow’s highest level—while others struggle and are pulled out of their classrooms for remediation, or as they age, they are forced to go to special schools or to schools not considered the “best.” They are given the message that they don’t belong in the mainstream group. What they can produce in non-text-based areas doesn’t matter, and tragically, they are being given the clear message that they are not really part of the group.

When I taught math to high school students in prison (in a county I won’t name publically), the dirty secret was that almost 90% of the inmate students had IEPs. As staff, we knew that when kids didn’t fit in because their needs weren’t being met, they would find other ways to feel successful. Once they were rejected by their community, they would find themselves another community to join where they could be welcomed and would succeed.

This scenario is, tragically, all too common within the Orthodox community as well. I cannot cite any statistics, but my husband and I have about 50 years of teaching between us, and we have shed countless tears watching students struggle with advanced subjects they never should have had to take at their level of development. One of our own children was placed in the resource room, in spite of being tested as having a higher IQ, because the school simply refused to make the effort to support the child’s learning profile. The text-only (or mostly) -based approach is clearly part of our mesora for a limited few, but “al pi darko” (“each according to his own path”) is meant for all.

There are so many ways to express understanding, and for that matter, to assimilate knowledge, beyond the written word. And yet, we are losing the souls of our students who, once they no longer believe they are part of the community of learners, feel they also no longer have a place within the Jewish community at large…or with Hashem.

To take this further, esteem is on the next level of the hierarchy. But I will bypass that since it needs little explanation, and instead I will hone in on the last level of the hierarchy, which is self-actualization. To quote Maslow himself in his landmark paper, “What a man can be, he must be.” I think it is the misunderstanding of this level that has led to so many mistakes in education. While helping a person to achieve what he can achieve is laudable, to force a person to achieve what he cannot will yield devastating results. And to require every student to learn the same way at the same rate can ultimately throw one into a deep abyss. With the very foundation of the pyramid no longer beneath him, no longer supporting his growth, one’s security and community and sense of self-worth is upended. And as he falls away, he takes his soul with him.

Of course, the obvious crisis occurs when children feel that they do not have a place within the Jewish community of learners, and then they faultily assume that this implies they do not have a place to stand before—or with—Hashem.

In order to give children—and adults, for that matter—a sense of belonging within the Jewish community and Hashem’s family, students need to be taught how to build a relationship with Him. For most, this will not come through ancient legal texts or even biblical stories alone. They need the specific tools to engage in this type of relationship, and emotionally safe space in which to do so. They need ways to discuss their relationship with Hashem that is not specifically text-based. They need educators (including parents) who can be honest about grappling with their connection with God in an open and truthful way. They need to be allowed to ask questions. And we, as parents and/or educators, must be prepared to respond with love, support and guidance. As I tell my students before I return assessments, Hashem will not ask them their grades after 120 years, because those assessments do not have eternal value. What does have eternal value is their relationship with Him, and that is what must be nurtured and tended.

As parents and educators, we have to recognize that we play a lamentable role for those people who feel so disconnected from our community and Hashem that they literally wander off with their soul, losing their relationship to Him for eternity.

As a community, we need to reexamine our scope and sequence as we apply them to the masses. To keep the souls of our community nurtured, safe, growing and connected, we must ensure that the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy are fortified for each and every child. We need to give each child a clear message that independent of their learning style, they are valuable to us and to Hashem. For what man can’t be, he won’t be. Yet, what a soul can become, we are certainly obligated to help him achieve.

Rochie Sommer is head of math, science and STEM at The Idea School.