Jewish Learning: Analytical vrs Memory, which is worth more

            January 2013    
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Why are Jews so smart?

By N. Shuldig

The New York Times, November 1, 2012, wrote an obituary of Arthur R. Jensen, a controversial professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Jensen was an emeritus professor in the Graduate School of Education.

Professor Jensen was interested in why some races do better on I.Q. tests than others. After much investigation, Professor Jensen came up with an interesting conclusion that made him very controversial and even hated. To quote the New York Times online,

    In the article, Professor Jensen posited two types of learning ability. Level I, associative ability, entailed the rote retention of facts. Level II, conceptual ability, involved abstract thinking and problem-solving. This type, he argued, was roughly equivalent to general intelligence, denoted in psychology by the letter "g."

    In administering I.Q. tests to diverse groups of students, Professor Jensen found Level I ability to be fairly consistent across races. When he examined Level II ability, by contrast, he found it more prevalent among whites than blacks, and still more prevalent among Asians than whites.

Professor Jensen was interested in intelligence and what gives some the advantage over others. Interesting to note is that he divides intelligence into two parts: 1. rote retention (memory) and 2. abstract thinking and problem solving.

What is interesting to note here is that the first aspect of intelligence, memory, was relatively equal amongst all people. It was the second aspect of intelligence, abstract thinking and problem solving that made the difference in rating intelligence levels.

I was very impressed with this article. My background is that I have a secular education and a college degree and worked as a professional, plus I have a yeshiva education and have been active in learning and teaching Talmud for many years. I also live in Israel where there is a dislike by the secular public of those who sit in yeshivas learning for many years.

What I see is that college is an institution that gives skills to enable a person to obtain advanced jobs, like doctors, lawyers, engineers and educators. However there are inherent skills that are needed to achieve these degrees which are based more on the necessity to memorize material and re-use this very material to answer questions on tests. Where as some analytical skills are needed in successfully passing courses, it is my opinion that memory is more important in college level learning.

Yeshiva learning is just the opposite. In the study of the Talmud, complex arguments are presented but to understand both sides of the argument and upon what the argument is based requires analytical thinking. Memory also is important, but only as a secondary role to back up analytical thoughts. A student is evaluated not only on his ability to remember what he learned, but more so on his ability to analyze and suggest possible answers to complicated questions. Even more so, it is through the analytical approach that memorization of the material is made easier, if you would, it comes automatically - a direct offshoot of analysis.

The problem that the secular world finds with yeshiva learning is that it does not provide the student with the ability to go out into the world and earn a living unless, of course, he decides to become a rabbi or a religious instruction teacher. Clearly stated, a yeshiva is not a learning institution to enable a person to become a professional anything, rather it is an institution that exists to enable men to understand Jewish law. For this reason, many secular individuals and even media outlets criticize yeshiva learning as a waste of time.

My question is simply, 'Is it?'

My answer simply is that it is not a waste at all. Leaving the ethical training that a yeshiva man learns aside, ignoring the fact that religious people have been documented as being happier, and overlooking the fact that there is much less divorce and promiscuity in the Orthodox Jewish world, according to Professor Jenkins, the achievement of developing abstract thinking and problem solving abilities will bring the person above average in his intelligence level in of itself is a remarkable achievement. It is this kind of person who will succeed when he does enter into the business world because he has been enabled with the abstract analytic type of thinking patterns.

Professor Jenkins wrote in 1969, compensatory education programs like Head Start are doomed to fail. Since these programs are not based on developing abstract thinking and problem solving abilities, they do not enable the bearer to any lasting gain.

It has been my experience through out the past forty years of living in both the secular world and yeshiva world to note that many of the yeshiva educated men in America are able with ease to enter colleges of their choice and get a degree in their selected fields to enable them to make a comfortable living without having to lower their personal standards. Most of them enter the work force on a professional level and succeed beyond the level of a only secularly educated individual.

It is a shame that the secular Jews can not duplicate the learning patterns of the yeshiva since it is, in my opinion, it is the vehicle that propelled the Jews to greater achievement than their non-Jewish peers. In abandoning yeshiva learning, many secular Jews have entered the work force with levels much lower than their yeshiva trained brethren and in addition suffer since they have attached themselves to the current low secular ethical cultural value system that promotes as its chief goal the attainment of personal pleasure and reducing moral values to that of the decadent movie stars and drug driven pop singers.

It is just the opposite of the secular notion that yeshiva education is a waste of time. If the secular education system had the ability to think education through in a thorough manner, they might just introduce Talmud learning as a required subject in their school systems. What is to be mourned is the breaking of the connection between centuries of yeshiva learning and ethical training that is being lost as more secular Jews seek fulfillment in the current popular culture which is available to all at the click of a television button without the need to think and gives the viewer nothing substantial in return.

For more on Smart Jews, see this article: Why are Jews so Smart?


from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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