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Why CASJE - Jon Levisohn

September 7, 2016
Jon Levisohn is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Educational Thought at Brandeis University, where he directs the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. A philosopher of education, Levisohn's research and writing has focused on three broad areas: (a) the teaching and learning of classical Jewish texts, i.e., Bible and rabbinic literature; (b) the teaching and learning of history; and (c) critically investigating and reconceptualizing the purposes of Jewish education. His recent work includes Turn It and Turn It Again: Studies in the Teaching of Jewish Texts (with Susan P. Fendrick, 2013), The Interpretive Virtues: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Teaching and Learning of Historical Narratives (forthcoming), Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (with Jeffrey S. Kress, forthcoming), andBeyond Jewish Identity (with Ari Y. Kelman, forthcoming). An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, he holds degrees from Harvard and Stanford in Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Philosophy of Education. He is active in NRJE, PES, and AJS. He lives in Newton Centre with his wife Emily Beck and their three teenage children, and has been active as a lay leader at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School; Congregation Shaarei Tefilah; Minyan Yedid Nefesh; and Encounter.
 
A number of years ago, The AVI CHAI Foundation invested in the development of a set of standards and benchmarks for the teaching of Tanakh. More recently, AVI CHAI has made a further investment in standards for Rabbinics. These standards are fundamentally important for helping schools and individual educators focus on learning, rather than simply covering material or engaging in classroom activities. The standards – for those who use them – promote a conversation that is now focused where it ought to be: on why we do whatever we do, within this subject, and what we hope and expect students will learn from what we do. 
 
Now, the standards and benchmarks in Tanakh and Rabbinics are modeled on the work done in general education in a number of fields, most notably in math. In the field of math education, the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) Standards are the accepted framework for well-designed, coherent, purposeful curricula and pedagogy. They set out what students ought to know and be able to do, at every stage. And they frame the discipline; they are an expression of what mathematics is all about.
 
But here’s the most important thing about the NCTM Standards: they do not exist in a vacuum. On the contrary, they are embedded within and supported by a robust intellectual ecosystem. That ecosystem consists not just of math teachers, but also thousands of math coaches and consultants and hundreds of professors of math education, and not insignificantly, a healthy relationship with the academic field of mathematics. It includes dozens of math programs and initiatives, and dozens of journals – from the most esoteric and academic, to the most practical and popular. The ecosystem is sustained by robust investments in curriculum development, in research, and in professional development for teachers. 
 
But when it comes to Tanakh or Rabbinics, we have … the standards. No ecosystem to speak of. We have not yet invested in or developed the intellectual infrastructure. This is, to be clear, not a criticism of those standards or of AVI CHAI’s investment, which are valuable initial steps. It is simply a reminder of how far the field of Jewish education has to go. 
 
For me, this example is one answer to the question, “Why CASJE?” The ecosystem that I’m talking about is, at least in part, what CASJE means by the phrase “applied studies” in its name. By leveraging and investing in the talents of scholars and leading practitioners both within Jewish education and beyond, CASJE can be the vehicle to build a stronger and healthier system, one that is more focused on purposes, more attuned to the experiences of learners, more responsive and responsible, more ambitious and aspirational. 
 
And like any ecosystem, it takes a lot of complementary “organisms,” working together – scholars, practitioners in a variety of settings, policy planners, funders. None of us can do this alone.