Thursday, June 20, 2019

And Now, for Something Completely Different…

Is this the way to win a Nobel Prize? (Jerusalem Post)
I suppose that as an observant Jew who places great value on the study of Gemarah, I should be flattered. And I kind of am.

I came across a JTA article from last January that informed me about an unexpected phenomenon taking place in South Korea. It is rather well known that Asians place a high value on education. Apparently South Koreans have discovered that studying Gemarah the way Yeshivos do is the key to achieving great success in that area. 

Which has resulted in an explosion of Chavrusa type study in that country. Chavrusa study is where students study in pairs, out loud, often in heated debate; without a teacher present. South Koreans believe that Chavrusa study is the means by which to achieve the best educational results. Here is how they arrived at that conclusion:   
“Jews account for just 0.2 percent of the world’s population, but 23 percent of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish,” Seoul-based student Choi Jae-young related. “And despite all the time and money we spend on education, only one Korean has ever won a Nobel award. That irks many Koreans. It makes us want to learn Jews’ secrets.”
Some South Koreans think the key to unlocking such “secrets” can be found in Jewish approaches to education.
In an effort to see ‘How we do it’  Korean Academics learned about Yeshivos and visited some of Israel’s largest - to see what Jewish learning was all about. One can only imagine what their reaction was to a Yeshiva full of students studying out loud in pairs (B'Chavrusa) – to the din of everyone else in the Beis HaMedrash (hundreds) doing the same thing. 

To say they were inspired by what they saw would be an understatement. So impressed were they that they brought this idea back to South Korea and emulated it. They believed that they found the secret to our success. Not only did they bring back this style of education, in some cases they even decided to study Gemarah.

This phenomenon is apparently beyond the stage of just being a passing fad – that dies out just as quickly as it is born. It has gained momentum and is now ‘moving from private academies into conventional public classrooms.

Like I said, as an Orthodox Jew who has gone through the Yeshiva system I am flattered. But the fact that the Jewish people have produced Nobel Prize winners via the Yeshiva system is a mistake. The plain fact is that of the 23% of Jews that have been Nobel Prize winners - the vast majority never went to a yeshiva; do not know much about Talmud study or about studying B'Chavrusa. Probably a lot less than Koreans do now. 

This is not to say that the Yeshiva system isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. It certainly does work successfully as a means of education. And I agree that this method can be useful and transferred to other disciplines. But sometimes what you see is not what you get. The wrong conclusion can often be drawn from a superficial look at something. (Something I am occasionally guilty of myself.)

For example, if someone came down from Mars and saw that most of the people drinking diet pop (soda - for you easterners) are overweight, they would likely conclude that drinking diet pop makes you gain weight.

Why there are so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners – way out of proportion to their percentage of the population - probably has nothing to do with studying in a Yeshiva. It does however have to do with the Jewish emphasis on education in general, which stems from our requirement to study Torah. A subject so complex and so broad that one could spend a lifetime studying it and still not know it all. 

This is how the importance of being educated has been perpetuated.  There are unfortunately many Jews that do not study Talmud - or any Torah at all.  Having been raised in fully assimilated families. But the idea of education stayed with us all regardless of how observant we were.

That being said, it does not really address why South Koreans did not have our successes in Nobel Prizes. It is well known that Asians too have a very strong study ethic. Having had one well before they discovered the successful Yeshiva method of study. 

Perhaps the difference is the long history of emphasis on education combined with the kind of historic dedication to it that only the religious fervor behind it can produce - and project into the future. Something Asians do not have.