Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Phoenix Philosophy: On Challenge, Judaism & How Children Succeed

I read How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough over the weekend. It was a good book, even if it occasionally strayed from the topic at hand, and I didn't find it to be as much of an instruction manual or how-to guide as I might have wished. Paul's thesis is that teaching students to have character is actually a better investment than focusing on their cognitive skills, and allows them to be more successful long-term. He gave examples of the research behind this idea, and wrote about programs at various schools that seem to be working to teach character, but didn't really give the lone teacher a great set of strategies for how to implement it on their own. Nevertheless, the book mainly resonated with me for two reasons: it spoke to me as a teacher and also as a Jew.

As a teacher who has the good fortune to work at a wealthy private school, Paul's findings based on the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx resonated with me. Before writing this book, Paul wrote an article in The New York Times called "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" The article sums up many of the salient points in the book, and the following excerpt speaks to my experience as a teacher.
“Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children. 
Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.” 
There is no question that some of the most creative experiences anyone can have occur when they are in their phoenix dive- they rise from the ashes of their failure. Unfortunately, many students are afraid to take risks because that might lead to them getting a lesser score on grade on a paper, when of course, taking risks and embracing challenges are what learning is all about.

I was fascinated by the character traits that KIPP (learn more about KIPP by reading 'Work Hard, Be Nice') chose to focus on in their attempt at helping children grow. They came up with seven character traits, and these were:

social intelligence

What intrigued me about these choices is that, of course, all of these are key components of the Jewish tradition. What could possibly read as grittier (excuse my manipulation of the word) than leaders like Moshe and Jonah, consistently getting back on their feet and going out to serve God despite the complaints and unworthiness of their respective constituents? When it comes to self-control, is it not our sages who came up with the adage "איזהו גבור, הכובש את יצרו?" (This translates to: Who is strong? The one who conquers his inclination/desire.) Isn't zest described beautifully in the Gemara when we see how eager and excited our sages were for Shabbat, purchasing different choice items throughout the week in their love for that special day? Social intelligence appears in all the interactions between David and Shaul, gratitude is a theme embodied by Moshe when he is forbidden to strike the land or water since they saved him at birth, and the prophets are filled with optimism at the most (seemingly) inappropriate times. As for curiosity, what is the Talmud if not a demonstration in that ideal? Bizarre hypotheticals that take logical reasoning to their oddest extremes fill the Talmud; the sages were fascinated by how the law would play out, even if there were never to be an actual application for their intellectual striving. 

Of all of these, Paul wrote about self-control in the most detail. Self-control, as I have written about before, is embodied in the Orthodox Jewish approach to life. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes about it beautifully when he addresses the concept of dignity in defeat.

In one of my favorite works, 'Out of the Whirlwind,' he writes:
"I will read for you a midrash (Midrash Rabbah to Shir haShirim 7:3, "Thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies"), and I believe it speaks for itself. The midrash explains Jewish ritual law pertaining to sexuality. Judaism developed a very strange attitude towards sexual life. On the one hand, it endorsed it, completely rejecting the Aristotelian negative approach which Maimonides had somehow accepted. Sex can be a sacred performance if treated properly, if placed in a worthwhile, dignified perspective. In one's sexual life, the dignity of man is the most important factor. It determines the whole character of the sexual life, whether it is low, primitive, hypnotic and orgiastic, or dignified and sacred.

The Halakha developed a very strange, paradoxical law pertaining to the periods of withdrawal and assosciation. But the strangest of all laws pertaining to sex is one norm which borders almost on the inconsiderate. A young man meets a young woman and falls in love, marries her, and consummates the marriage- the norm is that it is then that a period of withdrawal of almost twelve days begins.

"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is thirty or forty years old and after going to great expense"- expense not meant in terms of money, but it means he proposed a few times and she rejected him. He was in love and kept on insisting and finally he won out. After going to great expense, he wants to associate with her. His heart is overflowing with love and passion. Yet, if she says to him, 'I have seen a rose red speck,' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there a wall of iron between them? Did a serpent bite him? Did a scorpion sting him?....It was the words of Torah, which are soft as a lily."

The Midrash gives another example. "A dish of meat is laid before a man and he is told that some forbidden fat has fallen into it; he leaves it alone and will not take it." Hungry as he is, however stong his desire for food, he will not taste it. "Who stops him from tasting it? Did a serpent bite him?....Did a scorpion sting him?...It was the words of the Torah, which are soft as a lily..." Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other; both have patiently awaited this rendezvous, and they met and the bridegroom stepped backward. Like a knight, he gallantly exhibited superhuman heroism, not in a spectacular but in a quite humble fashion, in the privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. And what happened? He defeated himself at the height of his triumphant conquest, when all he had to do was to reach out and take possession. The young man overcame himself, the conquerer in his orgiastic hypnotic mood retreated, performed a movement of recoil. He displayed heroism by accepting defeat. And in this act of self-defeat one finds the real dignity of man.  
Dignity in Defeat

If man knows how to take defeat at his own hands in a variety of ways as the Halakha tries to teach us, then he may preserve his dignity even when defeat was not summoned by him, when he faces adversity and disaster and is dislodged from his castles and fortresses......

[Next page]

What I have developed is more a philosophy of the Halakha. How this philosophy could be interpreted in terms of mental health is a separate problem, one that is quite complicated. But I believe that the trouble with modern man and his problems is what the existentialists keep on emphasizing: anxiety, angst. Man is attuned to success. Modern man is a conquerer, but he does not want to see himself defeated. This is the main trouble. Of course, when he encounters evil and the latter triumphs over him and he is defeated, he cannot "take it"; he does not understand it.

However, if man is trained gradually, day by day, to take defeat at his own hands in small matters, in his daily routine, in his habits of eating, in his sex life, in his public life- as a matter of fact, I have developed how this directional movement is applicable to all levels- then, I believe, when faced with evil and adversity and when he finds himself in crisis, he will manage to bear his problems with dignity."

Pages 111-115 
I do find it entertaining (in a positive way) when current psychology accords with what the Torah has said is true. The Torah trains us in the process of self-control, which is why eventually those of us who are open to its teachings become so good at it. The most interesting part is that the Torah begins with rules, but the rules are there to train us so that at the proper time, we can use willpower instead. This exact idea was described in Paul's book:
What MCII amounts to is a way to set rules for yourself. And as David Kessler, the former commissioner of the FDA, notes in his recent book The End of Overeating, there is a neurobiological reason why rules work, whether you're using them to avoid fried foods (as Kessler was) or the lure of American Idol (as our imaginary KIPP math student might have been). When you're making rules for yourself, Kessler writes, you're enlisting the prefrontal cortex as your partner against the more reflexive, appetite-driven parts of your brain. Rules, Kessler points out, are not the same as willpower. They are a metacognitive substitute for willpower. By making yourself a rule ("I never eat fried dumplings"), you can sidestep the painful internal conflict between your desire for fried foods and your willful determination to resist them. Rules, Kessler explains, "provide structure, preparing us for encounters with tempting stimuli and redirecting our attention elsewhere." Before long, the rules have become as automatic as the appetites they are deflecting.  
~Page 94
Marc and I were once talking about how halakha can be seen as similar to the ropes with which Ulysses/ Odysseus binds himself when listening to the sirens' song. Our halakha begins with rules, which (at least per Kessler) are a substitute for willpower that helps us learn what our default setting or option should be. But then, as we develop and find ourselves in trickier situations over time, we have become accustomed enough to self-control, to not eating the non-kosher item, to not having sex whenever we want with whomever we want, that we can do the right thing. We have acquired a habit that will help us in life.


Light unto the nations. said...

Excellent piece.
The antithesis of our common slogans such as "Just do it" and "buy now, pay later".

Unfortunately we are surrounded by the prevailing attitude of immediate-gratification.


Cheryl said...

Great post. Grit is something I think most children are born with (ever watch a 6 month old work on sitting up?). Unfortunately, grit is all too often "untaught" by well meaning parents.

Anti Money Laundering said...

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.