The Three Mems

  Minyan, Mitzvah and Machlochet L’shem shamayim.

I want to introduce something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile that has started to coalesce in the last few months into what I’m calling a “Natural, Jewish Theory of Education.”  “The three Mems” are not about Musketeers, but are shorthand for some core concepts in Jewish culture which enrich our understanding of modern concepts. And, visa versa, the modern concepts enrich our understanding of the ancient Jewish ones. Together they help us re-imagine education.  

In this post I’ll talk about minyan: Say nine adult Jews are standing in a room. Suddenly one more walks in. Something essential has changed. Now there is a minyan — a community of prayer. They can now use the call and response barchu formula to call to the community to prayer. They can say kaddish and other expressions of the fact that a new “vessel” for God’s presence has been created.  Where a minute ago there was an aggregate of separate individuals, now there is a new entity.  This entity represents a microcosm of the Jewish People.  Something new arises, in a way that we find difficult to grasp, from the interaction of parts. This new element cannot be seen or touched but it is very real.  The clearest example of this is life itself. When an organism, whether a one celled amoeba or a human being, is whole this mysterious quality called life occurs.  Separate those parts and that mysterious spark disappears.    

Minyan is Jewish language for the concept of Emergence, one of the most important, controversial and potentially paradigm changing concepts in modern science. Tons of books and articles have been written about it, but basically it says that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is controversial because for three hundred years science has said understanding comes from breaking down the whole into its constituent parts.      

Some educational implications of this minyan/Emergence idea include:

·  Learning as Interaction: Teaching isn’t “downloading” information from teacher to student, but emerges from the interactions between teacher, students and subject matter.

· Learning from Wholeness: Whether it’s a book or a teacher, an eco-system or a piece of music, something emerges when we pay attention to its wholeness, not simply extracting parts.  This means a teacher needs to teach from his/her whole self, and the students are empowered to bring their whole selves to the learning.

 · Learning to See Patterns: The connections between elements, and between disciplines are where the sparks fly.  Fifty years ago, one of the heroes of the new science of emergence, Gregory Bateson, said, “destroy the pattern which connects and you destroy all quality in education.”  

There is much more to be said about minyan/Emergence, and about the other “Mems.” Stay tuned for future posts.