Wednesday, September 07, 2011

can everyone be a member of the "reading class"

I am in the middle of reading a delightful little book called "The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction" by Alan Jacobs and I want to share what the author calls "one of the most important arguments" (p. 106) he makes. The pleasure / skill / ability (I'm not sure which is the best word to use) of becoming immersed in a book and thinking deeply about it has been lost (assuming it ever existed, as we shall soon discuss) in our age of information overload -- the patience to digest a great novel of many hundreds of pages and to reflect on its message has little place in an age of "tweets". Jacobs suggests that our expectation that things should be different is perhaps unrealistic. Jacobs writes, "...It has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from the frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of the "reading class" beyond what may be its natural limits." (p.107) "Rarely have young people been expected to have truly deeep knowledge of particualt texts. Instead, education, especially in its "liberal arts" embodiments, has been devoted to providing students with navigational tools -- with enough knowledge to find their way through situations that they might confront later in life." (112)

In other words, reading deeply, thinking about great literature, has never been a skill that belonged to the masses. Just as it would be ludicrous to expect everyone to be able to paint fine art or to play a musical instrument, it is ludicrous to expect everyone to read with attention and insight. Most reading is nothing more than an instrumental act, a means to collect data, best accomplished at the fastest pace in the least challenging format.

So how can we possibly expect bachurim to sit for 10 to 12 hours a day immersed in "reading" a sugya?

The simple answer is, "We can't." Just as the post-WWII boom brought with it a never before seen increase in university attendance, so that many more non-readers are now burdened with a task they are unprepared for and incapable of performing (with the result that university classes must be watered down, or with the equally unpleasant result of students cutting corners and feeling frustrated as they attempt to tackle the "great" books), so too we have created our own post-WWII kollel / yeshiva boom, with many more people sitting in yeshiva than historically ever was the case, but with no more people than existed in the past who truly can excel in such a system. We have created an expectation that everyone belongs to the "reading class" rather than accept that this designation belongs to precious few. Isn't that what Chazal themselves tell us when they speak of eleph nichnasim l'mikra but only one being yotzei l'talmud?

That being said, I feel I have to qualify things a bit, because I don't think the simple answer gives us the full picture. There is a difference between reading, which is primarily an activity done independently, privately, in quiet, and learning, which takes places in a social context, be it with a chavrusa, be it with in a shiur with a rebbe. Does that difference mean we can expect the masses to become accomplished talmidei chachamim and appreciate torah on a deep level even if they cannot lose themselves in a book in quite the same way? I wouldn't go that far. Tweedledee who has no attention span and no idea how to delve into the nuances of a text will not become that much better a learner if we sit him across from Tweedledum (who has a similar skill set) for 12 hours a day. I do think, however, that the process of discussion helps keep focus on the text for far longer periods than could be achived through isolated reading alone.

Does that mean learning cannot be loved by all? Of course not. Jacobs is speaking about reading in deeply reflective way; of learning on the highest levels. Even if one cannot read / learn on this level, all is not lost. If someone learns the daf and knows shas gemera & rashi well,that's still quite an accomplishment. So what if one cannot delve into every machlokes and understand the lomdus behind it? A person who knows where to find any din he needs in a Mishna Berura has still achieved much, even if he does not know the gemara, Rishonim, and Beis Yosef behind every din (is that not what the M.B. writes in his introduction as the raison d'etra of his work?) I have seen people waste precious time knocking themselves out trying to force questions and come up with something to say on a text rather than simply move on and cover ground, which would be a far better use of their time. Instrumental reading, collecting information and knowing it well, has an important place in talmud torah, and I think is far more accessible and realistic a goal for the masses. Perhaps we need to rethink our chinuch system so that instead of expecting every bachur to be able to formulate a new and insightful answer to a kashe of R' Akiva Eiger in the first few daf of Bava Kama we instead train them to master the skill of instrumental reading and apply it for all its worth.

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