Category Archives: education

as time goes by

In my youth, a classic education included the obligation to learn how to draw. It was part of the curriculum. There was no mention of creativity. That was a characteristic of god. But drawing was considered by some as learning to see; taking  notes as it were of what we saw. We started with a tree, a horse, or a flower. It was a pleasure watching someone as their eye traveled from the subject of their drawing to the paper in front of them and back again. We called it a study. In those days, it was common, especially for those who were not satisfied with their renditions on paper, to put a flower in a book and press it. Life did not start with the digital age. There were delights that disappeared at every stage of progress.

D1289_35
the type of library I remember and love

For the young, change is exciting and enlivening. It’s a challenge, and healthy people enjoy challenges. And it’s an opportunity to see the world created anew within our own lifetime. I remember the words of a sage who said, ‘the creation of the world wasn’t finished in those famous six days; god continues to recreate the world every minute… and if that were to stop, our world wouldn’t exist’. I didn’t understand it at the time. It seemed a poetic phrase, an expression of the praise of god. But in old age, the phrase has returned with understanding. Change is an integral part of both our world and ourselves. To deny it or to fight it is to stop our inner world.

D1289_52

As a student, I spent most of my time in the study hall of the seminary, where I was fascinated by history and philosophy in the holy books. I didn’t just sit and learn. I stood at times, with my book on a reading stand (a lectern), and took walks now and then to digest what I had read. It was an adventure for me to walk to the local library, which was my second home for many years. Many of the writers I read mentioned other books, either to agree or disagree with them, and so I always had notes in my pocket, reminding me of books I wanted to open. But sometimes while visiting the library, I would wander through the aisles and gaze at the stacks, picking up a book just because of its title or the way it looked.

My father was a scientist, which gave him access to a computer as early as the 50s of the previous century. In those days the computer was as large as a couple of rooms in a house, and belonged to the university. He used it for complicated mathematical computations. But as he explored the possible uses of this relatively new instrument, he managed to translate the image of my mother to a printout using the letters of the alphabet to provide the shadings of her face. The printout had the standard holes on both sides of the page, and the paper was cheap and discolored as it aged. Enthusiastic about the ‘human aesthetic’ captured by a machine, I hung the picture on one of my walls. And when it grew old and ugly in my eyes, I threw it away. I regret that now. As a matter of fact, I can’t understand how it happened that I, known to hold on to used shopping bags till they become an obstacle in the laundry room, could possibly throw such an article away. In any case, that mechanical portrait heralded the digital age for me.

D1296_039
the newer libraries look like this… not too many books
and open for just a few hours

Now, as a photographer, I am often asked for my opinion regarding smartphone cameras. People often suspect that one still needs a ‘real’ camera to attain quality photographs. I don’t use my smartphone camera for a number of reasons. But I really like them; they’re wonderful. For the sort of work I used to do, every camera was a part of a set of working tools. For an enthusiast, the choice of one camera demands compromise. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I am one of those people who walk around with a Swiss pocket knife in their pants’ pocket. I’ll admit it can be bested by someone who carries two knives, two screwdrivers, a can opener and bottle opener around with him, plus scissors, a corkscrew, a punch and a few other items. I came to photography because I loved it, but it was a lot of hard work. Aside from taking the picture, there was the endless choice of possible emulsions, chemical processes, developing films, and printing on paper. Digital photography made most of the techniques I learned and mastered over the years irrelevant. It was cheaper and easier, and it soon became available to almost everyone, thus greatly reducing the need for professional photographers. And as amateurs began to take advantage of the new tools, they demonstrated that imagination and invention need no diploma. But still, easy isn’t enough. When things get a little easier, we unconsciously search out difficulty. For instance, I’ve noticed that with the digital camera, it’s so easy to take a picture that people amass an infinite number of them… and then go through the agonies of hell deciding which ones to show their friends.

D2403_02
this basket of books was found on the street, asking for adoption
some folks just can’t bear to throw a beloved book away

After moving to my new home, I started taking long walks to get to know the neighborhood better. Found the public library, a beautiful new building with large windows and a very modern design. It was a little hard for me to visit, because it was only open from 2:00 to 7:00 pm. I usually rest from 2:00 to 4:00, but no matter… I finally got there when it was open, and looked around. It was very clean and orderly. They had computers there too. The isles were wide, and the rooms were brightly lit. But strangely enough, there seemed to be less books than I expected. I searched out subjects that interested me, and was disappointed to find the book choices few. It turned out that the library was relatively new. The head librarian with whom I spoke seemed a very congenial woman.

D2490_65
this is the newest type of library here; run by volunteers and offering
free books to anyone who wants them

For the first time in my life, I started thinking of what would happen to my own sizable collection of books. It occurred to me that I could leave them to this library in my last will, and contribute something tangible to my neighbors after my death. But when I asked the librarian if the library would be interested in a gift of books, I saw embarrassment in her face. Well, she said, they were always pleased to receive a present but the library was only interested in new books. New Books? I asked for clarification. Surely people still read Tolstoy and Shalom Aleichem? Well, of course, people are welcome to read whatever they choose, she explained, but the library only accepts books that have been published or printed since the turn of the century. Yikes!

Advertisements

students

D2447_181

One of the most beautiful aspects of the summer is that it’s vacation time for students. And just as the rest of us are inclined to fall into routine, to live our lives automatically, like unfeeling robots (with a headache, at times), so too, students can get into the habit of learning bits of information by heart, and collecting them under the tongue or in the inner ear, till they start sliding out the nose. How wonderful, and how necessary, the vacation. And in honor of summer vacation, let me share with you my thoughts on this very special occupation.

D2447_144

Unlike monks, priests, rabbis, nuns, religious or monastic men and women, there is one category of holiness that requires no ascetic self discipline. That is the role of the student, who follows his curiosity, and grows day by day, increasing his understanding of the world around and within him, his awareness of his fellow man, and his love for all living things and even the inanimate objects that make up our universe.

D2447_128

Unfortunately, because society has deemed it necessary for children and youths to study certain functional bits of knowledge, and combined this need with the need of adults to be rid of children for the majority of the day… so that they, the adults, may be free to work, there has been an ever growing resentment towards study. This anger becomes more acute, and at times turns to outright hatred when the ‘baby sitting’ is accompanied by torturous tests which humiliate the so-called student.

D2447_111

But those who have tasted the sweetness of study for its own sake, and have opened their hearts and minds to the thirst for knowledge, there is no pleasure that can compete with learning, for it is in itself a transcendental experience. The study hall is richer than the finest palace, and its occupants melt from pleasure as their awareness grows without bounds or boundaries. Nothing is forbidden. Everything makes sense. If not at first, then eventually. The student learns to be self assured in the knowledge that whatever is known by another human being can be learned by any man or woman.

D2447_179

The true student doesn’t study for the sake of a degree. He has no need for prizes or awards. Even if graduated or accredited in his profession, he continues to apply himself diligently because learning is uplifting and fills him with joy. Our greatest teachers were simple craftsmen who didn’t make a profession either of learning or teaching.

D2447_164

Study itself is best unselfish. Students take great pleasure in sharing their knowledge. And the best teacher is one’s fellow student who’s taken an extra step ahead. All the social stigmas fade and disappear in the study hall. One’s personal wealth is negligible. Beauty is skin deep. Toys and luxuries are forgotten. The more one learns, the stronger one becomes. Not like the muscle builders on the beach who become bound and crippled by their overwhelming muscles, the wise student becomes more sensitive and modest with each passing day, and more aware of the infinite presence of the universe. His or her determination to learn more is not for the sake of self aggrandizement, but out of love for the world as it is.

D2447_131

Tests… yes, there are tests. Life is full of tests. As long as we are alive and conscious we are tested. We may choose to avoid, to evade, or try to escape those tests, but they come running after us with indefatigable determination. The test of knowledge is that it be clear in your mouth. So that if someone asks you something, you need not hesitate, and then tell it to him. You should be able tell it to him immediately, and in such a way that it is easily understood.

D2447_185

The photos seen here are of students and their living quarters at the University of Ariel. Oh what a pleasure it is to be a student.

an ecological park

D2435_025

Ariel Sharon… we called him Arik, was a legend in his own lifetime. He was born in the village of Malal, here in Israel, in 1928. He became a central figure in the army when the modern state of Israel came into being, and proved himself a fearless hero and a leader of men. His father was an agronomist. He was a farmer. He had a big farm, and put a lot of work into it, but was always willing to ‘serve the people’. During the 1973 war, after we were attacked on the day of atonement, he went back to the army, though at the time he was already successfully involved in politics. He turned the tide of the war by crossing the Suez Canal and breaching the Egyptian forces on their side.

D2435_038

He retired from the army with the rank of Major General. Though successful in politics and a hero too, he wasn’t liked by all. He was often involved in controversy. The first real protest movement here against government policy occurred while he was Minister of Defense. In his long career, he served as Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Defense. In 2001 he was elected Prime Minister and held the office till 2006. While Prime Minister, he visited the garbage disposal site at Hiriah, near Tel Aviv, and decided to turn one of the ugliest sites in the country into a park.

D2435_066

When he proposed the project, there were scoffers. But the park did come into being. Not only is it the largest park in the middle east, but its unique ecological character stands as an example to the young. The project demonstrates our ability to change a contaminated site into a place of beauty, relying completely on natural means.

D2435_040

In 2005, he visited the mountain of garbage in Hiriah, just outside of Tel Aviv, where garbage had piled up for years, and suggested that the mountain be turned into a park. The original garbage pit had become a mountain of garbage. It’s still a mountain. But a pleasant one now. The emphasis is on the use of natural processes to improve the environment.

D2435_056

There is a pond in middle of the park. It is the visible part of a complex underground water storage pool. A system of four more underground pools is located at the top of the mountain and these pools collect rainwater. Water overflows from the upper pools into the pond at the heart of the mountain.

D2435_070

The depth of the pond varies and reaches eight feet at its deepest point. Around the pond is constructed wetland. This method helps maintain water quality by flushing the water through a system that uses both filters and water plants to purify the water. Schools of fish were also introduced to the pond to feed on mosquito larvae and other bugs, thus maintaining biological pest control. The pond is an ecological water project which serves as a natural habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including water fowl, amphibians and water insects.

D2435_072

School children come to visit the park, and are given guided tours in which they learn about nature’s ways of cleaning itself, and how plants and fish and other life forms help purify the water. There are lawns and flower beds, and little rivers that cross the park making it a very pleasant place to visit. The man whose name was tied to bloody battles and fierce controversy is remembered today as a lover of nature. The park is now called the Ariel Sharon Park.

D2435_093

vocational training

D1998_03
two girls, walking to school

As an addendum to my post of last Friday, ‘a radical proposal’, I would like to point out that Lloyd Lofthouse is posting a very interesting series on his blog, regarding the American educational system, called ‘Not Broken’ in which he compares the American system with those of other countries. I’ve learned a lot from his writing, on the problems facing the American system, and the post published yesterday, pointed to a problem that we too are facing here in Israel. We have a tendency to copy a lot of things American. In our country, we have a number of parallel systems, arranged to meet the needs of different populations within the country, but the secular school system is in fact very close to the American system.

D1998_06
school girl, about to take the bus

In his post, published yesterday, ‘Not Broken! Part 4’, Lloyd discusses the lack of a program that includes vocational training. I believe that this is one of our big problems in here as well. And I really can’t understand how such a thing has happened. We used to have some very fine vocation high schools, and they are being abandoned in the last few years. But at the same time, there is a great lack of skilled workers, who could be earning a good living, and doing skilled work that is important to society. You can find the article here:
Not Broken pt 4

a radical proposal

D801_15
the aged watch youth advance

To begin with, I would like to address some of the basic problems of maintaining an efficient school. You, my readers, already know the problems within the school, and within the classroom. Parents, by nature, try to be protective of their children. But every different parent has his own way. Some children are educated to believe they can do anything they want to do. Some believe that the school is a democratic institution. The teachers and the administration are seriously hampered in an effort to establish discipline in the class. Not only are punishments to be avoided. But it is often seen as unwarranted cruelty to give a ‘bad grade’ to a student, and it is taken for granted that everyone passes. Some parents may have excellent results raising their child that way, but when there are 25 students in a classroom, and occasionally even more, it doesn’t work. A school cannot be a democratic institution. Just as the police department is not a democratic institution, and all other state, county and city services have a hierarchy; in the same way, it is necessary for the school to have rules, and discipline, and for the students to know that it is not in their interest to break the rules. In the schools where I studied and taught, punishments of any sort were extremely rare. But students came to school with a great respect for the teacher and the school. They were self disciplined, and so did not need external discipline.

D651_32
a boys’ evening ball game

The law of the land, in most western countries, establishes that all children have the right to a state supported education. This is for the benefit of both the society and the child. But it is a fact, that all children do not have the same capacities for learning, the same intelligence or talent, nor the same motivation, health, emotional well being or psychological stability. I believe it is necessary to group students according to learning ability, before the 4th grade, and to organize classrooms in such a way that students of like capacities will be learning together in the classroom. This will prevent a situation in which gifted students sit bored in the classroom, while the teacher attempts to help students with learning difficulties to attain the level of the class as a whole. And it will also prevent the frustration of those with learning difficulties who find themselves continuously at the tail end of the learning experience, unable to keep pace with the better students.

D681_30
girl studying for the fun of it

I believe it is in the interest of the society, for all children to be taught reading, writing basic arithmetic, and the use of the computer until the conclusion of grade 3. After that, I would separate the students, according to their choice, either to study in a program oriented to prepare the student for a technical profession, or into another program oriented to offer encouragement and support for the learning of art, philosophy, history, or crafts. At any stage, from class 3 till the end of high school, a student should be allowed to change his educational direction. But this will require the enrollment in a preparatory course, before being allowed to join the other direction. Courses in the arts would include such subjects as dance, design, painting and literature, designing of games, appreciating the arts, and crafts, including crafts which are no longer considered essential to the society at large, such as carpentry, building, machinery, gardening, basket weaving, care giving and emotional support. As in the case of history and philosophy, such subjects would be taught for the sake and pleasure of knowledge itself, and not as professional training. And additional courses would be offered in nature appreciation, restoration of antiques, gardening, and cooking. Two separate categories of the study of arts would be the study of music and sports. For all students, there would be continuous opportunities to widen one’s horizons by taking supplementary courses, designed to promote as wide as possible a consciousness of general culture.

D681_20
children enjoying the computer at an early age

A program would be established in the school, in which students could earn pocket money by helping other students who were less developed in learning skills. The use of telephones or texting would be forbidden in the classroom. A series of dormitories or boarding houses would be attached to all schools, and would be specifically designed for single child families, or children whose families could not supply ample support.. These dormitories would be designed to encourage social responsibilities and an understanding of group dynamics, and a student’s continued study could be made conditional on participation in the dormitory arrangement. Students would not be forced to go to school, and their parents would be held responsible for their welfare as long as they were minors, unless those parents declared themselves to be unable to function as ‘parents responsible for their children’, and then the children would be referred to social services.

D679_33
learning to appreciate nature

Tests would continue, but would only test the capacity of the student to use those tools which he was taught in school. No attention would be given to personal taste, philosophical outlook, religion, or individual personality. All grades could be contested, and they would then be studied by an independent evaluation group of teachers, completely unrelated to the student in question. Libraries and computer study rooms would be available to all students, and in these rooms, silence and courtesy would be mandatory. A student could listen to music or other recorded audio material by way of earphones.

D818_50
two-dimensional sculptures on the schoolhouse roof

I am sure that some of my readers will disagree with different parts of my proposal, and others will have something to add to what I’ve written here. As aFrankAngle wrote in his fascinating study of school reform, recommended a few days ago on this blog, we are no longer in the ‘Industrial Age’, and our children are often inspired by pursuits having nothing to do with the traditional curriculum. Certainly, we have no interest in jailing our children in a school which holds no interest for them. When they grow up, they might find their happiness working as a DJ, or studying the history of ethnic migrations before the age of literacy. And so, if society has seen fit to guarantee the young student an opportunity of education, we should try to make that opportunity as attractive as possible, without limiting the traditional student in his education. If a young student desires to study medicine, or wishes one day to build a rocket that will fly to Saturn, he or she will have to accept the yoke of discipline. Because such knowledge is not gained by desire alone.

back to school

D1992_010
bird watching

Before presenting my proposal for a radical change in the public school system, it might be interesting to take a look at a post, written by my friend, aFrankAngle, three years ago, on the difficulty of school reform. You can read it here: on school reform
One of the things he mentions, is that the school system was designed to answer the needs of the Industrial Age. Let’s consider what we really want from schools today.

the act of learning

My dear friends, for the past few weeks, I have addressed different aspects of public education, and education in general. I am working my way towards a proposal for an alternative system of public education. But in this post, I would like to discuss the essence; the act of learning. It is said, that awed by the forest, we lose sight of the trees.

A231_10

Learning comes so early in life, and seems almost automatic. It is not surprising that some take it for granted. We watch a baby on the floor. He crawls, and then stands up. He takes his first steps. Falls down. Tries again. Falls down, and then tries still again… and again… and eventually he is walking. We get excited when that same baby says the word for father the first time… and then there’s another word… and words that we can’t understand… and quickly, it seems, he’s speaking our language. He’s learned to talk. We see our children taking part in all kinds of household chores and activities; and playing with other children in the playground, and it often seems as if they are constantly learning and growing stronger effortlessly. And if our child takes an interest in sports, or works out continuously in the local gym, whether because he likes swimming, or just likes exercise, he or she will grow muscles, will have a lean and strong body, and will be visibly healthy. If he just sits in front of the TV or the computer all day, he will grow fat and pale. Sometimes he will seem lazy. But these are extreme examples. Most children enjoy a little of this and a little of that.

Though we can see the effects of perseverance at sports on the bodies of young boys and girls, it is much harder to notice the changes in a young person as a result of mental activity. Once the child has reached the stage where he is able to communicate with us, it seems like the pressure is off. Nothing is quite so critical again. If he makes mistakes in grammar, or chooses the wrong word to express himself, it can amuse us. Or we can correct him. In either case, we see that he is always improving… growing on his own. Usually, we’re not so aware of his mental prowess, and the efficiency of his thinking. We are constantly surprised by the things he comes up with.

A231_05

But there is a process unseen, in which the child builds his understanding of the world around him on the basis of what he learns. Each time he or she learns something new, that new knowledge is added to his ability to understand and question the world around him. And he or she is building study habits that help him define attitudes to new unknowns. The more he learns, the more he will become aware of what he doesn’t know, and so, be motivated to learn more. Learning something new can bring a rush of pleasure, not unlike that felt by a runner who has just beaten his own record for a 100 meter run, or a young person having completed a double lap of the pool. He becomes aware of which behaviors are more likely to bring him success, and develops his own style.

I have many memories of specific learning challenges. Sometimes, a challenge was overcome in a half an hour, and sometimes they went on for months. Those difficult learning tasks are among my most beautiful memories.

A231_03

The learning difficulty I remember most vividly brings back the memories of fear, and relentless determination. It was the study of color. I developed an interest in photography at an early age. I got a camera, and learned how cameras work. Learned about lenses and optics. Learned how to develop film, and how to print black and white pictures on paper. Over the years, I explored the realm of photography, and learned much about the physical aspects of this craft, as well as the history, the chemistry, and the esthetics. In the beginning I employed slide photography to produce color images, because of the many difficulties of printing color photographs. But at some point, I decided that it was necessary to print color as well.

In those days, there were two great difficulties in printing color. One was that you had to work in complete darkness. In the standard dark room, you could use a red light to see what you were doing. But in a color darkroom, any color could affect the paper, so the room had to be black. It was like being blind. And the second difficulty was that the process was rather complicated, and took quite a bit of time, even to print a test strip. The chemicals had to be kept at a constant temperature of 38º Celsius. Keeping the chemicals that hot, constantly, was something of a juggling act. But I learned how to do it. It was then that I encountered a personal problem. It was a limitation that made it very hard for me to work with color. It was something like dyslexia. I did not see the color magenta.

A231_12

Human beings are biologically sensitive to three colors, which are conveyed from the eye to the brain, and combinations of those three colors define our awareness of the entire spectrum of what we are able to see. Though there are variations of those primary colors, we usually define them as red, green and blue. These are called Additive Primary Colors. For subtractive combination of colors, used in the mixing of pigments or dyes, such as in printing and photography, the primaries normally used are cyan, magenta, and yellow. While slide film produces a positive image, much like what you saw with your own eyes, when using negatives, you have to employ an artificial light which is projected through the negative onto the photographic paper, and the negative prevents certain frequencies from reaching the paper. Since the light source itself has a color aberration (as all artificial lamps do), it is necessary to filter the light going through the negative in order to achieve results which will resemble the colors seen in the original scene. The process demands the use of filters which can filter varying amounts of cyan, magenta and yellow. The filters I used were oblong sheets of transparent glass or cellophane with varying intensities of these primary colors.

In reproducing the colors of my negatives, I became aware of the fact that I was unable to recognize the color magenta. I had never had difficulties seeing colors before. But when trying to identify the color magenta, I saw it at time as if a dark blue, at times as purple, and sometimes as pink. I began to print a slice of a picture, with varying amounts of magenta in it, changing the picture from time to time, as I performed hundreds of exercises. The development of each test strip took about 25 minutes from start to finish, and much time was spent, performing the same exercise over and over again. With each variation, I was able to see the influence of the magenta on all the other colors in the spectrum, and identify the picture as a whole, as being correct or incorrect in overall color composition. As I continued, I became more sensitive to the color itself, and to the influence of the different primary colors on the palate I was working with. After about a half a year I was able to guess how much filtration I would need to justify a negative, just by looking at that negative. After a year, I was able to estimate the same with surety.

A231_19

The understanding of color is not a subjective experience. Colors can be measured by optical devices, and their light wave frequencies are as exact as the weighing or measuring of any physical material.

I have had similar experiences in other fields of learning. In learning a foreign language, once I understood the basics of the language, I would read literature, and discover a great amount of new words. Each time, I would find the meaning in the dictionary. But there were times, when I chose to read dictionaries, skipping over the words I knew, as I searched for new words. I remember reading the bible (which I knew quite well) in translation in order to gain fluency and intimacy with a language I did not know well enough. And again, the repetitive actions bring about self assurance and an easier grasp of new pieces of knowledge all the time, just as repetitive physical actions result in body building. The stronger that one is, the easier the process of study. This is not dependent on intelligence. A person of lesser intelligence, working seriously in his studies, can surpass the accomplishments of a more intelligent person. It is a mistake to give all credit to native talent or intelligence.

A231_09

The photos are of women studying art.