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Exams good or bad – that is the question

By Rabbi Deborah Blausten, FRS

Jews are the people of the book. Learning is central to Jewish culture, and our sages dedicate much of their time to extolling the virtues of study, and to developing a rich understanding of how best to learn. Jewish learning is noisy, repetitive, conversational, relational, and is valuable whether it has a purpose or is learning lishma, for its own sake. 

The thirst for knowledge that emerges from a desire to take in all of God’s wisdom, extended in the period after the Enlightenment to a cultural attachment to learning in a more broad sense. Secular wisdom became understood as another part of the expression of truth in the world, and mastering the worlds of science, engineering, literature and language became paths into new roles in society for Jews as the world opened up. Learning was both work and play for our sages of old, and the love of learning permeates some of the most vital spaces in Jewish life today. 

As a congregational rabbi, I get to see both the uplifting power of mastering a new idea or concept and I spend much time worrying about the impact of contemporary learning and in particular assessment environments on their students. We’re in the midst of exam season and I find myself talking often to young people who are finding the pressure of performance and examinations has robbed them of the joy they once found in a subject. While incredible teachers create 3D worlds of learning, examinations struggle to capture the sparks of joy or insight or the value of hard fought for progress. 

In congregational life, we have the enormous privilege of meeting young people in the round, not just through what they write on the page. There is very little in life as testing as an exam season. More than 10 life-defining examinations in one week is something most of us will never face again, never want to face again, but it is still the experience that many of our teenagers are having at the moment.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua in Pirke Avot chapter 4 who would say: “Let the dignity of your student be as precious to you as your own”. I sincerely hope that continued debate and discussion around the assessment system in this country leads to a model where those who find themselves assessed within it are able to say with confidence they feel that Elazar ben Shammua’s words reflect their experience of the examination process.

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