In today’s culture, we tend to separate education from stories. Music is considered peripheral, and singing seems irrelevant. Meals are outside the classroom and considered a break from learning. Family, especially multi-generational and extended kin, have nothing to do with conventional school. Encouraging the youngest to ask questions, much less playing hide and seek in the middle of a lesson, would be considered the exception, not the rule. Staying up late, still singing, is usually discouraged.
Yet, these are some of the elements of the Passover Seder that are not only enjoyed by people (of all faiths), but have the best features of real education. Pedagogically speaking, the Passover Seder is educational excellence. It is orderly (seder means order), but engaging and fun. There are a series of actions/activities with explanations and several interpretations that encourage thinking and doing. Food as symbol is central to the Seder. There is a special centerpiece–the seder plate– which has odd samples of a variety of foods that one would probably not eat otherwise, alone, much less in even odder combinations. It is part of what makes the night “unlike any other night”. Doing an unusual exercise (and explaining it), and perhaps adding a song, often leads to better information retention. Engaging with the story is the first level of pedagogy. Learning continues at all levels, through action and inquiry, critical discussion, laughter and singing.
Culturally, the Seder has resonated beyond strict religious observance to Spring ritual that reminds us of our personal and cultural “narrow straits” (the literal translation of the hebrew word for Egypt)–of constricted opportunities, narrow-mindedness, limited movement– and celebrates liberation from oppression. Slavery and oppression are human tragedies that are sadly not completely relegated to history. Natural plagues and severe weather force us to reconsider our lives and our interactions with the natural world. What may be Supernatural in the stories, resonates because we can connect to the natural world.
The lesson of good pedagogy is not specific to any single religion, nor is it even religious in nature. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is the understanding of the nature of learning that makes many religious rituals highly effective. To be clear, I am not suggesting that any religious rituals belong anywhere in our schools or public spaces (or government spaces). I am noting some characteristics that make learning effective and layered, and can be employed in non-religious domains.
The process of educating can not be limited to cramming test questions and sample choices and then bubbling them in. Many people confuse facts with truth, or have trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, often without realizing their confusion. Verbiage gets used as a mask for depth. True education liberates us from the narrow straits–whatever and wherever their origins. It expands our abilities to solve problems, rather than merely lay blame or recreate limiting or even oppressive conditions. Many so-called educated people can recite facts and tell stories, but thinking beyond one’s own experience and narrow confines, and applying an array of knowledge from various contexts, distinguishes the well-educated from those who have a more rudimentary education. Education is actually a creative endeavor, that engages and arouses curiosity and inquiry. Lessons are learned not merely from disaster,(in fact, they are all too often not learned from disaster), but also from reengaging in stories and questions and cultural remnants; from expanding our narrow straits, and including an array of sensory experiences to enhance our learning. It’s all part of truly educating.
So, in this time of Spring cleaning, and religious holidays celebrating liberation from oppression and rebirth and renewal, reconsider education as a creative endeavor requiring an array of approaches and experiences . Engagement and inquiry are necessary for learning and evolving. Our narrow spaces expand, and we can be liberated, and liberate others, through creative activity.