Do I Need to Put a Mezuzah in My Flying Car?

The 1939–40 New York World’s Fair was the first exposition to be based on the future, with an opening slogan of “Dawn of a New Day”. It allowed all visitors to take a look at “the world of tomorrow”. According to the official New York World’s Fair pamphlet:

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

This world’s fair not only began the “cult of the future,” it was the first time we were promised the Jetson’s vision of a flying car. The flying car is the one part of the great promises of 1939 that has not come true. We have the robots, the stainless steel kitchens, the computers, televisions and more. But we still don’t have the flying car. Not even Top Gear has gone there, but we are being promised one.

Honestly, my concern is more mezuzot than flying cars. Jewish education is presently locked into the “cult of the future.” We have forgotten the lesson of the Trylon and Perisphere – (the futuristic symbols of that World’s Fair) – that “Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.” I want build a shining future. I think that our dreams are important. But, I am also concerned with the present.

I know that someday classrooms will have three walls of smartboards like on the CSI shows. I know that every kid will have tablet textbooks that whir and spin and do flip-flops. I envision personally creating an interactive Rashi program that teaches process rather than content. And, I have a suspicion that Jewish classrooms will come with bunk-beds to better recreate the camping experience because the future is not only technology.

My favorite educational future can be found in a Philip K. Dick novel, Martian Time Slip. In his future Mars all hands are need for work so a series of teaching machines care for the children. School is an arcade of cyber personalities. You can hang out with Plato, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln, etc. Each of these machines is interactive. They build relationships with the students and come to know what each student needs. I fantasize the Jewish version, being able to learn with Akiva, Maimonides and Rashi (all in kid friendly versions). The fantasy extends to early members of Hovevei Zion, Rick Recht and Martin Buber telling child friendly versions of Hasidic Tales.

I am not afraid of Skype Bar Mitzvah tutoring but I am concerned about the reduction of Jewish connection to ten minutes a week and one shabbaton a month. Because I believe in cognitive dissonance I believe in carpools and time spent together.

I went to one of the last of the Urban Hebrew schools. I walked there, spent between a half[H1] -an-hour to forty minutes to hanging out, fooling around (all but unsupervised), while waiting for class to begin. That free-form time spent together with other students is my strongest memory and the real bond in my Hebrew School experience. It is no different than pizza before Hebrew High. What Philip K. Dick understood is that students and teachers, even with teaching machines, need to build relationships. As my friend Danny Siegel says in one of his Psalms, “…they know you well enough to know you.”

Right now I know that electronic textbook technology is not ready for affordable use, so I got to do the best I can to make ideas jump off printed pages. I know that a few non-day schools have a smartboard or two, but it is not a technology we can expect. Even access to video projectors is limited. I have been to several workshops that have told teachers that social networking is the future, but few of these teachers are paid for training or preparation, let alone updating their profile.

I want to dream about the future, and talk about it and work on it; but I also want to know about the best contemporary best practices. As long as most Jewish education takes place in classrooms with teachers, I still want to work on making those settings better. Jewish education is about the future, but it is also very much about the now. In between our dreams and experiments (“It’s Alive!) we still need to worry about being effective this afternoon.

We will have smart-classrooms and remote learning, but right now most Jewish learning takes place on whiteboards and I want them to be used well. I want to maximize family education, continue to create powerful Jewish experiences, and not give up on youth groups.

First we need the flying cars, then we can worry about whether or not they halakhically need a mezuzah. We can give up on the present when the future is ready. We need to build all kinds of alternatives but not abandon improving the normative until they are ready.

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3 Responses to Do I Need to Put a Mezuzah in My Flying Car?

  1. Nice piece Joel. You’re right, we need to find the balance between yesterday and tomorrow – rushing headlong into the future without being ready is fraught with danger. The thing is that the future is happening now…digital teaching tools are being made available constantly right now. Our teachers need to know how to use them so that they can reach our students. If knowledge is constructed, then by learning how to use Google Earth, or voice thread is the foundation for whatever comes around day after tomorrow.

    Thank you for your wisdom.

  2. Joel:

    Great piece. Your caution and plea for balance is rational and sane. Allow me to share that the “flying car” is a metaphor for me as well (we may have talked about this before, I can’t recall.) I’m a child of the 1964-65 NY World’s Fair rather than the ’38 Fair, but, it too had the same futuristic bent. I had a strong secular and scientific education as a child. As an adult, I found myself asking “where are the flying cars?” and this was part of the impetus that drove me to explore my Judaism and eventually become a Jewish educator and musician. I wondered why we hadn’t yet conquered war, or poverty, or hunger, or many diseases. Science clearly didn’t have all the answers, so I began to look to another Source.

    I think I’m a bit more “gung-ho” for technology than your are. Like Peter, I think “the future” will be here a lot quicker than we might suspect-in fact, it is here now. As much as we need to focus of using what we already have well (and better) we need equal focus on rapidly adapting to the changes and new technologies. Money does need to be spent, and spent quickly, to get our places of learning up to date, or we will fall hopelessly behind!

    Technology is not, perforce, dehumanizing. I wrote a blog piece just the other day explaining how Facebook’s rapid and increasing success is actually a harbinger of good things-that people have a desire, a need, to use the technology not just for data mining, but for connecting to others, for social things, for improving and contoributing to society. See http://yoeitzdrian.blogspot.com/2011/01/social-net-works.html or http://migdalorguysblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/social-net-works.html

  3. […] at assisting Jewish educators in incorporating technology into their teaching. In his blog post Do I Need to Put a Mezuzah in My Flying Car? my esteemed colleague Joel Grishaver, who has given me the opportunity to share this column with […]

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