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.