Friday, January 27, 2012

Parashat Bo

Barbara McClintock was a Nobel Prize winning genetic scientist who spent her life studying ears of corn. She was one of the most precise empirical observers and rigorously logical thinkers in American science. But, towards the end of her life, when she was asked “how do you do great science?” she answered, "about the only thing I can tell you about the doing of science is that you somehow have to have a feeling for the organism". In thinking about the ears of corn that she worked with all of her life, she added, "Really, all I can tell you about doing great science is that you somehow have to lean into the kernel."

I read about McClintock in a book called, The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, in an article by a great educator and writer, Parker J. Palmer.   In his article, Palmer relates, "Barbara McClintock practiced the highest form of love – which is intimacy which does not annihilate difference".  It’s awesome to think about this idea of intimacy which does not annihilate difference as it relates to the art of being an effective teacher.  When we teach, we must often attend to the diverse needs of many individual students with distinct learning styles and personalities
In McClintock’s work, her focus was on the individual ears, or sometimes even kernels of corn.  What makes us effective is our ability to “lean into the kernels” in our own lives – or to “somehow have a feeling for” the individual student, or person, or task, we face?  In McClintock’s words, we must seek intimacy which does not annihilate difference.
A few years ago I taught a Bat Mitzvah student how to chant from the Torah.  Teaching Torah chanting to 12 and 13 year old kids is something I’ve done since I was in high school.  But this time was different: my student was severely hearing impaired.  My inclination was to allow her to read from the Torah without learning how to chant.  But the rabbi of the synagogue urged me to teach her to chant Torah – just to teach her differently than I’d taught the other kids. 
Our Torah portion this week teaches a similar lesson.  In Exodus 10:2, we read about the obligation of teaching the generations that follow about the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. We must, “tell it in the ears of your children and grandchildren”. 
      This description is of a very intimate, very personalized telling!  It is individualized – it requires really knowing the person you’re talking to.  Saying something “in the ears” of someone else is not simply saying to, “teach it to them” – rather, it’s a quiet telling: deeply personal, meaningful, and sacred.     
                In the Book of Exodus, the end goal of “telling it into the ears” (of our students) is not just so that they might gain knowledge of the event of the Exodus.  It’s much more profound and much more powerful than that.  The verse continues, saying that we must tell it into their ears, “and you will (both) know that I am God”.
What is the goal of education?  According to Barbara McClintock and the Book of Exodus, Education requires: relationship, intimacy, and the recognition of divinity in all things – both the ears of corn and the ears of children. 

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