Dr. Starr served as Charles R. Bronfman Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, and Visiting Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, at Brandeis University and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. Dr. Starr can be reached at thedavidstarr@me.com. 

This year I taught a Wexner Heritage class in Baltimore. I enjoyed it, how could I not, given the lovely people: they were bright, enthusiastic, appreciative and generous. I’m still in touch with Wexner students I had in Pittsburgh and in Aspen and I’m hoping that will hold true for these Maryland folks too. But something big nags at me: I’m not sure how well I taught, and therefore I’m not sure how well the participants learned.

What I’m getting at is the perennial question of defining educational success: what it is and who defines it. Most of us, most of the time, live in a transactional universe. We talk TO others, we do one thing, the other responds. We make, we sell and they buy. If the other person buys, if they like, then by definition as producers we’ve done our job.

In education, that perspective tells me as the teacher, “If they–the students– liked the course or experience, or me, then I succeeded.” At some level that’s obviously true. If participants don’t enjoy themselves they probably won’t continue learning, rendering the class a mere one-off.

So, too, teachers who connect to students personally enhance the learning. In Jewish adult learning the teacher becomes a kind of text, modeling certain Jewish virtues that we want to deploy and highlight. We know that just as we embody these traits for lay leaders, they’re likely already beginning to do the same for their families, their peers, and the many stakeholders with whom they interact. It’s all good.

Those dynamics and outcomes may be necessary but they’re not sufficient. It’s not enough for a teacher to say to himself “It doesn’t matter what I think about how I did, it only matters if they had a good experience.” Every practitioner has to possess and invent off of an inner virtue ethic, a deep sense of what excellence is and what it demands. The market cannot take the place of one’s internal barometer, one’s self-assessment, and one’s quality-control mechanism. 

Substantively too we shouldn’t pay all that much attention to the enjoyment quotient. Serious education won’t tickle all the time: it’s hard work to think about ideas worth our wrestling. Learning is as much if not more about the strange as it is about the familiar. 

Since we left Sinai with the Torah under our arm, it’s worth remembering a couple of takeaways from that foundational experience. First, Torah demands action, results, in other words accountability. We answer to a higher authority, as the Hebrew National commercial reminds us. As one friend of mine once said, “My philosophy of parenting comes down to teaching my kids one thing: actions have consequences. If they learn that, they have a shot at leading good lives; if they cannot, they have no shot.” Second, Torah reminds us, and lives inside of, covenant. God doesn’t hand it off to us and wash His hands of us, rather God walks with us. We practice self-assessment precisely because we know that it’s the right standard of excellence to practice, but also because it brings us closer to those with whom we live and work, those of us who we teach or lead, in true covenantal fashion.

Thanks to Wexner’s ethic of excellence I’ll soon discover what my students thought of my teaching and me. I’m curious and like any ever-sensitive teacher hoping for good reviews. But most importantly I’ll take a hard look at how I did, learn the right lessons, make the right changes, and hopefully do a better job next time.