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InterACT: Statisticians: Deeper Than Deep Learning

A more philosophical post than usual – for what it’s worth.

This morning I had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Elane Geller, a Holocaust survivor originally from Poland, and now a resident of Southern California. I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak a number of times in my life, and it’s always a profound experience, but there were two particular take-away ideas I thought would be worth sharing in this space. 

The first was an observation Geller offered about Holocaust education, particularly for Jewish children. She commented that any learning about the Holocaust should be considered in a wider context (my words, not hers), when she talked about a cycle, “from joy, to pain, and back to joy again.” In other words, Holocaust education would not be a starting point for Jewish education; instead, you should start with the positivity of traditions and living culture. Then, yes, it is necessary to understand the negative history of the Holocaust, to confront evil directly and name it. And finally, you wouldn’t want to neglect the importance of closure that brings the child back to a sense of joy and positivity about the future.

It struck me that this cycle could apply to any learning experience, within the span of  day, week, month or years. If academics are relevant to our students’ lives as members of a challenged society, then we must confront challenges openly, honestly, in ways that are sensitive to individuals and cultures while also academically focused. On the personal side, it makes sense to establish a sense of joy about learning, a degree of comfort among people in an academic community. Then, it should be safe to move into content that may be uncomfortable for some, but absolutely necessary. Such work can be done in an age-appropriate way that is still academically “honest” and true to the core of an academic discipline, and able to respect and honor the personal, emotional side of learning. The cycle is complete when our uncomfortable or challenging learning experiences are brought to a positive conclusion, with a sense of agency and purpose, and clear evidence of new learning.

The second observation that stuck with me this morning occurred when Geller talked about a sense of mutual responsibility, and even a sense of mutual peril in looking at world events. It’s a sentiment that has been expressed many times in many cultures, that a threat to human rights anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere. The word ubuntu, found in multiple languages and dialects in southern Africa, identifies a similar concept – that my humanity is bound up in your humanity.

Given the scope of the humanitarian crises right now in places like Syria, South Sudan, central Africa, and North Korea, American education policy debates begin to look relatively minor. But on the other hand, the United States is not exactly leading the world in efforts to avoid a humanitarian crisis of its own (though of a different nature). The overall poverty rate in the United States is shameful, given our overall economic output. The childhood poverty rate is an embarrassment, and a blight that should speak to all of us on a personal, moral level. The potential social and economic upheaval that awaits us if we continue down this path should give us all pause, and then, prompt us to act.

Considering the severity of the poverty problem and the obvious deleterious effects of poverty on children’s health, social and academic development, it’s frankly troubling to me that philanthropists, politicians, and others supposedly dedicated to children’s welfare can remain relatively silent about economics and broader social policies, while dedicating considerable time, money, and energy to vigorous battles over policies that have questionable chances of producing minor improvements in children’s lives. I’m not trying to seize the Holocaust or other vast social problems as a high road to attack the positions of people whose education policy ideas I disagree with; setting aside the merits of any specific policy position, I will go so far as to say that those focused on marginal issues while ignoring essential issues lack credibility when they try to seize the moral high ground.

Let’s have those debates. But maybe those debates would be less contentious and more productive if we had more ubuntu.

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David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is the Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His main responsibilities are in communications and membership, and he works t...