The Uses and Misuses of Mortality
Among the most important things for each of us to know and internalize is that our time is not unlimited. Absent the specter of death human beings would lose much of the impetus to grow up and undertake adult responsibilities.
When we are young, our future in learning seems to stretch indefinitely in front of us. It's easy to tell ourselves that if I did not learn well today, or wasted most of my time, no problem, I'll do better tomorrow. And if I wasted the zman, next zman will be different.
As long as there is no awareness that the time to make amends will come to an end at some point, there is no sense of urgency or horror over time wasted.
Hillel said, "Do not say, when I have free time, I'll learn, for perhaps you will never have free time" (Pirkei Avos 2:5). But internalizing Hillel's message is not easy, particularly when we are young.
Only when signs of our immortality can no longer be ignored do the limitations of time begin to act as an incentive to action. But by the time that we begin calculating the likelihood of being there for the chuppah of our newest grandchild, we often find that our intellectual and physical powers are no longer what they once were. Recognition of our own limited time comes too late.
IRONICALLY, IT IS also possible to become too obsessed with the finitude of our lives to the detriment of reaching our potential.
A few weeks ago, I visited the shiva house of Mrs. Ahuva (Libby) Rubinoff, a"h, the mother of a friend. As I was leaving, my friend suggested that I look at some of his mother's paintings, which adorned a full wall of her apartment. She started taking art lessons when she was 92, and thoroughly enjoyed her new hobby and the thought of leaving something tangible to her grandchildren in the form of paintings.
I'm unqualified to pass judgment on the quality of her art work. But clearly in the two years between picking up her paint brushes for the first time and her passing, Mrs. Rubinoff achieved sufficient technical mastery to transfer visually pleasing images from her mind's eye to canvas. She overcame the natural fear of learning new things, which only increases with age, and the yetzer whispering in her ear that it was too late to get anything out of art lessons.
My first semester in law school, 1973, coincided with impeachment hearings for President Richard M. Nixon. The one indispensable authority on impeachment at the time was Professor Raoul Berger of Harvard Law School. At 31, Berger was the first violinist for the Cincinnati Philharmonic, without even a college degree. He did not graduate law school until he was 35, more than a decade after most lawyers have begun practice, or start teaching law until he was near retirement age.
Similarly, Albert Schweitzer was the world's greatest organist when he decided to study medicine at the age of 30, and almost 47 before he embarked on the lifetime work for which he is most famous – a medical clinic in Gabon. It would have been natural for both Berger and Schweitzer to content themselves with success in their musical careers and decide that 30 was too late to start the long training for a legal or medical career. Yet their initial achievements pale besides those in their second careers. Both men lived to ripe old age – Berger to 99 and Schweitzer to 90 – perhaps because they did not worry too much about the time remaining.
Literary critic Edmund Wilson began learning Hebrew and Russian in his late 60s. Inscribed on his tombstone was chazak chazak ve'nischazeik – a fitting epitaph for having the courage to undertake the study two difficult new languages, with non-Latin alphabets, late in life, or perhaps for the chutzpah to publicly challenge the translations of Vladimir Nabokov, a native Russian-speaker, on the basis of his recently acquired Russian.
But my personal favorite among those who refused to let advanced age deter them from embarking on new projects is Mordechai Tobin, a gentleman I first met in his late 60s. He did not just become a ba'al teshuva at that age but a full-time yeshiva student at Ohr Somayach. In the eighteen years between his entry into Ohr Somayach and his passing, he completed all of Shas, with the exception of Gittin. And he did not do so by attending a daf yomi shiur. He would sit at his breakfast table for four hours every morning many copious notes on the daf as he learned. He was truly a model of the value a filling each day to the maximum without fretting too much about how many more are left.
The Power of Seemingly Small Messages
The New York Times Magazine recently carried a fascinating article about the power of a few short educational messages, "Who Gets to Graduate?" (May 15, 2014). The long article focused on the efforts of the University of Texas to increase its four-year graduation rate – currently 52%.
Because the University of Texas automatically accepts any student graduating in the top 7% of his or her high school class, it has a large number of students from the groups most likely to drop out – those from the lowest income quartile, or with SAT scores 200 points below the average, and or whose parents did not attend college – in each incoming of 7,200.
Researchers David Yeager and Greg Walton identified 1,200 incoming students with less than a 40% chance of graduating on time. In one of the largest experiments in general developmental psychology every conducted, they included in the orientation week material a package of a dozen or so web pages, with older students reflecting about their experiences as freshmen. The incoming class was divided into four groups. One group viewed students talking about their concerns that they did not really belong when they arrived in Austin and how they had eventually begun to feel comfortable. Another group heard older students talking about doubting their intellectual capabilities, but realizing that with study and application they grew smarter. A third group heard a combination of the first two messages, and the fourth, the control group, heard a series of banal reflections with no particular educational message. After viewing the web pages, students were asked to rewrite in their own words what they had learned. The entire process took only 25-45 minutes.
Despite the brevity of the intervention, the results were promising. Normally, around 81-82% of "disadvantaged" freshmen earn 12 academic credits their first semester, as opposed to 90% of the more advantaged students. But among those disadvantaged students who received a combination of messages -- group three -- 86% completed 12 academic credits.
The apparent power of a single short intervention confirmed results of other experiments previously conducted by the two lead researchers. Walton and another Stanford professor conducted an experiment at an elite private college, where freshmen read essays by upperclassmen about how out of place they felt when they arrived, until they discovered that everyone else felt the same way. The freshmen then had to write an essay or make a video incorporating the same general message. That simple intervention, taking less than an hour, resulted in tripling the percentage of black students who graduated in the top quarter of their class and halving the black-white achievement gap.
Another experiment was aimed at community college students, where dropout rates are typically over 50%. The traditional remedy for lack of academic preparation has been remedial classes in writing and math. But that has proven largely counter-productive because the remedial classes convey the implicit message: You are not smart enough to be in college. Yeager and Walton divided 288 junior college students enrolled in remedial math into two groups. One group read a generic article about the brain; the other group read an article amassing scientific evidence against the so-called entity theory of intelligence – i.e., intelligence is unitary, inherited, and immutable. One-fifth of the control group dropped out of remedial math versus only 9% of the treatment group.
That experiment reinforces earlier experiments of Stanford professor Carol Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell with 700 low-achieving minority students. Both groups of 350 received an eight-part course on study habits. But one group also received a 50-minute unit built on the message that the brain is a muscle – the more one uses it the stronger it becomes. Teachers in the school were immediately able to pick out which students had received the positive message by their improved study habits and grades, and the downward trend in math scores in the school was reversed almost overnight.
One of the key findings to emerge from these experiments is that how we interpret experiences is more important than the experiences themselves. Students from high-status families much more easily shrug off negative events, like a poor test score. They did not benefit greatly, if at all, from the researchers' interventions. But for the UT students whose backgrounds made them vulnerable to concerns that they were above their heads messages about belonging and their ability to develop intellectually helped greatly in dealing with setbacks. A poor test grade was no longer taken as confirmation that they were out of their league. The interventions helped them draw again on the confidence built up as successful high school students.
Besides the effectiveness of relatively brief, one-time interventions, the recent experiments point to the power of "self-persuasion:" Having the subjects restate the messages they are receiving for others appears much more effective in helping them internalize the message than being beaten over the head with it. Yeager and Walton have found it crucial to design the messages to address the particular anxieties of the subject. Minority students on elite campuses, for instance, are not interchangeable with community college students.
Finally, the message that IQ does not determine success is of particular relevance to Torah learning. IQ is useful for passing tests easily when one is young. But as I heard from a major rosh yeshiva on Shavuos: There are great talmidei chachamim of only average intellectual ability and others who were born geniuses. The former were not prevented from greatness in Torah by their lack of outstanding native intellect, and the latter did not become great scholars by virtue of their intellects. Without ameilus b'Torah, genius is not sufficient, and with ameilus b'Torah it is not necessary.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) teaches that a rav who withholds a halacha from his talmid is as if he stole from him the inheritance of his forefathers, as it says, "The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance for the congregation of Yaakov. The Maharsha explains that the talmid referred to is the student of Rav Preida whom Rav Preida had to teach 400 times until he understood. But understand he would, as long as he made the effort, for Torah is an inheritance to the Jewish people.