Yeshiva: The Ultimate Free-Market Educational Experience

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Cleaning out old emails today, I stumbled across this 2013 article from Prof. Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School describing the eminent Lakewood yeshiva in New Jersey, where about 6,700 undergraduate and graduate students spend their days studying Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud. What education reformers should find fascinating are their innovative mode of instruction and faculty selection/retention policies, the combination of which Feldman calls “a strikingly disruptive model of higher education”:

Every term, each student must sign up for a chabura (essentially, a semester-long seminar group) presided over by a fellow student who functions as the faculty member. A free-market system governs the organization of the seminars. There’s only one way to become a seminar head: to be nominated by your peers who sign up to join. If you don’t have enough sign-ups, you lose your faculty position. If you’re good, students will keep signing up each term and you keep your post.

Tenure doesn’t exist, except for a handful of senior faculty. The seminars can range in size from as few as 15 students to as many as 200. The members meet for lectures by the seminar head and guided discussions several times week. The rest of the time, they engage in analysis, debate and discussion with assigned partners. Senior faculty are available for guidance and help as needed. Subject matter, too, varies, with some seminar groups focusing on specific sections of the Talmud and others pursuing a wider range of topics addressed by Jewish legal tradition.

In essence, the students are running the institution. Traditional Jewish education is usually thought of as intensely hierarchical, and in some ways it is — respect for rabbis and teachers runs deep. But when it comes to the intellectual heart of the yeshiva, the core activity of Talmud study, the Lakewood model is astonishingly egalitarian and democratic.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a liberal arts college try this?

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7 Responses to Yeshiva: The Ultimate Free-Market Educational Experience

  1. matthewladner says:

    Acton Academies seem to be following this path a bit.

  2. In k-12 schools no time for this type of organizational plan. Must cover those Common Core State Standards.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    I suspect this works well in the context of a strong religious community with 1) shared values and mission and 2) a relatively fixed educational scope, but outside that context it might simply mean the inmates run the asylum. Outside a strong culture, students are not highly incentivized to make their own educational demands rigorous.

    • jasonbedrick says:

      Yes, I completely agree it wouldn’t work everywhere. And perhaps the excerpt oversells a bit how much control the students have over what is studied (at the end of the day, they will be studying the Talmud — the question is just which section they’re covering and how).

      That said, I think it would work in some colleges where they foster a strong culture of learning and inquiry. Hillsdale is a good example.

      • Greg Forster says:

        That’s what I meant by a “fixed educational scope.” You couldn’t do liberal arts this way. Indeed, “integrative seminars” and “first-year experience” classes almost universally stink in the liberal arts even when the faculty run them, because no one is incentivized to do anything substantial with them in the absence of a fixed educational scope.

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