Notebook learning

I just came back from a simcha and while there spoke to a old-time senior RIETS person, always good to catch up on the insider baseball on recent events from his perspective.
Along the way he noted:
“Guys dont really learn anymore. They do it to be part of a group and fill their notebooks with the content of shiur. They dont ask questions, they are not sharp or analytic anymore.” Rav Gorelik or “Rav Romm would call on you and you were expected to think to answer a question on the spot.” “Today over half the shiurim require no thinking. Guys just listen and write.” In the old days, you would have been criticized for such unthinking passivity.
To which I replied: “But this happened entirely under your watch.You were there for the entire change.”

So who is responsible for such changes? Do we attribute it to the will of the students?external forces? Should this rabbi have spoken up? Would it have helped?

This same RIETS figure noted that numerically women’s learning in Modern Orthodoxy has stayed constant. They may have moved from one institution to another in NYC and choose different programs in Israel but the numbers overall are stable. At that point we got into the above conversation that men’s learning has also plateaued.

9 responses to “Notebook learning

  1. I have heard this complaint about RIETS before, and though I can’t speak to what the place was like in the past, my experience in my three years there does not match this description at all. I admit that the shiurim I have been in are small and relatively marginal, but you have to be prepared, and ready to ask questions in both of those. What I hear from friends in some of the other Shiurim is the same. The critique you mention is a common one, but I’m not convinced the problem is as pervasive in the yeshiva as some believe.

    [removal of personal names by site owner.]

  2. We must remember the numbers here. Back in the day, most didn’t learn at all in yu and the few who did were the best and brightest. Now Many more learn, so what comes with that is more people who don’t take it as seriously.

  3. I think the year is Israel has a lot to do with it. Lots of students in RIETS, and especially those who would have been the more active ones, come to YU now having spent 2-3 years developing a style of learning and a relationship with a Rebbe, which they have been trained to feel it is now they’re now responsible to implement on their own. I know in my Yeshiva the going away message given by the most prominent Rebbe to the overseas program was about how his goal had been to leave us with the skills to make it on our own. As such, many of the students are not looking to get much more than basic structure from their shuir, and see it as entirely secondary to their seder time where the real learning/thinking takes place.

  4. “This same RIETS figure noted that numerically women’s learning in Modern Orthodoxy has stayed constant. They may have moved from one institution to another in NYC and choose different programs in Israel but the numbers overall are stable. ”
    I don’t know which years this person was referring to, but if the spread includes more than 7-8 years, than the numbers have change dramatically. Also, would you agree with this assessment? You posted a while back about a kind of musical chairs between the Stern Talmud program, Drisha, and now Hadar.

    • Knowing the person, I assume he definitely meant more than 8 years.
      Do I agree? Until I have real enrollment numbers it is hard to make an assessment.
      I do know that a young women told me last week “Drisha does not seem vibrant now that women are choosing the Stern Talmud program, Maharat, and Hadar.”
      So there is a sense of shuffling the deck of a limited number of women. That is a feeling not demography.
      For the actual growth rates – What were the enrollment numbers in 1987? 1997? How many used to do shanah gimel in Michlalah in 1980’s?
      Are the number of attendees of Migdol Oz going up greatly or even catching up to the more traditional woman’s programs?
      Do you have numbers to support a dramatic increase from 2002 until today -taking into account the enrollments elsewhere?

  5. Ah yes, the notebook people. I remember them well. I confess that I never took notes in shiur – and almost never take notes in any class I’ve taken up through all my doctoral seminars. Notes are what you do when you read and want to remember something. I have a feeling that most people’s notes are actually incoherent even to themselves when they read them.

    One thing to consider is the fact that some of the more ambitious notebookers may think of themselves as publishing “reshimos” of their revered teachers in another 30 years becasue their teachers are unlikely to publish their chiddushim on Gemara. Then they get credibility as being the “talmud muvhak of x even though no one ever heard them them speak up in shiur.

    Another factor is that some of the large shiurim are less analytical and more like massive downloads of information and there really is nothing else to do if you want to retain most of it.

    I also agree with Evan above that there is a mismatch between what goes on in Israel and RIETS aside from those on the straight and narrow Gush path. Many of the more analytically minded students do not find a shiur that is more place for reflection and critical comparison to what they have been doing on their own, a place to be fed something that is really detached from exploring the core issues of a given sugya as they see it.

  6. So it seems like unfortunately, no one has real numbers to inform a real conversation. My impression is from having recently spent two years working with Stern College students, and comparing what I found there to what I thought to be true back when I was in yeshiva. Not very accurate, I suppose.

  7. I’m not sure which numbers are being discussed. What is meant by “women’s learning”? Does this refer only to the equivalent of what men learn in the standard yeshiva curriculum?

    If it’s the number of women in post-college programs then indeed, there are probably not significantly more in the US than there were 8 years ago. But if you take into account the number of women learning gemara to some extent in high school through college, my impression is that this has increased somewhat more as self-consciously modern orthodox high schools with separate limudei kodesh classes have thought about making the male and female curricula somewhat more equal.

    All in all, my impression is that women’s curricula have not changed much in high schools or Israel programs over the last decade, but I doubt that there is any real data on this.

    Shai, perhaps you know whether Stern increased the Gemara offerings for its undergraduates over the last few years or whether the enrollment in the existing classes has gone up or down? Surely someone could ask R’s Kanarfogel or Kahn.

  8. How difficult would it be for someone to get accurate numbers about the number of women learning? Not very, I suppose. But we should distinguish between full time learning by women and women who can learn on a high level. The lawyer, MD, and day school teacher who can follow a serious gemara or Halakha shiur or conversation may be more significant than how many women are learning full time in an official program.

    As for the notebook issue, I believe that they is a very substantive difference between the Rav’s zt”l shiur in the 1960’s & 1970’s and today’s shiurim. But part of this is a difference between the culture where now learning is viewed more as a religious enterprise rather than an intellectual enterprise.

    My understanding is the the students in RIETS were less frum in the 1970’s.

    If the goal of learning gemara is part of a religious community and to partake in a religious enterprise, the actual content and truth of the Torah is of secondary or even of minor importance.

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