GELBFISH: How can we learn lishmah

grading opinion
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Before transferring to Yale, I used to study at Yeshiva University, and before that, at several yeshivas in New York City and abroad. People often ask me how Yale compares to the other institutions I’ve been at, and the answer of course is varied.

Yeshiva days were long and grueling, as are Yale days; in the former we studied Torah and our focus was primarily religious, while at Yale our focus tends to be on secular studies.

But the distinction between Yale and the yeshivas I’ve attended plays out most dramatically when it came to testing. At yeshivas there aren’t many tests, as each person was expected to study rigorously because of his love for Torah. We called this learning lishmah, a Hebrew word roughly translating to “for its own sake,” which denotes a devotion to study irrespective of its material dividends. If students at Yeshiva University spent so much time poring over ancient Jewish texts, it was out of their intrinsic love for such study.

Yale has many instances of activities done lishmah as well, but they tend to come in the realm of extracurriculars — students throw themselves wholeheartedly into theater, athletics, political advocacy and writing with zeal. The passion with which we throw ourselves into these activities is akin to that which drove YU students to learn Torah; extracurriculars are done lishmah.

But when it comes to classes and academics, I find a disturbing lack of learning for its own sake, perhaps because of the crushing weight of grades and GPAs. I see it clearly in myself and in others: Yale students, obsessed with glowing remarks from professors and spotless transcripts, often spend unreasonable hours obsessing over problem sets and exams, which diminishes our overall love of learning.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing the work, it’s that I’m too stressed to do it lishmah. Any one task I’ve been assigned for class would excite me in a vacuum, but given its mandatory nature, its crushing due date and the fact that it’ll appear on my transcript, it becomes a task, a chore I don’t have time to do. The evidence of similar disillusionment is all around me. How many Yale students go to class and pay attention with interest, work on research projects with passion and are actually excited by their homework?

I’m not advocating for a pass/fail system or a different system of grading entirely. I understand the role of grades in getting things done. But we don’t necessarily have to change the system in order to promote more positive attitudes on academics — we all play a role in shaping the culture. We all have the capacity to turn towards our schoolwork with the same passion we devote to our extracurriculars, to choose classes that we’re genuinely interested in and to study lishmah.

There will always be those who slack in the absence of external measures, like grades; in Yeshiva it wasn’t uncommon to find people who scammed the system by lying in bed and listening to music all the time. But so many others made up for it, devoting themselves to hours of voluntary study, motivated simply by passion and creativity. It behooves us to reclaim learning as a sandbox of creativity instead of as the drab and painful pressure-on-our-heads that it’s become.

Ezriel Gelbfish is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at ezriel.gelbfish@yale.edu .

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