…There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice…
-I Kings 19:11-12
Just after World War I, a German Jewish educator, Siegfried Lehman, articulated a new educational ideal, "education for silence," where silence – and listening – would be central values of the educational experience. He and his colleagues sought to implement their ideas when they created the agricultural youth village of Ben Shemen, not far from Jerusalem, in 1927. While Ben Shemen has been a success, it seems the silence got drowned out early on.
In 1962 I participated in NFTY's Eisendrath-Israel-Exchange, spending a semester of tenth grade at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. The school was housed in an apartment building; the classrooms were small and everything was makeshift. A vivid memory that remains is the horrendous acoustics – hard flat plaster ceilings and walls with no curtains or any other kind of sound absorber, terrazzo tile floors, and steel chair legs that screeched against the floor. Achieving quiet, having a calm discussion – even in an uncrowded room - were impossible challenges in these echo chambers, and the effect on the learning climate was pervasive.
In 1970 we spent a year in Beersheba, where Tami attended ulpan to learn Hebrew. She was still studying when a group of teachers came to the door (we had no phone). They found they were hoarse from screaming by the end of every school day; they had heard she was a speech clinician, and they needed help.
In 1982 we lived in Jerusalem while I was in the Jerusalem Fellows program. Our oldest son attended first grade at a well-regarded elementary school in a new building in an upscale neighborhood. Forty kids in each class, the national maximum. At parent-teacher night the teacher agreed with the parents that the acoustics of the classroom made it very hard to concentrate, let alone have a discussion (hard plaster ceilings and walls, terrazzo floors, steel furniture without rubber feet, no curtains, etc.). There was a discussion of bringing in egg cartons and gluing them to the ceiling, but nothing came of it.
Last week I visited the Leo Baeck School in Haifa again – now a magnificent, multimillion-dollar complex, one of the leading educational institutions in the country, with 2,500 students K-12, a synagogue, a large, well-equipped community center, satellite programs around the area. And it was déjà vu all over again as I found myself oppressed by the acoustic nightmare of trying to do education in an echo chamber.
In between I have visited dozens of schools, elementary and secondary, old and decrepit and brand new, Jewish and Arab, in poor towns and wealthy neighborhoods. Everywhere one finds this same reality. You would think that "start-up nation" would have figured out how to solve this low-tech, easily (and cheaply) remedied problem by now – thus improving the quality of life and learning for thousands of students and teachers. Moreover, it is not something that only curmudgeons like me complain about – mention it to anyone involved in schooling here, and they'll roll their eyes in agreement. Everyone knows, everyone suffers, everyone seems to accept this as part of the unchangeable culture of school architecture in the Middle East.
Could it be that the norm of spending childhood in a headache-inducing echo chamber is one of the reasons Israel's public discourse at all levels seems to be so much shouting and so little listening? What? What? Speak up!