Schools: A Case Study in Change for Shuls

Posted on: October 23rd, 2009 by Hayim Herring

I was recently at a favorite coffee shop in Minneapolis.  When I went to pay the bill, there was a post-it note attached to a bowl which had some pennies in it.  The note read, “If you fear change, leave it here.” Given the rapid pace of change in our lives today, I sometimes wish I had a bowl into which I could place my fears about change! But whatever anxieties I have are irrelevant, because it seems that even the most storied institutions we’ve taken for granted are experiencing change.

In fact, I’ve been reading about the next area of great change — higher education– because it has an indirect bearing on synagogues. The halls of the Academy share much in common with the walls of the synagogue.  The Academy has values and traditions.  It also has its own rituals and rewards.  It’s filled with books and learning and prides itself on research and teaching that advances knowledge and changes civilization for the better. Like synagogues, its work takes place in the community and even after graduation (think bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation,) it gives people a chance to continue that relationship through an alumni association. On the financial side, its biggest expenses are capital and staff requirements.

But all of that is starting to change. (I am not making a value judgment about these changes but simply reporting about them.) Many traditional bricks and mortar colleges already offer online classrooms.  Online learning has finally reached the point where it can be delivered with quality. But a traditional university education is very costly compared with earning an online degree.  For better and for worse, as online universities achieve critical mass, students are likely to migrate from the “bricks and mortar” to the “bytes and clicks” environment.

The “better” part of this equation is that higher education will be accessible to more people, while the “worse” part is that an online education cannot account for all of the learning that takes place outside of a classroom.

There may be an even more radical change in the making. It’s not hard to envision a day when students will demand to study with the best professors in their field, whether or not they teach at the university in which they are enrolled.  In other words, they will demand the right to truly customize their education and mix and match courses from a variety of institutions.

We watched the economics of the marketplace force similar changes with other enduring institutions like newspapers, libraries and entertainment.  Now, higher education is the new frontier (and, to my personal dismay, there is a dramatic increase in the number of high school students who will graduate with online degrees, too.)

I’d like to hear your reaction to this post. What other similarities do you see between higher education and institutional religion as found in the synagogue?  What do you think we might be able to learn about the synagogue life from the changes in the Academy?

Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

Rabbi Hayim Herring

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