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The Third Wave, Education, and the Beit Midrash: Reflections on Ron Jones's Interview

“Sometimes you miss those in the middle,” reflected Ron Jones in our fascinating discussion about education and his now-infamous experiment, The Third Wave. Upon hearing this, I immediately recalled a key lesson I learned before my first formal teaching opportunity. It was imperative that I did not focus my energies on the 20% of the students who were at the top and bottom. Rather, my goal as a teacher was to reach the often-neglected, middle 80% of the pupils.

However, it was in the midst of the Third Wave experiment when Jones stumbled upon a way to engage the untouchables. “All of a sudden it was that middle group that was generating a lot of excitement and rules and behaviors and being a part of this.” With a glint in his eye, Ron Jones reminisced about how his experiment in fascism created an unprecedented opportunity for students in the middle to participate in the classroom and finally be excited and motivated in their studies. The movement established an environment of conformity—one that did not give special attention to the top and bottom—and the middle, now free of insecurity, was finally engaged. They did not just conform, however, but were instrumental and creative forces in the movement’s unfolding. This excited Ron Jones, not because the movement was growing (for it was only an experiment), but because he had finally touched these students.

Maintaining a confined and comfortable environment in which the middle-level students achieve success is not foreign to us. In contrast to a hundred years ago, when only the best students went to learn in yeshiva, we now stress and support every individual’s obligation and opportunity to learn Torah. Although everyone knows who the “top guys” are in the beit midrash, in essence, all learners are equal. Everyone in the beit midrash is part of the movement of limmud Torah lishmah—learning Torah for its own sake. Talmidim (students) rally around an ideology (though not a fascist one), insecurities and egos fall away, and the playing field is leveled. The more intelligent are no better than anyone else who spends an equivalent amount of effort and energy in their learning. Rebbeim and roshei yeshiva, the biggest proponents of such a structure, look at the democratization of the educational environment as a huge success. “There are more people learning Torah today than ever before in the history of the Jewish people,” a common phrase heard amongst today’s leaders, carries a sense of excitement and mission. Finally, a Jewish people who can serve God in unison.

Yet even with all the good, Ron Jones eventually shut down his movement. It was too dangerous; people weren’t thinking for themselves. They were thinking about what they were supposed to do, but not what they wanted to do. If everyone is hyper-focused on one central idea, there is no room for the individual’s concerns. The Third Wave demonstrated that when someone acts under the influence of a powerful authority, or for the sake of a larger ideal, he or she neglects to consider his or her own needs. Sharing a single unified standard cannot be an avenue toward true growth and self-actualization.

The environment that is created in the beit midrash has strong undertones of the environment that Jones created in his classroom in 1967. The individual’s own concerns, needs, and qualities are rarely being catered to in this ideal value of the beit midrash. How often are students encouraged to pursue other means of spiritual growth outside the rigors of the academic Torah lishmah?

After his experiment, instead of implementing some of The Third Wave’s methodologies, Ron Jones created a novel solution to reach the middle stratum of pupils. He initiated a relaxed forum, called “IF,” for students to express themselves, share interesting ideas, and explore the subjects they were most interested in. Jones appealed to the unique qualities within each student, attempting to draw out their potential and facilitate their success and development.

This article is not written to suggest that we should stop teaching and learning Torah, or stop viewing Torah as a central value in our lives. Rather, it asks the question: has our world of the beit midrash fallen into the same educational trap? Are the dedicated and committed students of Torah reaching the venerable self-actualization and spirituality that we so desire? Ron Jones’s experiment challenges us to investigate our community and determine how to properly encourage individuality and spiritual growth in the unique Torah environment in which we live. He found a solution. Can we?