Walter is a highly intelligent teen. He analyzes situations, asks penetrating questions and is fully capable of thinking matters through on his own. He has the uncanny ability to tell when people are giving him sincere answers to his questions and when people are just "blowing smoke" at him to shut him up.
However, for all that, he is still a teenager, with the maturity of a teenager. Like many teens, he does not always understand the long-range implications of things. He does not always see how life experience gives his parents and elders an advantage* in life with regard to the grander picture. And he does not always understand why he needs to study things that aren't immediately relevant to his life.
One particular area of angst for him is Gemara. Walter is a "cut to the chase" kind of person. If you can give him a good reason for something, he can understand it and accept it (even if he doesn't particularly agree with it). He can understand, for example, the need to learn halacha, since it's relevant to him in that it informs him of the laws that govern his life as a Jew. But Gemara, on the other hand, doesn't interest him all that much. At this point in his life, it doesn't really matter all that much to him how Rava and Abaye argue out what the final law is going to be. Just tell him what the final answer is and leave it at that. The fact that the Gemara is in a foreign language written and paginated in a format that makes it very difficult for beginners to master doesn't help matters.
Truth to tell, I can understand his frustration because I felt the same way at his age. At his age, I too often complained that the Gemara wasn't organized more like the Shulchan Aruch, with chapters and law numbers that are very easy to find and tell you, in a very practical and final way, what the halacha is. I, too, was confounded by the language, the arcane rules (what's a binyan av again?) and the maddening lack of any indication on the page when a new topic begins or picks up on a topic that was dropped from the discussion three pages ago. The fact that not one of the rabbeim in my high school made any effort to engage me in Gemara didn't help matters**.
Of course, I'm much older now. I like to think that I'm a bit wiser as well. I have a better appreciation for Gemara than I did when I was sixteen and seventeen. But that's probably of little comfort to Walter at this stage of his life. In addition, I have to wonder how many other kids there are out there like Walter (and myself when I was that age) who wouldn't mind learning halacha but just aren't all that gung-ho about Gemara. I would guess (based on purely anecdotal evidence from other kids Walter's age) that the answer is quite a few.
In most Yeshivos, Gemara is taught beginning in the fifth grade, when a boy is about ten years old. By sixth grade, it is the major Judaic course of study, with students spending hours per day on the topic. This is usually done without any sort of "Introduction to Talmud" mini-course where the structure and methodology of the Gemara is explained. Usually it's taught by simply "jumping right in" to the first line.
Sometimes I wonder (and, admittedly I have no way to prove this) if things would be better if the system were changed. The Mishna in Avos gives us guidelines about when to introduce new topics in chinuch. The Mishna there says that at age five children should begin learning to read Tanach, at ten learn Mishna and at fifteen learn Gemara. The point that's being made, I believe, is that children should not be rushed into topics ahead of time. Perhaps we should have our kids spend five years learning Tanach primarily before advancing to Mishna. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to spend five years learning Mishna before jumping in Gemara. There are probably several advantages to this approach:
- Our kids would probably have a better understanding of Tanach. Heck, they might even finish most of it in the five years.
- Our kids would have a better understanding of Mishna.
- When our kids finally do advance on to Gemara, they will be a bit older, wiser and more intellectually and emotionally capable of handling Gemara.
Of course, if a student is showing exceptional ability and is able to handle more advanced forms of study (for his age) he should be encouraged to do so. But that's not everyone. Not every 10 year old is an illuy (genius). The vast majority would stick to the 5-10-15 model (which is roughly equivalent in the United States to first, sixth and tenth grades).
But that's not quite what's happening. Nowadays, our boys start learning Chumash in first grade (some schools even start in preschool!). By third grade they're starting Mishna. They start Gemara during the fifth grade and, from the sixth grade onward, spend upwards of 60% of the Limudei Kodesh (Judaic Studies) portion of the day on it. The result is that kids come away with a substandard knowledge of Chumash and Mishna.
Other topics barely make it to the radar screen at all. Halacha is often taught on an ad-hoc basis. Navi is barely taught and, when it is, it is often limited to the early "historical" books -- Joshua and Samuel. Kings is barely taught. I have yet to hear of a right-wing yeshiva high school that teaches any of the true "prophetical" books -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or the Twelve "Minor" Prophets. I'd be willing to bet dollars to donuts that outside of their Bar Mitzvah Haftorah or following the weekly haftorah in shul (do teens do that?), well over 90% of yeshiva high school graduates have never even cracked open a copy of Isaiah or an Ezekiel. Jewish Philosiphy? Forget about it. History? Maybe in some more left-leaning schools, but certainly not amongst the yeshivish. Hebrew language? Puh-leeeeez.
To be honest, I wonder if we're doing our sons a disservice with the existing educational model. They may (not will -- may) come away from high school knowing a fair amount of Gemara and Rishonim, but how much Judaism do they know? Does your average high schooler understand who Isaiah was and what he was prophesying about? They all know that Elijah was a great prophet, but do they understand why? Do they know anything about him other than the fact that he's still alive and something about a confrontation on Mt. Carmel?
Or, an even better question -- does the average high schooler even come away knowing how to learn Gemara well?
I'm curious why we have abandoned the educational paradigm as outlined in the Mishna. I've heard people say that it's a matter of "one-upmanship" among the schools to be "more frum" by starting Gemara earlier than the other schools. I'm not convinced that that's entirely true. Were it completely true, I'm sure we'd be hearing of yeshivos that claim to be teaching*** Gemara in the third grade. But if that's not the reason, there must be another -- and I'm very curious as to why those who put great stock in the words of Chazal chose to abandon their model of chinuch.
* Although, of course, by no means does that make us *always* right -- just more likely to be so.
** That's not to say it's all their fault, of course. A good share of the blame does lie with me -- but they have their share as well.
*** But not actually teaching, of course, since your average eight year old is not really capable of learning Gemara.