To Nurture Good Hearts

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Carol K. Ingall

Few of us can disagree with Walker Percy's wry observation, "You can get all A's and still flunk life." We all want children who are both smart and good. But both of these adjectives are fuzzy. Howard Gardner made us rethink what constitutes intelligence in his influential work Frames of Mind (1983); along with Salovey and Mayer (1990), he inspired Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence (1995), or EI. Just as Gardner's seven original multiple intelligences multiplied and muddied the question of what "smart" meant, so the focus of Goleman's EI has blurred. Goleman's name is invoked in business seminars to promote kinder, gentler CEOs, and in teacher workshops to promote social-emotional intelligence (SEL). SEL has become a portmanteau that includes teaching leadership, empathy, self-control, critical thinking, good citizenship, and dealing with bullying.

Social skills have always been taught in the home ("Say 'please,' dear") and in the schools (Who hasn't seen the bumper sticker "My child has been named 'citizen of the month' in the ____ School"?) Although urging children to be polite, generous, and kind has always been part of parenting, the social skills taught by the schools have differed widely over the last 150 years. I have a copy of a poster from a 1950s educational film used in mental hygiene, health, and life skills classes; it shows two teens whispering about a third, who cowers next to his locker, as it announces that one must use deodorant in order to be popular. 

There are fads in fashion and education; hemlines and curricula change every decade. But there is something enduring about a society's need to inculcate and nurture goodness. Character education, an outgrowth of religious education, has toiled in this vineyard for centuries. In Promoting Social and Emotional Learning (1997), Elias, Zins, and Weissberg note, "It is apparent that character education and social and emotional education programs share many overlapping goals" (p. 2). 

I propose limiting this discussion of emotional intelligence for Jewish education to the overlap, to one arena only: teaching for empathy. From its beginnings in Salovey and Mayer's academic article (1990) to its interpreters for school settings (Elias, Zins, and Weissberg 1997; Kress 2012), social and emotional learning has always highlighted the importance of empathy and caring for others.

Jewish educators bemoan how much we have to do and how little time we have to do it. Percy surely never meant us to ignore the teaching of literacy and numeracy and replace them with the teaching of social skills. Moral education, like critical thinking and writing, should be taught across the curriculum and used ad hoc in teachable moments. We have plenty of opportunities in Tanakh, prayer, Israel education, and holidays to teach empathy, which I have discussed elsewhere (Ingall 1999). Rabbinic literature contains a treasure that can be mined, as it always has been, for the teaching of empathy as a Jewish moral value. Of course, like any curricular or school reform, it must be implemented alongside teacher education.

Jewish camps have a great advantage over Jewish schools because students are immersed in a Jewish environment for weeks and months at a time. Knowledgeable and sensitive counselors can find all sorts of opportunities to teach life lessons about empathy throughout the day. How can schools with two to four hours of instruction, even Jewish day schools, lengthen their reach beyond the classroom?

Surely you've noticed the explosion of parenting books, like Blessings of a Skinned Knee, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and Bringing Up Bébé. Fifty or more years ago the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism published Your Child, in which notables like Sadie Rose Weilerstein, Abraham Karp, Kurt Lewin, and Azriel Eisenberg addressed topics in child rearing from a Jewish perspective. I can imagine schools and synagogues hiring Jewish educators who know Jewish content as well as SEL to create a biweekly or monthly digital newsletter that truly invites parents to be partners in moral education from a robust Jewish perspective.

To return to Percy and his observation: Pirkei Avot 2:10 captures a conversation between R. Yohanan ben Zakai and his disciples on what it takes to be a success in life. The answers of R. Yohanan's students include many of the hot topics in SEL today: a discerning eye, a good friend, a good neighbor, and foresight. However, only the answer of R. Elazar, a good heart, wins the praise of his teacher, because it includes all of the other attributes. Let's use all of our resources—parents and teachers, SEL and character education—to nurture good hearts, but without sacrificing our primary goal as Jewish educators: to promote Jewish cultural literacy.

Dr. Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor Emerita of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. She received bachelor's degrees from Barnard College and the Seminary College of Jewish Studies. She holds master's degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Rhode Island. She received her EdD from Boston University.

Dr. Ingall's areas of expertise are curriculum and instruction, moral education, and the history of American Jewish education, affording her ample opportunities to teach and explore what constitutes effective Jewish education. Her publications include Moral Education in Middle Schools (Ablex, 1997); Transmission and Transformation: A Jewish Perspective on Moral Education (Melton Research Center, 1999), winner of the National Jewish Book Award in education; Down the Up Staircase: Tales of Teaching in Jewish Day Schools (JTS Press, 2006); and The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910-1965 (Brandeis University Press, 2010.) Dr. Ingall has written numerous articles for the Journal of Jewish Education, Religious Education, and Conservative Judaism. She has presented papers at the Network for Research in Jewish Education, Association of Jewish Studies, Association for Moral Education, and World Congress of Jewish Studies. In May 2002, she was the scholar-in-residence at Leo Baeck College in London.


Elias, Maurice J., Joseph E. Zins, and Roger P. Weissberg. 1997. Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Gardner, Howard. 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books. Gardner originally identified seven intelligences: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. He later added naturalist intelligence and existential intelligence.

Goleman, Daniel. 1995. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Ingall, Carol K. 1999. Transmission and Transformation: A Jewish Perspective on Moral Education. New York: Melton Library of Jewish Education, The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Kress, Jeffrey S. 2012. Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Souls. New York: URJ Press.

Salovey, Peter, and John D. Mayer. 1990. "Emotional Intelligence," Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, no. 3, 185-211.