Forced Standpoint as Pedagogical Tool

The dissertation I’m working on now examines medieval literary texts for methods of education, in an attempt to define various ideologies of education, of childhood, and of literary genre. I’m currently in the process of examining a related concept which my WAC work (Writing Across the Curriculum) is helping me think through. I’ve been thinking about the methods of teaching favored by each discipline (though of course there is tremendous variation from teacher to teacher), and I’m attempting to draw conclusions about possibly unstated, underlying goals and ideologies, from each discipline’s stated goals and practiced methods.

For example, is memorization favored in this discipline? is summary favored? free-writing? creative writing? Are the exams all multiple-choice? short answers? in-class essays? prepared essays? Does the teacher usually lecture? ask questions? encourage students to ask questions? assign group work? assign silent in-class reading or writing time? All of these methods indicate what the teacher in particular, and the discipline in general, think about the meaning of “learning” or “education,” and what their goals are.

And now, as I stumble across various remnants of my past, I subject them to similar scrutiny. I recently found an old CD that was put together as a high school graduation celebration, including tracks of many songs from various events from the previous four years. Of course, they’re all varying levels of amusing and horrifying. But one in particular made me stop to analyze it the same way I’ve been thinking about the methods of education in college and in the Middle Ages.

(transcription at the end of this post.)

First, the context: The song was sung at a school Shabbos, a yearly school-wide weekend retreat in the mountains. There was a different theme each year, and the theme of this particular year was tznius, ie modesty. The whole shabbos itself was a disaster for many reasons, mostly because the main message was “every limb you leave uncovered will burn in hell,” and girls got terrified and wound up crying. (You can read about this on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.) But this song is beautiful, not horrifying. I used to love this song, in fact.

The first thing that struck me as I listened this time around was the first-person narrative. And this is the method that reveals quite a bit about the ideologies and goals of education in Bais Yaakov: A first-person narrative in a didactic song forces the singer to adopt the entirety of the persona described in the song.

It’s far more powerful to sing “the palace is my place” than “the palace is a Jewish girl’s place.” Even though the singer is in fact a “Jewish girl,” an identity she cannot disavow with ease, the slight remove of third-person might allow the singer to dis-identify, or at least to not fully identify, with the character. But with the use of first-person pronouns, even if the singer is not consciously thinking, “yes, this describes me,” there is still an effect on her psyche that ties these statements to her identity.

Of course, many songs use first-person narratives. But two factors differentiate this kind of song from the first-person songs we may listen to on a regular basis: First, the context in which it is sung is a school event meant to inculcate ideas about modesty and how a Jewish girl should behave. Though of course, we were all free to choose whether or not to sing it, we were not (entirely) free to choose whether or not to attend the performance. Its context is completely didactic. Second, its first-person character is defined by one main feature: she is a Jewish girl. Everyone who sang the song and everyone who listened to the song shared that identity, one that cannot be disavowed with ease.

Other songs using first-person narratives lack these factors. There is always the potential for a non-identification since we are free to choose whether to listen to a particular song, and we often choose to listen to songs we identify with, songs we see ourselves in (or wish we could see ourselves in, but that’s another story entirely). Besides, there is almost always a slight remove since the lyrics imagine a specific context and character. Personally, I identify with many songs but often leave out some lines that don’t match my story exactly (or I twist the interpretation to make it match my story, but again – that’s another story entirely).

But in this song, everyone who sang it, all of the girls at the shabbos and all the girls in the Bais Yaakov school, were in fact Jewish girls and could not easily decide not to listen to or sing the song. When the choir sang during the weekend retreat, when any girl sang the beautiful song afterwards (as many of us did), they were in effect making statements about themselves: statements like “I follow the truth and need no more than that,” and “the palace is my place.”

Of course, the girls who wrote and sang this song already had years of socialization where they absorbed the ideas of a modest, dignified princess. But they are still teenagers, high school students, who are talking to their peers – and narrating themselves. It’s a reinforcement that they are what the song describes, and a denial that the girls singing and listening to the song could be anything else, or could want to be anything else.

I’ve written before about the way Bais Yaakov and ultra-Orthodox Judaism don’t allow a child to be a child, don’t really allow for stages and development even when they claim that everyone is on their own path and goes at their own pace. The first-person method supports that ideology – in order to become a fully completed Jewish girl, in order to graduate from Bais Yaakov with all the proper chinuch (education), one must assume the identity of the completed Jewish girl, of the girl who is already perfect and has fully attained the goals of a Bais Yaakov education.

[Snarky side-notes:
– contradiction of needing to stay behind walls but then also since her beauty is inside, it doesn’t matter where she is;
– “confident leader” apparently means staying silent and hidden;
– mixed metaphors, and the whole seeds flourishing underground makes no sense because flowers and trees, and even bulbs do have above-ground elements, so the metaphor taken to its logical conclusion would actually be that an egg or a fetus needs to be “underground” (which it is, in the mother’s womb) and afterwards the child should sprout and live on the outside. or something like that]

Lyrics of the song:

I’ll tell you a story of true royalty
I’ll share with you a life of real majesty
I’m the daughter of the king – You ask, what does that mean?
Listen closely as I tell you of finest dignity

From the moment of birth till this day I have known
The privilege and pleasure one feels near the throne
I hold my head high for within the palace halls
A glorious lifestyle of inner beauty calls

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

My speech has an eloquence, words are genteel
With tones that are measured, each message is real
My clothing are worn with nobility and grace
My movements refined for the palace is my place.

My presence is rarely seen outside the gates
I bask in the glory of my own estates
Like the seeds of a plant only flourish underground
A princess can thrive when behind a wall she’s found.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
My vision’s not clouded, that’s how I’ll be
A confident leader, bas melech ani.

Wherever you find me, whatever I’ll do
My dignified mien is apparent to you
It isn’t in the wealth nor the place where I reside
The beauty of a princess is coming from inside.

My values are rich and deep as the vast sea
I live with the pride of the nobility
There’s no need to prove to the world I am me
I carry the title royal family.
A princess secure for I live with the fact
I follow the truth and need no more than that
A princess I am and a princess I’ll be
Yes, I wear a crown for bas melech ani.


11 thoughts on “Forced Standpoint as Pedagogical Tool

  1. So interesting! I remember the basis Yaakov shabbos song becoming quite popular all over… Never heard this one, but definitely heard others with a similar message. My year- I believe the song was “for you are my father, my sister, my brother”…

    1. A genderless god? 😉

      But more seriously – yeah, when I listened to all these tracks on the CD, I remembered how popular some of them were, how cute and catchy we thought they were… They did their job, after all, of quietly having us willingly adopt ideas that kept us locked in place, that kept us thinking “there’s no need to prove to the world I am me.” What was that about a spoonful of sugar…?

    2. Waitwait, hang on, I just remembered – the version you’re quoting is the joke version! My sisters were in high school when that was the shabbos theme song, and I remember them mocking the song (whose “real” words I don’t know) with this version of “you are my father, my sister, my brother…”

      1. Or was the joke that they added on, “you are my father, my sister, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my mother, my aunt”? I don’t know, but I will text them as soon as shabbos is over to find out 😉

  2. My first response was “so cool that you get to do this for fun and profit”. The snarky side notes made me laugh. It’s hard to resist. But when I read the song it made me a little queasy and I couldn’t finish it, and now I’m wondering if you’re masochist.

  3. And let’s not forget, the second half of the pasuk that begins, “Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia,” (that is what was meant by, “I’m the daughter of the king…within the palace halls,” right?) continues, “Mimishbi’tzos zahav livusha,” an outfit no Beis Yaakov would condone.

  4. I thought the bit about “every limb you leave uncovered will burn in hell” was too shocking and limiting and plain sad, then I read “A princess can thrive when behind a wall she’s found” and realized I was wrong–“too shocking” lurks under the claims of goodness. Psychological warfare sang prettily, dangerously…

    Your finished research is going to be an illuminating delight to read.

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