Honoring a born Israeli optimist

Prof. Reuven Feuerstein is the Johnny Appleseed of ideas showing how we can think better. People who create powerful, paradigm-shifting theoretical ideas are never going to be common. You hear about them every so often. In the nature of things, …

Prof. Reuven Feuerstein is the Johnny Appleseed of ideas showing how we can think better. People who create powerful, paradigm-shifting theoretical ideas are never going to be common. You hear about them every so often. In the nature of things, you meet them rarely. And you experience the actual physical fruit of their work far less often. This is because great ideas, on one hand, and their practical implementation, on the other, rarely exist inside one person.



I have the privilege to work closely with one of those truly unusual individuals. Reuven Feuerstein is a man whose range of creative ideas and the even more creative ways in which he has implemented them seem so broad that most people have difficulty accepting that they emanate from one source.



Professor Feuerstein’s extraordinarily productive career already spans seven decades. He came to pre-independence Palestine in the mid-1940s after being arrested by, and then escaping, the Nazi occupiers of his native Rumania.



An educator in his mid-twenties, he found immediate opportunities to work with child-victims of the Holocaust. The war had robbed them of families, school, childhood, and their survival depended on overcoming trauma and deprivation.



In those years, and then in the following decade as Feuerstein played a key role in dealing with the special needs of newly-arriving Jewish children from North Africa, he developed and then applied a very special kind of optimism. He believed then, and has since demonstrated in a myriad of ways, that people are cognitively modifiable.



That term is a daunting one. Unless we’re psychologists, few of us think much about cognition. And if we have ever taken an IQ test, we understand that modifiability is not meant to play a large role in the measurement of intelligence. If one’s IQ is to have predictive value, we need to believe that what can be measured remains essentially the same now and in the future. Otherwise by what right do we make decisions to accept or reject young people into programs or colleges on the basis of an IQ score?



Reuven Feuerstein and his life’s work were honored last month in a special day of homage at Tel Aviv University. The hundreds of attendees were drawn from the sort of broad spectrum of society that one might have anticipated given the richness and creativity of his career and his personality and the decades of his leading-edge activity.



Thus, it was to be expected that there would be a speaker who described the rebuilding of his own life, thanks to Feuerstein’s therapists and methodology, after the most profound brain injury caused by an accident that nearly took his life.



And it was not surprising to hear an exceptionally articulate young woman, born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel, who is the first of her community to be accepted into one of the IDF’s most elite programs. The army is Israel’s most important educational institution, but for youngsters in populations which have a cultural character different from that of mainstream Israel, success in that all-important institution comes rarely and in small doses. She described a revolutionary program, invented and executed by Feuerstein and his colleagues, that has permanently changed this for the better. This has important and very positive implications for other aspects of Israeli society, and far beyond Israel.



We heard from parents of children with special needs, and from the therapists who work with them, invoking the spirit of profound optimism that characterizes every aspect of the Feuerstein methodology. Their stories of success against medical pessimism, against the indifference of social workers, against conventional psychological thinking, are familiar to anyone who has come into contact with the world of Feuerstein. Families with similar stories to tell can be found in every corner of Israel, throughout Europe, the United States, South America, India and in fact almost everywhere else.



But for all the expressions of admiration and deep affection – and there were many – the speech that made the strongest impact, for me at any rate, came from one of Feuerstein’s long-time American collaborators. He compared Reuven Feuerstein to one of the mainstays of American folk culture: Johnny Appleseed. Via his teachings, his writings, his energetic propagation by every available means, Feuerstein planted seeds that today have created forests of disciples. They are psychologists and teachers, parents and administrators, leaders of communities. Many of them are now leaders, government ministers, people of policy and of influence.



In fact, from my position as someone deeply involved in creating and executing Feuerstein programs in several countries, it is clear that this extraordinary individual with the face of Biblical prophet and trademark navy beret – having labored tirelessly for more than half a century – has finally become an overnight success.



His institution, the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, is now engaged in vast, country-scale programs in Africa, South America, the US and elsewhere. Unofficially called the Feuerstein Center, the Jerusalem-based institution has a professional staff of more than 150 psychologists, therapists and educators. ICELP, which Feuerstein founded, and today presides over, operates training centers (and soon clinics) in more than thirty countries around the world.



In turbulent and dangerous times, the idea that we can be shown how to think better, more effectively, more productively is nothing less than life-saving.



Prof. Reuven Feuerstein’s faith in the ability of humanity to repair and advance itself is a message that is highly appropriate to our times and greatly needed.