In the Book of Proverbs, his wonderful collection of ancient watchwords, King Solomon tells us: Chanoch la-na‘ar ‘al pi darko; gam ki yazqin lo yasur mimmennu (XXII,6).
“Chinnuch,” the Hebrew word which most closely approximates the English term “education,” is derived from the first word in this verse. The range of meanings covered by the root includes “initiate, instruct, consecrate, dedicate.” It thus covers the concept of education in it fullest sense, in the sense, indeed, of the original Latin word educere, from which “education” descends: “to lead (someone) out” of his childhood cocoon to take his place as a decent, productive member of his society. Obviously, “reading, writing, and arithmetic” (the famous, quintessential “three Rs”) are an important component of all this, but far from being everything, they are not even the most important thing.
To offer a translation of the verse, then: “Educate the youth according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not depart from it.” What, exactly, does this mean?
The great Jewish commentator Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, known throughout the Jewish world as the Vilna Ga’on, the “Genius of Vilnius”(his native city as whose rabbi he served for most of the second half of the 18th century), offers us some insight.
He begins by pointing to what at first blush seems obvious, namely that education must begin keshe-hu ‘od na‘ar — while a child is yet young, and this must be a process of consistent striving to live up to the ideals and principles instilled in him while young; only thus will he attain success in internalizing those principles and making them part of himself.
But this is instruction for the teacher (or parent) more than for the pupil, and so the ga’on goes on to tell us that ‘al pi darko means derech mazzalo ve-tiv‘o ken techanchehu, “by way of his circumstances and nature you should educate him.” There is no “cookie-cutter” approach to education which can possibly work, and there is no substitute for knowing one’s students, and even more so, one’s own children. The wise teacher is aware of the differences in their personalities and the circumstances of their lives, and tailors the instruction to them in order to achieve the best result, to cause the lessons to sink in and take root in the child’s soul.
This requires special emphasis in this age of mass “education,” of impersonal standards and tests generated at the federal – or even the state – level, which are supposed to suit all children from all backgrounds, regardless of their inclinations and the circumstances of their lives. Certainly a range of material to be imparted must be set, and expected standards of performance, expressed as a range, are necessary; but how you get there must be as individual as possible. Education as a totalitarian straitjacket is worse than useless.
The standard of behavior, attitude, and decorum should be provided by the teacher himself (it is assumed, without having to be stated, that all these things apply to parents as much as to teachers in a classroom). The teacher must be the living exemplar of what it is that he is trying to impart; he must “walk the walk” as much as “talk the talk,” but he must also and always be sensitive to the differences between his charges and himself, and between them and all their other classmates.
The ga’on goes on to warn us of what will happen if we ignore the proverb’s advice. It is possible to achieve momentary success: Ka-asher he‘evirehu ‘al mazzalo, ‘atta yishma lecha mi-yir’atho othcha, aval achar kach be-‘eth yusar ‘olcha me-al tzavaro, yasur mi-ze ki i efshar lo li-shbor mazzalo (“if you have made him transgress on his nature, he will listen to you now, while he fears you; but afterward, when your authority has been removed from him, he will turn away from this, for it is impossible for him to change his nature”).
...It is impossible for him to change his nature. In an arrogant age which assumes that all of a person’s basic characteristics are infinitely mutable, in which things so basic as a person’s sex are imagined not to be biologically determined, but a “Bruce” can become a “Caitlyn,” this fundamental principle of education is more in need of emphasis than ever before. The thing from which the child will not depart “even when he grows old” is his nature; if you would have him also not depart from all that you strive to instill in him, do not violate that nature. Find ways to make what you are imparting match his inclinations; help him to make career choices which will enable him to live a decent and fulfilling life, while yet remaining true to his essential nature.
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