1/13/2005

"...Gam Ki Yazkin Lo Yassur Mimenah"

(to my dear wife and revered father - don't worry, this is a key part of the paper i'm supposed to be working on)

Recognize the end of the verse quoted in the title to this post?
it's not so famous.
but you probably recognize the firt part:
"Chanoch la-na'ar al pi darko..."

yes, yes, that mantra of jewish educators everywhere, that iron-clad proof that the jewish educational system has always been individuated, that gardener with all of his intelligences has got nothing on us, and that underpaid, underqualified, brutal cheder rebbes were and are an abberration. and the rabbis always can weasel out of the whole 'chosech shivto sonei beno (spare the rod spoil the child)' embarassment, which occurs in the same biblical book.

Unfortunately, the passuk of 'chanoch le-na'ar' is completely misunderstood by those who don't bother learning the second half of the passuk.

[i guess Chaza"l were onto something when they reccomended not quoting partial verses. then again, Chaza"l were pretty clever, and it's usually possible to appreciate their ingenuity despite the artscroll generation's best efforts to drag Our Sages ob"m down to their own level. ]

Here's the meaning of the full passuk:
"Initiate a child upon his path; even as he grows old, he will not deviate from it".

The passuk evokes the image of a young child and a mentor standing at the beginning of a path. The mentor is exhorted to take those first few steps along that path, and then to let go. Then, the child will autonomously continue along that path as he matures.

The job of the mentor is to be the training wheels.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't describe my education.

Let's just take the standard explanation of the first part of the verse:
"Educate a child according to his own ways"
For now, let's forget about the textual inconsistencies with that understanding of the passuk. I'm going to point out the implications of neglecting the second half of the verse for an educational philosophy:

1) Both understandings agree that each student is unique and individuated. However, only the proper (i.e., my) understanding acknowledges that each student ought to take his own 'path' through life. it's not a question of devising strategies for getting each student onto the same path, rather how to give each student the independence to follow his own.

2) Related - the misunderstanding adresses individuated pedagogic strategy - how am i going to get through to THIS child. It speaks nothing of the goals of education. The proper understanding sees the goal of Chinuch as an autonomous, mature adult who remains true to the values he was taught.

3) The proper understanding renounces all forms of demagoguery, and sees any skills acquired, knowledge amassed, or habits formed during the process of education as worthless to the degree that they do not translate into something meaningful for an adult.

4) Children are viewed, in this passuk, as adults with training wheels. Anything that we hope for from an adult must in some way be communicated to the child. A child's education must grow with him, constantly reinventing itself and updating itself for a constantly maturing human being. Whatever is transmitted must be dynamic (in the sense that it adjust itself to its surroundings, not in the sense that the teacher has to stand up on the desk) and intuitive, so that it can be applied to new circumstances. Jerome Bruner's idea of a 'spiral curriculum' and argument for encouraging intuitive thinking are very instructive on this point.

5) Finally, the adult's world must be seen as the child's laboratory. Here he can experiment with adult responses, adult decisionmaking, and adult responsibilities under the watchful eye of someone who is already there. Adult concepts can and should be transmitted to children on their developmental level (see my post on sexuality). Experience is the greatest teacher. The goal of the mentor is to maximize experience and make it efficient by controlling the environment in which they occur and providing access to the skills that will be useful in encountering those experience.

And now for a little surprise: there are many 'educators' who unconsciously exhibit most, if not all, of these attitudes when mentoring children. Unfortunately, you won't find them in our schools. You will find them in our homes. None can ever hope to replace a parent as primary trainer of youth, and a parent that looks to the schools to be his surrogate is in deep doo-doo, though it won't stop him from blaming the school system for his kid's drug problem, or complaining that the role of the parent has been usurped by one teacher or another, as though any teacher has a chance at winning the child's allegiance against an involved and aware parent, or for wondering why the kids go 'off the derech' when they get to college.

[interesting isn't it. i understand that the passuk that we started with is an if-then statement. if the chinuch is right, then the adult will not deviate. and if the adult does deviate, well, then, don't be surprised when, exactly as the passuk literally implies, the kid grows up and goes 'off the derech']

Intelligent parenting (like the kind that I had growing up and that I hope to God that my kids do) is the name of the game. The school is a tool of the parent, not vice versa. I believe that the parent is the only thing keeping the Procrustean bed (mittat S'dom, S'dom bettl) that we call the school system from messing up our kids. And i'm not convinced that the parents are doing a great job right now. but at least we can afford rehab. Baruch Hashem.

I've got particular applications to a numebr of specific areas within Jewish education, including the teaching of Machshavah, Halacha, Gemara, Chumash, and Midrashim. I'll leave those for other posts. I think I've got the venom out of the system for now. ve-acamol.
SHR
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