The wisest of all men provided us with the fundamental principle of education: ‘Educate a child according to his path, he will not trun from that path even as he grows old’ (Mishlei 22:6). The Vilna Gaon begins his explanation of the verse by establishing that each person is born with a certain mazal (destiny). That mazal sets the parameters for all his or her future development. The Gaon explains that each child must be educated in accord with his specific mazal, or in contemporary idiom, in accordance with his innate character.
When a child is still young, his father or mother might enjoy some temporary success in guiding him contrary to his mazal, but, writes the Gaon, that only lasts as long as the fear of the father is upon him. As soon as that fear lessens, however, as it inevitably does with age, the effects of the early education will be thrown off: ‘[I]f you guide him against his nature, he may obey you now out of fear of you, but, when your burden is no longer upon his neck, he will stray from [the path in which you guided him], since it is impossible for him to break his mazal.’
A wise parent, then, must begin all his or her educational efforts by taking stock of the specific natural of their child. We all know this, of course, but the implications and applications too often escape us. One obvious corollary of the principle is that parents have to educate their child according to who he or she is, not in accord with what they would look their child to be.
Recently I was talking to an educator who works with many teenagers who have simply stopped learning in any serious fashion some time in their mid to late teens. I asked him what lies behind this phenomena. He replied that one major problem is that of fathers pushing their sons into yeshivot ketanot that are inappropriate for them. Why? Because the father views a particular yeshiva ketana as more prestigious.
In short, fathers are placing their own needs for honor before the interests and well-being of their sons. If later the son stops learning because he was forced into a learning environment that was unsuitable for him, the father, who was looking for prestige, will receive only embarrassment instead.
Another corollary of the Gaon’s words is that no one educational framework can possibly be ideal for every child. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky used to say that every yeshiva is to some extent a Sdom bed – i.e., the students are cut or stretched to fit the particular model of that yeshiva.
In this connection, Reb Yaakov extolled the system in Slabodka Yeshiva where he spent his formative years. In Slabodka, he said, the primary influence on each student’s learning was not the shiurim of the rosh yeshiva, but the older students around whom groups of younger students formed. Within the walls of one beis medrash, there were dozens of chaburos, and each of those study groups was its own mini-yeshiva. Those smaller groups within the larger yeshiva allowed each talmid to maximize his individual potential by developing his particular strengths. That was the basis of Slabodka’s emphasis on the Greatness of Man.
Within our community, there is an ever-growing recognition of the need for a variety of educational models to match the variety of children. One example would be the rapid spread of chadorim based on what might be called a modified Zilberman model. The original model called for boys to first learn all of TaNaCh, and then move on to cover all of Mishnah, before starting Gemara. As a result of the constant review, the talmidim know large portions of TaNaCh and Mishnah by heart.
This particular model, however, proved too radical a departure from the standard cheder model to be of widespread appeal. In particular, the fact that the boys started Gemara as much as three years later than their contemporaries in other chadorim meant that the graduates of the cheder had no choice but to continue within the same system through yeshiva ketana and yeshiva gedolah, and lessened the appeal of this approach. (Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the talmidim were drawn from families of ba’alei teshuva, where the fathers had not learned in traditional chadorim.)
In recent years, however, a large number of chadorim based on what might be called a modified-Zilberman approach have sprouted, not just in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, but in Lakewood and many other locations around the globe. Like the original, these chadorim emphasize constant review of the material and gaining a wide knowledge throughout TaNaCh and Mishnah. But they begin Gemara much earlier, and the graduates go to the same yeshivot ketanot as graduates of any other cheder.
Recently I visited one such cheder in Jerusalem: Zichru Toras Moshe. I was impressed by the way young boys in first grade could quote the relevant verses when questioned about the laws in Parshas Mishpatim and with the fluency of the older boys with the complicated Mishnayos of Eruvin. But what made the biggest impression was the enthusiasm with which the talmidim answered questions and the fact that almost every single boy was eagerly participating. Among the younger boys, I noticed only one out of the entire classroom of more than twenty who did not shout out immediately the answers to the questions posed by another visitor.
I have no idea how much of the material they have memorized will remain with these boys or how useful will it prove in their later learning. But one thing I’m sure will remain with them is the memory of the excitement of their early Torah learning. Ensuring a positive association with learning Torah is perhaps the most important gift any cheder can give its talmidim.
Is this model, then, the ideal for every student. Obviously not. There cannot be any such model precisely because every child is different, with his own individual destiny. That being the case, however, the increase in the number of models for parents to choose from should itself be a cause for rejoicing.