Two models of education
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 27, 2004
In the recent Pledge of Allegiance case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiff asserted standing on the grounds that he is personally injured by the Pledge because every morning his daughter is taught that her father is wrong – i.e., "the government says there is a G-d and her dad says there isn’t."
Leon Wieseltier incisively described that argument as "fail[ing] to grasp one of the ends of education, which is to make children unlike their parents." The liberal model of education professes to be neutral as to products of the educational system, as long as students’ autonomy to choose their life goals is preserved.
The Torah offers a radically different educational model. "You shall transmit them [i.e., the commandments] to your children," is part of the basic affirmation of Jewish faith, the Shema. The Torah presents a clear educational goal – to produce a new generation of Jews that rejoices in the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvos.
Religious parents whose children "go off the path" inevitably experience an overwhelming sense of failure. The ultimate goal of a Torah life is a connection with G-d. As a consequence, religious parents view a child’s departure from mitzvah observance, i.e., spiritual death, as an even greater tragedy than physical death – or at least they would if the former were as irreversible as the latter.
To be sure, the dichotomy between the outcome neutral liberal model of education and the Torah model is not absolute. Even liberal educators presumably view instilling certain values, such as tolerance, as a basic goal.
And by the same token a Torah education does not ignore the child’s individuality or seek to create mere carbon copies of the parents. Any attempt to do so would be self-defeating. The Torah’s basic pedagogical rule is: "Educate the child according to his nature; even when he grows old, he will not swerve from it" (Proverbs 22:6). Only by respecting the child’s individuality can we ensure that he will carry on with a life of Torah when he is no longer under our control.
Moreover, from a theological standpoint the actions of automatons are meaningless. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, one of the foremost modern Jewish thinkers, writes that one earns no reward for actions performed just because one’s parents taught one to do so. Actions and character traits must be made one’s own through the active exercise of free will. And that requires being intellectually and emotionally alive.
TORAH SOCIETY IS ORGANIZED around the transmission of a specific tradition from generation to generation. Generation gaps there will always be, but they are lessened in a Torah community by all that parents and children share together – above all the study of Torah.
On a recent Shabbat, over a thousand Jews packed into a beit medrash in my neighborhood to hear a great Torah scholar – fathers and sons, septuagenarians and boys well before bar mitzvah, each understanding according to his level. Such intergenerational experiences characterize a Torah community.
In Torah society, the standards of the older generation govern. Older people are respected by virtue of their age, but, more importantly, as possessors of a body of wisdom. They are seen as closer to the original Revelation at Sinai. The young are eager to take their place among the adults.
The secular world, by contrast, worships youth. Parents have lost confidence that they have anything to impart to their children. Rather than presenting models for emulation, they try to ape their children, wearing the same clothing, listening to the same music. Rather than being guides for their children, secular parents seek to be their friends, sending them text messages.
Even when they know their children are in danger, secular parents feel helpless to protect them. A recent article in Ha’aretz describes how secular parents deal with their well-founded fears of predators prowling Internet chat rooms. One mother considers hiring a computer hacker to check on her child’s Internet activity. But in the end, she knows she will do nothing, not even talk to her daughter. She is simply too afraid of conflict with her daughter. Friends do not tell each other what to do.
A value neutral education leads secular youth to wonder why the opinions of their elders should count from more than their own or even why they should be interested in the body of knowledge their teachers wish to convey.
Israel today provides a case study of the results produced by the two educational models. After two generations, almost nothing remains of the values of the Zionist founding fathers. The communitarian values that characterized Israel in 1948 have been replaced by one value: freedom. One of the best educational systems in the world has been transformed into one where teachers who describe themselves as zookeepers and school violence has made learning impossible.
Meanwhile the Torah school system continues to grow rapidly, augmented by many children from secular homes whose parents seek only that they should know Krias Shema, speak with respect to their parents, and be able to learn in a violence free environment.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list