Q&A : Education – June 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine
What are your thoughts on education?
Let me start by saying that the education of a child begins at home, and is primarily the responsibility of the parents. Yes, it is then outsourced to the school, for its expertise and resources – but in the Torah’s viewpoint, a parent has an obligation not only to educate a child, but to equip the child for life.
So then, should we start by discussing parenting?
The Talmud sets out the responsibilities of a parent, which includes teaching a child Torah and how to cope in the world – and this includes training a child in some way to earn a living and even teaching a child how to swim. In other words, you must give the child all the skills necessary to survive and to thrive in this world.
Because we tend to see education as everything that happens in the school alone…
The Talmud talks about how schools came into being. In the past, everyone was home schooled but R. Yehoshua Ben Gamla recognised that some children were brilliantly educated whilst others were not being educated at all. So, more than 2000 years ago he established an education system whereby every town had a school that was compulsory for its children. From this, we see that it is a vital communal responsibility to establish a schooling system to help educate the children – but the schools are only acting on behalf of the parents, whose responsibility it is that their children grow with Torah values to be competent, literate Jews.
So how then do school/parental roles differ?
Schooling provides a child with technical skills, and the knowledge to read Hebrew and learn Torah. The parents must be involved actively to make sure that this job is done properly. But we don’t only want to achieve the task of moulding children who are proficient in learning – we also want to create a love for it, a positive atmosphere of Torah learning and Torah living – something that the school can also do, but to a much lesser extent.
Is this one of our biggest challenges?
I think it has always been a challenge because children by definition would rather run around and play outside – but it is essential to find a way of instilling a love for it.
How do we do this?
With love and respect. And also with creative thinking. When he was going away for a time, the Vilna Gaon gave his family instructions to incentivise his children to learn – to create a love and enjoyment of it, and a motivation to continue. Parents need to encourage their children, and everything needs to be done in a positive, happy way.
Are we succeeding in doing this?
The two primary objectives are to teach the technical skills, as well as the love for it. Parents need to encourage their children, and everything needs to be done positively, in a happy way. I always tell my kids that they must have their tails wagging – like a puppy, with excitement – this is a happy child. This is part of what a home needs to instil, and parents need to be careful there that they shouldn’t make learning or performing a source of stress for the kids. You have to first identify your goals, and then try to adapt these principles in line with this.
What are our goals to be?
One cannot be prescriptive, and each child is different as is every parent and home – but the main goal is to create happy children who love their Judaism – who are literate, proficient in Torah learning, and who love this learning and living as a Jew.
How do we actively encourage this uniqueness in each child, to bring out their special spark?
This is about respecting the child and their differences – because Hashem made everyone the way they are.
So respect has to be another key goal…
Yes. We are not only trying to produce efficient technicians who enjoy what they are doing, but we are also creating menschen – and good character traits are essential. Judaism teaches that being a good, decent refined human being is a pre-requisite to learning torah.
The layers keep unfolding…
Judaism is the most powerful intellectual system in the world, but it teaches that intellectualism by itself is empty and even dangerous. It needs to be contained within a system of morality and belief in Hashem and his values, and this is where the home comes in.
Does parenting ever end?
Parenting and indeed education is a life-long mission, one that is never done, but that is always moving into different phases, each more complex than the rest. The basis of all of this is a good relationship between parent and child, one of love, communication, and mutual respect.
How does discipline fit into this?
Discipline has to be firm, but done in a way that the parent nurtures the spirit of the child. Parents and teachers have to be careful not to damage this relationship.
We are all on the same team …
Yes. We must work with the child, think creatively to get there to make sure that the child does what he needs to, not what he wants to do (for then there would be chaos), with warmth, kindness, love, and respect. In a way that sets the tone for what the child perceives to be normal in their world perspective – because this relationship is the gateway to our value system.