Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How To Educate: Excerpt from Chovos HaTalmidim/ A Student's Obligation

I read Chovos HaTalmidim, otherwise known as A Student's Obligation a while back (in English, of course. The translator was Micha Odenheimer.) Thanks, Lightman, for getting it for the family. This work was written by Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, otherwise known as the Piacezno Rebbe or the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. It's a fantastic book for certain students to read, although I would recommend that an adult go through it and pick excerpts as opposed to letting the child read the entire thing. There are some ideals here that might not be appropriate for every person. On the whole, though, fantastic book. I reproduce an excerpt here below; for those who do not have a lot of time, I have highlighted the most important parts in blue.

Excerpt from the Author's Introduction: A Discussion With Teachers and Parents:

King Solomon, in Proverbs, advises: "Educate (chanoch) a child according to his own path, and even when he grows old, he will not stray from it." The most essential task of education is to teach in such a way that the child will not stray from the path we have set for him, even when he grows older and is no longer under his father's supervision. To truly educate is not just a matter of getting a child to follow your commands, or even of accustoming a child to do good deeds. True education is a much greater and more galvanizing process. Commanding and habituating children to a certain way of life are merely tools that must be used when educating them in the path of God.

Rashi, in commenting on a passage in Deuteronomy 20:5, explains the word chinuch (which in the passage translates as "dedicated" but which is also the word for education) as meaning "to begin." Obviously, one would not use the word chinuch to mean "begin" in every context. For example, in the phrase in the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) describing the Haggadah of Passover ("[the Haggadah] begins with shame and ends with praise"), we would never think of using chinuch for "begin." Nor would it be appropriate to use the word chinuch in tractate Sanhedrin, where it says of the judicial procedure of the high rabbinic court: "We begin from the side."

In Parshat Lech Lecha, Rashi gives us a deeper insight into the word chinuch by commenting on the word chanichav. The word means, according to Rashi: "He educated him toward the fulfillment of the commandments. The root CH-N-CH implies the initial entry of a person or an object into a trade or path that is his destiny. Thus we find the root CH-N-CH referring to the education of a child, the consecration of the altar in the holy temple, and the dedication of a house."

There are strict parameters for the use of the word. One would not use it to refer to a craftsman who was beginning to work on a specific job but was already expert in his trade, or for a house that was just starting to be built. The proper usage of the word chinuch is for a person just beginning to teach himself a skill or for a building that has already been built and is just beginning to be used. Rashi is precise in writing of "the initial entry of a person or object...which is his destiny," because the word chinuch refers not to a trade or skill, but to the potential, the predilection and capability that a person might possess, which makes him suited for a particular task. In a house or vessel, chinuch refers to the preparation that has made a house or a vessel suitable for a certain task or usage. The word chinuch is a special word that implies the realization of the already inherent capacity of a person or object, the actualization of a potential. This potential will remain hidden unless we bring it out. Our task is to cause the potential to emerge, to accomplish the chinuch that will transform the person into a skilled artisan, will cause the house or vessels to fulfill their functions, each room according to what it is best suited for, every vessel or instrument according to the task for which it was designed and prepared.

When referring to the education of children, therefore, chinuch means stimulating the growth and development of what each child is suited for by his very nature. This quality or potential may be found in him only in very small measure, in total hiddenness, the task of the educator is to uncover it. Since a Jewish child has the spirit of God, the breath of the Lord, hidden and concealed within him from the very moment of his birth, it is necessary to raise him and educate him to bring him out and reveal this godliness and allow it to flourish. If this is done, the child will grow into a faithful Jew, a servant of God. He will have an independent desire for Torah and will not stray as he gets older. A person whose educational strategy is one of commands and even habituation cannot be so sure that the child will continue to practice as he becomes independent. This, then, is the command of King Solomon: "Educate the child"- penetrate to his inner being and reveal the holiness of Israel that is hidden there. Only then will the child not stray from the path when he grows older.

King Solomon, however, does not just inform us here of the goal of education- to reach the child in a way that will keep him on the path even after he has matured and grown independent. In the passage "Educate the child according to his way..." he also illuminates for us the way and the means through which this goal can be accomplished. Someone who is trying to educate through command and habituation need not pay any attention to his child or student- to his nature, to the way he thinks, or to his other distinguishing characteristics. The command itself- do this or do that- is all that is needed. Nor is it necessary to deal with each student separately. A single command can suffice for an entire age group, for it is not the student or the child that is important, but the person giving the commands: he has commanded, and that is everything.

An educator, however, who wishes to uncover the soul of the child that lies hidden and concealed within him, who wants to help it grow and to ignite it so it will burn with a heavenly fire, upwards, towards the holy, so that the student's entire being, including his physical body, will increase in holiness and will long for God's Torah, such an educator must adapt himself attentively to the student, must penetrate into the midst of his limited consciousness and small-mindedness until he reaches the hidden soul-spark. Then he can help it emerge, blossom, and grow.


The education of each and every child must therefore be different, depending on his nature, mind, character, and all his other unique qualities. The educator must become aware of these qualities; it will not suffice for him to know himself and his own mind alone, since everything depends on the student who is being educated. It is not enough to utilize his own mind and his own strength in activating, commanding, and instructing his students; he must grasp the student's mind and the student's strength, working and acting within the parameters of each child's abilities. What he commands and instructs one child should be different from what he commands and instructs the next child, whose nature, will, and personality are completely different from the first. And this is what King Solomon is hinting to us- "educate the child according to his path"- according to the particular path of each and every child.

Our goal here is not to teach the craft of pedagogy- how to utilize the student's mind in various ways, how to broaden his understanding and knowledge of the meaning of the Torah. For what we are seeking now is not the student's intellect alone: we are interested in the whole student. We wish to connect the Nefesh, Ruach and Neshamah of Jewish children to the God of Israel, so that they will emerge as Jews who revere the word of the Lord and direct all their desires toward Him.

Every father and every teacher knows that their children and students will not remain children forever, but will eventually grow in years and possibly in Torah knowledge and spiritual devotion. Yet there exist fathers and teachers who are concerned only with what they see right now. Since all they see right now are children the goal of their efforts is to educate their charges to become good children. They wish to infuse them with only a child's measure of Torah and awe of God. This they consider sufficient. But a teacher or parent who does this is sinning against God and against His people. Fathers and teachers must know that their task is to educate and uncover children of the Lord and giants of Israel. They must see the children sitting in front of them as great souls still immature; their task is to get them to grow and flourish. A teacher is a gardener in the garden of God, assigned to cultivate it and guard it from harm. Even if some of the children seem rebellious, or flawed in their character, the teacher must know that the nature of soul-seeds; of unripe angels, is to taste bitter as they are ripening and to be filled with nectar in their maturity. Neither the nature, nor any particular quality of a Jewish child, is absolutely evil. This is what the holy Baal Shem Tov and his disciples have taught us. What is necessary is just to know how to use these qualities and how to help them develop and grow. For example, a particular child may be very stubborn- which is a character flaw. His teacher may suffer greatly because of the child's stubborness. Yet if the teacher were to reflect, he would realize that when this child matures and receives as his own the yoke of Torah and of service to God, he will perform all his service of God with great stubbornness and self-sacrifice. He will not be frivolous or inclined to vacillate but will be the kind of Jew the Midrash described: In all matters of devotion, he will be as strong as the wall of a fortress.

~pages 3-7


Anonymous said...

Chana, thanks for this post. I agree with its content wholeheartedly. I recall the days when my parents asked the teachers in my day school to place me with children who had the same abilities as I did, that, of course, never happened. It would be wonderful if the schools would follow the following recommendations in order to address the needs of different students:
Cluster Grouping. All the gifted children in the same grade level are placed in the same classroom.

Homogeneous Grouping. This is similar to ability grouping. All the high ability children in one classroom are grouped together.

Heterogeneous Grouping. This is the most common method of grouping, but the least helpful to gifted children. Students of varying ability are placed in the same group.

I'm aware that the day schools do not possess the funds to hire amazing teachers to make this happen and it's sad. So many able children are simply not working to their full potential.

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