From Childhood to Old Age

The Inner Aspect of Education

Every educational method, everywhere the world and at all times, is based upon certain ideas, ideals and world-views. In many cases – perhaps even in most cases – educators (or whoever else is in charge of education) are only partially aware of these fundamental ideas, goals and aspirations of the education they impart; and the degree of awareness is even lower in the education given by non-professional educators or teachers. In the final analysis, however, it is not the awareness of ideals that determines education, but their existence in the mind of the educator or of the influential figure. Thus, even in the most primitive societies – which also have an education of sorts – education is influenced by the educator’s desire to mold pupils into becoming persons of certain character and with specific traits, as suit his own private views, or those of his society.

There is a multitude of educational forms, which change with time, place, social rank, etc., and so many good intentions on part of educators, who wish to mold the pupil’s character and impart to him certain worldviews and ways of life. Generally speaking, however, all existing educational forms can be divided into two major groups.

The first approach is based on the desire to prepare the child for life. Children are taught whatever they need for the continuation of their lives. Only little attention is paid to the child’s desires; and to the extent that it is done, it is done in the negative way – namely, by trying to prevent the child from engaging in childhood things, and by educating him towards what he is supposed to do in adult life, and making him want all the things that adults want. The main aim of this kind of education is to erase, as much as possible, whatever is child-like in the child, turning him into a little adult as quickly as possible.

The second major educational approach works in the opposite way. The child is given maximal freedom, is taken care of, and his desires are fulfilled to the maximal degree. The adults try to have the child remain a child, and not bother his mind and heart with the tough ways of life; they want to leave him for as long as possible in some kind of paradise, in which he will grow and develop according to his inner inclinations. Only few demands are made from the child, who leads a life of many rights and few duties.

These two basic approaches towards children – the apprentice-adult, and the social protegee – exist in almost all of the world’s societies. There do, however, exist various intermediate forms, in which the child’s position is shifted this way or that and which are a kind of compromise between the two opposing trends. Modern Western education, although basically aspiring to give the child as happy and pleasant a life as possible, must nevertheless take into account the facts and possibilities of life, and therefore it also provides for certain preparation for the child’s future. Similarly, the education that wanted to turn the child into an adult nevertheless placed the child in some kind of paradise, in which children had no real duties – except for one (which is the foundation of this kind of education): “To study well and to behave properly.” Yet if we see through all the intermediary forms, we can see that it is these two major educational approaches that have always existed, throughout the ages.

While the difference between these two forms of education seems enormous, there is one ideal common to both. In fact, these two approaches are but different conclusions drawn from one common premise, which is – seeing adult life as the life. The child’s life is not real life: it is but a preamble. “Life” means, life as an adult.

The influence of this ideal is easily discernible in the first educational approach, the one aspiring to prepare the child for life. Clearly, here the child’s life is seen as an introduction and preparation for “life itself.” Yet, the second approach, too, is based on this very same idea: the child is given whatever his heart desires, is surrounded with comfort and unrealistic conditions, is not confronted with any demands, and is given complete freedom from all responsibility. Yet all this is done not because childhood is considered ideal, but because adults want to give the child some respite before starting “life itself.” The child is freed from all obligations because he is only in the introductory stage of life; once life itself starts, his situation will change completely.

Both educational forms, then, have one common premise; the only difference between them is in their attitude towards the child in this period of preamble to life: to prepare the child ahead of time, or to let him enjoy himself, until “life” actually begins.

The Ideal of Adulthood

The idea that “life” is adult life has great, all-encompassing influence, not only on the limited sphere of child education, but also on all spheres and stages of the life of every single person.

Education based on the assumption that “real life” is somewhere in the future, that it is yet to come, also contains some implicit assumptions also on the nature of “real life.” To be sure, every society has a different conception of what that life is; but the feeling is always that “life itself” is that period in which one is physically mature – namely, those years of one’s life in which one is at the peak of bodily development. Needless to say, no educator will actually formulate things this way; yet what counts is not formulations (to the extent that they exist), but rather what a person feels. The prevailing feeling is that “life” is the life of the young adult, in full possession of all his physical powers, whose eyes can see and whose heart can covet all that the world can offer a person with a wholesome body, who can – physically and spiritually – enjoy whatever he desires. Education, then, unconsciously postpones all the wishes, aspirations, and ideas about this desired happiness to the stage of adulthood. Moreover: not only adulthood is considered the ideal lifetime, but also all the cravings and passions of this age. One may still have many more ways of enjoyment. But since adulthood is the ideal, whenever a person cannot – for whatever reason – fulfill all these wishes and imaginations that are related to adulthood and to the possibilities it opens, one feels miserable.

This subjection to the ideal of adulthood, which turns the child’s life into a “preamble,” deeply influences the old person’s life as well. Just as the child is being educated – consciously or not – to see childhood as but a foreword, so the old man, influenced by this ideal, tends to see his life as merely an epilogue. In the course of time, the old person loses the strength and abilities that the younger adult had, and this makes him feel as if he has lost life entirely; from middle age on, one feels as if one were no longer living, just expecting death. Indeed, the spiritual sorrows and unpleasantness of old age stems, to a large extent, from the fact that the old person feels that life was in the past, when he was a young adult, and that he cannot live in the preset. Hence also old people’s tendency to live in their memories.

Examining the Ideal of Adulthood

The ideal of adulthood exerts a tremendous influence on the life of every human being: from the very beginning – when the child either is forcefully dragged into the adult world or kept completely removed from it – until old age, when one feels like a degenerating creature, going from a state of perfection towards death. Childhood being a preamble for life, and old age the final scene, “life itself” is that time-span that remains in between.

Even a superficial examination shows that there is something strange here: one lives most of one’s life towards, or thanks to, a limited period of time which, according to this view, is “life,” while the majority of “life” is but additions. Moreover, this imaginary picture of “life” does not mean any kind of life; it is not adulthood alone that determines this ideal, but also specific forms and conditions of life within that period. The ideal of adulthood is closely related to physical health and the ability to enjoy the possibilities of the healthy body. Consequently, the adult person can actually enjoy the possibilities and pleasures that pertain to this age in only a very small portion of the time. Even the greater part of adult life is spent preparing towards the real thing, either by studying or by working.

This means, then, that this ideal makes one devote most of one’s life to preparing for, and adorning, a very small chunk of the totality of one’s life. The child looks forward to the time “when I grow up”; the old man things about the times “when I was young”; and the young adult thinks about, and plans for, “when I have some leisure, when I save some money, when I get married,” etc. Thus, instead of living, one only wants to live.

Thus, even the more superficial aspects of this ideal, once examined, make no sense. So much life is wasted because of this kind of education! A deeper look into the content of this ideal makes it look no better. For what is the inner content of a life centered on this ideal? Does such a life bring happiness? If so, then adulthood ought not to be better or worse than any other period of life. The happiness of adulthood, then, is no better or worse than the forms of happiness that pertain to other life- periods. True, adulthood has its own distinct forms of pleasure and happiness; but the child and the old person, too, have their own special sources of happiness. If adulthood-related happiness is not life’s sole goal, why should the child be made to expect the “future”? Why should the old man regret the bygone past?

A life that is constantly looking forward to “something” grand that is supposed to happen in some close or distant future is a strange life indeed. The child, looking forward to when he grows up, cedes – both out of his own will and because of his education – many childhood experiences. Yet when he grows up, he finds no special happiness in adulthood, no general change for the better that justifies the expectations that robbed him of his childhood. He sees that he has merely substituted one form of life with another. So, too, the old man, instead of drawing satisfaction from his present, keeps longing for the days when he was “young,” and daydreams about a past which, in fact, was not better than his present.

The Ideal of Life

As against this ideal of adulthood, which centers all of life on one, senseless point, stands the Jewish-human ideal of living life in its entirety. This means, living life as it is at any given time. It means not dreaming about some remote happiness, in the past or in the future, but rather living the happiness and pleasures of real, actual life – to live life in the present. In other words, it is to accept life and its general course as it is, and to live it accordingly.

This ideal says that if there is perfection in life, it is to be found equally at any point in life; and if life is to be improved, it is to be improved in its entirety. The ideal of life, then, is to find goodness and pleasure in all the days and circumstances of life, and not through making comparisons with other periods of one’s own life, nor with other human beings. Living means living and appraising life in terms taken from within life itself. It means enjoying all the possibilities that life offers in each and every stage of life.

The human aspect of this ideal can teach us a complete, total way of living every part of the entirety of life. Yet this ideal has a higher, more essential aspect: the fundamental religious aspect, which gives us the inner significance of things.

From the human point of view, life is but life, its main goal being life itself. Religious Jewish life, however, is not “just life:” it contains certain goals and missions. According to this view, living well means fulfilling life’s mission. This mission contains many parts and details, yet its essence is to perfect the body, the soul and the world, in the framework of an ongoing relationship with God. This mission is to be fulfilled not at a certain age or life-period, but rather in each and every part of life, and in any situation in which one finds oneself.

Indeed, the system of commandments, in its entirety, shows that there is nothing, either in time or place, that does not somehow pertain to worshipping the Almighty and to the aspiration to perfect the soul and elevate the world. Every nook and cranny in the Jew’s life is surrounded by commandments, and the Jew is obligated to fulfill them at each and every moment. So long as he does so properly, he fulfills life’s aim. True, everything has its own proper time and age; yet in no time and age is one exempt from God’s worship. In every age, one has different roles, according to his strength and ability at that specific age and situation; and just as there are special functions for the young adult, so there are other roles that one is bound to fulfill as one progresses along the course of life.

According to Judaism, the course of life – of real life – is not seen as an ascent towards adulthood, and from then on only descent. Rather, it is an uninterrupted journey “from strength to strength.” Starting out life as an amorphous, inchoate mass, a utensil that has not yet taken shape, man goes on to acquires a more complete form, which he keeps shaping constantly through much study and good deeds, along with a constant perfection of body and soul, by directing them towards the real aim of life. Seeing life as a whole, all of whose parts are equally important, gives a very different evaluation of life. Once man builds this ability to live the present, to live life as it is, without picturing imaginary ideals, he can live old age just as happily as the young adult, in the peak of his vigor. For the inevitable physical changes of old age are usually accompanied with parallel spiritual changes, which give man the possibility not to feel these physical changes – emotionally – at all. Thus, when one puts aside all those imaginary aspirations that cannot be fulfilled, one can draw and enjoy goodness from every point along the path of life, and live life itself.

Education to Life

Accepting the Ideal of Life calls, of course, for a fundamental change in the education that leads towards it. In other words: once life is not seen as centered on a specific time period, the two major forms of education discussed become invalid. The Ideal of Life says that there is no reason to separate the child from “life.” Life, in all of its manifestations, is from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Between these two points, one goes through the path of life; and one’s task is to do so in the best way possible, given one’s gifts and abilities.

The sole aim of this education is to help the pupil – in our case, the child – to live life properly. A child ought to be taught to live as a child, and to draw happiness and pleasure from this, as well as any other situation in which he will find himself. To be sure, the child must be prepared for the days of adulthood that lie ahead and be taught how to live this period of life, too, properly. However, just as the child must be prepared to adulthood, so he should also be prepared for any other period of life. Just as the child studies things that will help him when he is twenty or thirty, so he should, at the right time, be taught what he must know at the age of ten, as well as the things he has to know when he turns seventy.

To be sure, every kind of study has its own proper time; yet in general, studying must be preparation for every period of life and for every situation of existence. Today people think that one does not finish studying when one reaches “life,” when he no longer needs to know anything. This is not so: studying and education must continue throughout, until the age of seventy, and beyond. At no time does one finish studying and begin “life.” Education to live, and life itself, are eternally bound together; and the more one learns and lives, the more does one know how to live – that is, of course, if he wants to live, and does not content oneself with dreams about life.

Just as there is no boundary between the child and “life,” as far as constant studying is concerned, so there is also no limit to the duty to keep doing, to keep perfecting life, out of the bond with the Almighty. Moreover, the child has duties, just as the adult does – not in the same things and spheres of life, but in terms of the relationship between the doer and the deed. Just as the adult has duties – mainly to do good – so does the child who, too, must perfect himself and his world.

Clearly, this is not the same for all ages: the child’s duties are fewer, and his understanding of what he is doing is also scantier; yet even this does not consist a fundamental difference between one age group and another. A person who progresses in life realizes that his previous understanding and former deeds – in every sphere of life – were far from perfect. Whoever is certain that he already knows everything, may soon find out that his childish understanding was superior to his current one.

To sum up: it is not through imaginary ideals, but by walking in the real path of life itself, extracting all of the divine vitality granted to us by God throughout life, that one can live all the years, days and moments of life in a real, palpable way.