On Character Education

In the Middle Ages and before, books were very rare and enormously expensive, and therefore the most efficient and cheapest way of disseminating knowledge was through public lectures. Since printing was invented, and the price of paper became cheaper, transmitting information through the spoken word has become practically obsolete, even though it still is the main method of teaching in our schools and universities. Basically, once children learn to read and write – and now they also become computer experts long before their parents master the keyboard – they can resort to other methods in order receive information.

This does not mean, however, that schools should be abolished, because even in the modern age, schools and the teachers still have two major roles that no book, audiotape or videotape can fulfill: an academic one and an educational one.

The first role which I will touch upon only briefly  is to teach pupils how to learn, which is something very different from transmitting information. A coach who teaches someone to run will not run for him; he will teach him how to do the running himself. This holds true for every subject. To really teach means to get into the mind of the student and to see what is the problem, why can he not get into a certain subject, and how it can be overcome.

The second role of the school is educational: to help form the student’s character. This goes far beyond intellectual pursuit. In most schools, the favorite pupil is a little zombie who is just sitting there and raising his hands in the proper intervals. But even students who are intellectually affected and are capable of dealing with any subject matter can still turn out to be monsters; highly intellectual ones, but monsters nonetheless. True, in every monster the parents, too, have a fair share, both biologically and educationally; but modern day parents spend a lot less time with their children and are less inclined to invest in them, and the power of the peer group in the after school hours has also declined, and thus the educational role of the school has become increasingly more decisive, to the extent that the school is almost a kind of foster parent.

In this context, I would like to look into the beginning of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which is called Kinyan Torah – “the acquisition of Torah.” This text, which is part of what is known as “Wisdom Literature,” is classical, and as such, deceptively simple; it requires the reader to work in order to come to understand and appreciate it.

“Rabbi Meir Says, Whoever engages in the study of Torah for its own sake, achieves many things. Moreover, it was worth creating the world for his sake alone. And he is called ‘a friend, a beloved, lover of God, lover of people'” or, in a more precise translation, “lover – of all creatures,” which is an all-embracing concept; it includes everything, from angels to vermin, and to be such a person requires much more of an effort than to be a “lover of humanity.” The Mishna continues: “a joy to God, a joy to humanity” – or, in a better translation: “he makes God glad, he makes creatures glad.”

And what does the Torah do to him? Torah “clothes him with humility and reverence and equips him to be righteous, saintly, upright, and faithful. It keeps him far from sin, and draws him near to virtue.”

This description of what the study of Torah does to the character of a person does not speak much about intellectual achievement or erudition; rather, it speaks about the human being. Indeed, in Jewish law, a person who is intellectually equipped and a scholar but does not behave properly is considered a most despicable human being. A person who is merely erudite is called, in the Talmud, “a book-carrying donkey,” or “a basket full of books.” Carrying books rather than, say, straw, does not make a donkey less of a donkey.

So Torah study must transform the student’s personality; if it does not, then there is something wrong about the teacher, the teaching method, and the pupil himself. In fact, the Mishna goes on to say that study says that Torah prepares him to be “righteous and pious and honest and faithful,” etc. It does not actually do that: it creates the possibility, prepares the ground. No one will ever become anything unless they want to; but the right conditions must be provided. To prepare the ground means to take care not just of what people know, but also of what they make of that knowledge, what becomes of them as human beings.

The continuation of the Mishna describes something which is either the reward or the result of learning: “It endows him with sovereignty and authority, the power of keen judgments; the secrets of Torah are revealed to him, he becomes an affluent fountain, a never ending stream; he becomes modest and patient, forgiving of insult. It magnifies and exalts him over all creations.” This is a magnificent description of a Torah scholar ? which in real life, unfortunately, is very rare. But whenever it is realized, such a scholar not only has a halo around him, but he shines forth with a bright light.

As we said, this description touches upon almost every possible aspect  except for intellectual achievement. And yet, the study of Talmud and its commentators  which nowadays is the most central part of Torah study  is a highly intellectual sort of study. Furthermore, contents-wise, most of the Torah scholar’s study is not about morality or sanctity: it is about litigations, laws of purity, sins and crimes of various kinds, etc. And the Torah scholar knows it all. And yet, what it makes of him is, ideally, what is described above. Why is that so?

The point is that character education is not done through direct statements, such as: be nice, be honest, etc. Children are very clever; they also observe their teachers from every possible angle. It is therefore extremely difficult to fool them. Be the subject studied what it may, what the teacher transmits about character formation is what the teacher actually is. The teacher is the actual model, and therefore, you have to be what you teach. When a teacher is a fake, the students will know it right away.

Thus, for instance, it is so very important for a teacher to be able to say “I do not know.” The importance of this cannot be over-stressed. Pretending knowledge undermines not the knowledge, but the character of the pupils. Sometimes, it is so much better to say, “Dear pupils, I myself am far from perfect in this point; and while I am teaching you, I myself am also trying to make some progress.” Beyond being fair and honest, it will also be respected by the children, because then they will feel that they and the teacher are going somewhere together. For how many among us can really say to our pupils, “Look at me, and behave exactly like this”?

The point is that certain things can be taught, or transmitted, by being a role model. A teacher, by definition, is a model, and when a teacher has humility, and integrity, it is transmitted. And it is transmitted not only by personal example, but also through the teacher’s demands. Many teachers create dishonesty, intellectual or otherwise, by their demands, as well as by the way of what they give the better marks for – for instance, by giving a good mark to a dishonest paper, just because it is “nice.”

But there is more to it than that. It says here that Torah learning “endows him (= the learner) with sovereignty and authority,” or, in other words, what it means to master something, and what it means not to master something. Mastery means that one becomes the real owner, the real boss, of whatever it is that he studied. And lack of mastery is the sloppiness that comes from not understanding what it means to do something, anything, properly. This, in fact, may be the most important thing: learning the proper way of doing things.

To summarize, if a teacher manages to cover all of the material in the curriculum, or more or less than that, it is not all that significant. But if a teacher succeeds in teaching children how to do things properly, that is an achievement. With time, such children will be able to close any gap. To create a fine human being, even if that human being has less formal education than the average student in the other school – that is really worthwhile.

Let me conclude with a story: In Jerusalem, there is a teachers’ seminary that, in its first years, used to be a very good school. The teachers in that seminary were some of the greatest scholars of Jerusalem at the time, and Jerusalem is a town with a fair amount of scholars. Years later, I asked a number of the graduates of that school who was the person that made the greatest impact on them. Interestingly enough, many of them said that it was the char lady – a little Yemenite woman with no formal education; whenever they had a real problem, the didn’t go to any of the teachers, nor to the principal: they went to this woman to get her advice.

Very few teachers have real knowledge; in terms of knowledge, most teachers are not qualitatively different from their students, only quantitatively: small ignoramuses, vs. bigger ignoramuses. It is people like that char lady who are most needed in schools, because it is that kind of people who really matter. You forget all the rest. Although it is possible to be both a scholar and a mentsch, there is no inner contradiction.

To sum up: a good teacher is one who helps his student to learn how to learn and who teaches him to become a mentsch. Turning a student into a mentsch is the greatest possible achievement of any teacher. Whoever does that does something God-like, a real imitatio Dei: creating a human being.