The book of Proverbs contains several verses about how to raise children and shape their character, but the one most popular in discussions of Jewish education today is 22:6: “Train a lad in the way he ought to go; he will not swerve from it even in old age.” From the verse’s first word, ḥanokh, is derived the modern Hebrew ḥinukh, education. But, writes Elli Fischer, it is too often misunderstood as an early articulation of what is now called “differentiated instruction,” i.e., the idea that pedagogy should be tailored to each student’s learning style:
When I hear [people] quote the familiar first half of this verse as a slogan, I sometimes ask them to complete it. Rarely are they able, and too often they are not even aware that they only recited half a verse! This is unfortunate because, taken as a whole, the verse offers a more modest but equally compelling vision of education—and, I believe, is addressed to parents more than teachers.
The “path” described is not the student’s unique personality; it is a metaphor for life. The word ḥanokh does not mean to teach or educate. Rather, as [the great medieval commentator] Rashi explains: “It is a term of initiation, the introduction of a person or object into the vocation where it will remain, as in, ‘initiate a lad,’ ‘the initiation of the Temple.’” The (re)inauguration of the Temple service is called Ḥanukkah, [a word derived from the same root].
If one initiates a child upon his path, taking those first few steps along with him, then [the child] will stay on that path as he matures. The mentor serves as the “training wheels”—there at the beginning, for the first few steps, and then letting go so the child can continue independently. The best education is one that grows and adapts with the student as she matures and encounters new circumstances.
The parent holds the child’s hand as the child learns to walk, but the goal is to let go and to stand back, beaming with pride as the child walks, then runs, along the path that they set out upon together.