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Limiting Our Children's Education
Mom with a View

Limiting Our Children's Education

Being well-rounded is neither an appropriate nor useful goal for children's education.


All Jewish parents recognize the importance of education. We agonize over acceptance to the right school. We push for the preferred teacher. We try to pick good friends. We attempt to manage the food eaten, snacks traded and time spent at physical exercise. We encourage extracurricular activities -- sports, dance, art or music -- as well as character-building and enhancing volunteer experiences. Not to mention the efforts allocated to developing our young child's social skills en route to that all-important goal of popularity.

After all, we want our children to be well-rounded, don't we? And it's all in our power, isn't it?

Dr. Mel Levine, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and the director of the university's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, suggest in his book, "A Mind at a Time," that being well-rounded is neither an appropriate nor useful goal. I suggest in addition to this that our ability to shape our children is limited. We can't affect all-round personality change and certainly not neurological change. We can fine tune, we can offer some tools, we can provide (hopefully) a good example, and we can pray.

Being well-rounded is not particularly useful because most careers require specialization (except perhaps parenting itself!). Even family doctors are meant to specialize in the unique dynamics of the family unit. As society moves towards an ever greater degree of specialization, we continue to pressure our children to be well-rounded. Not only does that certainly not have any application career-wise, I'm not sure it does in any area of life -- except perhaps cocktail party chatter (and the aforementioned parenting, particularly the "help your kids with their homework" variety). As far as I'm concerned, being well-rounded academically has about as much use in today's world as cursive writing skills (which reminds me of a note I want to send to my son's teacher!).

But there is a deeper, more troubling issue here. After all, given the time, talent, and energy, one could argue that school is not solely a vocational training ground and that there are intellectual and psychological benefits of a diversified education and broad knowledge. There is some truth to this idea but it flies in the face of the King Solomon's admonition to "Educate each child according to his way" as well as recent psychological and neurological research.

Everyone has learning differences. There is no such thing as the perfect mind. Some of these differences are crippling, some are not. Some can easily be compensated for, some cannot. But regardless of how bright a child is, his mind can't do everything. There are some skills that come easier than others. There are some skills that are extraordinary and there are some that are nonexistent. Some children have terrific, almost photographic memories. Some freeze at the sight of their spelling list. Some children excel at creative writing, their expansive imaginations running wild as they win multiple story contests. This same youngster may need constant tutoring in math just to get a passing grade. Some children have difficulty being motivated (you can't start them!) and some are driven overachievers (you can't stop them!).

The variety is endless, and in the hardwiring. We, as parents, relatives, friends and educators, need to appreciate this. In our crowded and busy classrooms it is frequently difficult for the teacher to follow King Solomon's precept.

In our crowded and busy homes, the reality is often the same. How can teachers or parents provide custom-designed education for each and every child?

I don't believe they can; I know I sure can't. But I think there are a few important things we can do.

1. The first step is awareness. Recognize that our children, like ourselves, are imperfect with tremendous fluctuations in learning skills and abilities. This is not a willful choice but the way the Almighty has created us.

2. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Most of us lead with our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. Yet our school-age children frequently get limited appreciation for their strengths -- 'how many other children got A's?' -- and only pressure to improve their weaknesses -- 'if you would only try harder...' Where the hardwiring is faulty, trying harder makes no difference other than to deepen the sense of failure. Maximize praise and reward your child's strengths.

Don't make moral judgments about particular qualities. To have a good memory doesn't make you a good person.

3. Don't make moral judgments about particular qualities. To have a good memory doesn't make you a good person. As Dr. Levine repeatedly points out, rote memory is all-important in school and almost never needed in adult life. Having a poor memory doesn't diminish your value as a human being (although it is good to try to remember what your wife just told you!) It's not "good" to be athletic and "bad" to be a little clumsy. It's not "good" to be a math whiz and "bad" to stumble over fractions. Our children have been given exactly the qualities the Almighty wants them to have, exactly the tools they need to succeed in life.

4. This doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. It means that change should occur slowly, in small steps, with compassion and understanding about the very real limitations.

We all want the best for our children. But a wise parent recognizes that a preconceived notion of what's best won't fly. It takes real understanding of who this particular human being is – with their specific and complex neurological makeup – to help them figure out how to succeed. And memorizing multiplication tables is not the only measure of success.

We need the schools to work with us, not against us. We need to be our children's advocates and their support. And we need to pray, no beg, that the Almighty should help us.

April 22, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 25

(25) Sarah Rivka :), May 19, 2014 12:40 AM

I completely agree with this article!

I actually don't think I had a well-rounded experience in school. Academics were all-important and things like music were relegated to once a week. I think really the top priority for a child depends on the individual child.

I would like to know: What do you think about homeschooling? In some ways it seems like the best way to ensure that a child learns according to his/her way but it doesn't seem to be accepted so much....

(24) Anonymous, May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Education and Empathy

In my experience and understanding, the ability to learn and assimilate new information requires some basis, some context from which to build. Although I am far from a genius, studying and having at least some understanding in multiple fields has been a great benefit; it is much easier to empathise with others if you can understand what it is they do, and what goes in to doing it. In general, people seem to find it easier to communicate with and open up to those who have similar experiences or knowledge-sets. Without both the ability to learn and at least some range of data from which to interpret and build, not only does one's empathy and understanding for one's fellow beings suffer, but one also loses countless opportunities to appreciate G-d's work at different levels. Cf. Pirkei Avot 2:19 and the life of Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, and other great scholars.

What is the specialisation of a teacher? What is the specialisation of a programmer? What is the specialisation of a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a writer, a librarian, or a manager? What is the specialisation of a mother or father?

All of these roles require broad ranges of skills. understanding, and knowledge (especially the last two!) and what may be required or needed at any time is not predeterminable by us. The broader the range of experiences and information available, the more likely it is to be able to understand what to do in a situation. This applies to matters of Halacha as well.

I believe that the problem isn't "well-roundedness", but rather the lack of connection in how material is presented by many teachers. It seems that in the secular arts a solid, general framework to which many things can adhere is sorely lacking. This applies to within an "area", not just between "areas".

In artificial intelligence, there is a theory which states that it is impossible to learn something that you don't already mostly know. With neither a sense that things can fit together (and should) nor a framework to fit information into, no-one can be expected to understand anything; at best they can perform rote memorisation and give a cookbook solution. (This particularly applies to children. "Why? Why? But... ") Memorisation without context or perceivable benefit leads to the destruction or suppression of curiousity, analysis, and creativity, without which learning becomes not only unrewarding, but impossible.

(23) Katherine, May 4, 2006 12:00 AM

I agree with aliza

I agree that "well-rounded" means to be exposed to a variety of things. I feel that is a vital part of schooling for young children because they don't know at what they may excel. Depending on their home environment, they may have never been exposed, or had very limited exposure, to some subjects.

I'm amused you mentioned poetry because that was a subject the majority of kids in my classes hated, yet I usually enjoyed it. It depended on the poems we studied and the enthusiasm of the teacher. Those are the greatest factors of how much a child can get out of any class, even at the university level.

(22) Remedy Hawke, May 4, 2006 12:00 AM

How do you type a raspberry????

I say to you "pllphththsfpht!!!!!" with all the spray my saliva can work up! Learning many different things has helped me and my children to survive. If I had only one or two skills, we would've starved to death and been broken apart a long time ago.

(21) aliza, May 2, 2006 12:00 AM

confusing the issue

I think the author is confusing "well-rounded" with "forced learning." I understand well-rounded to mean being exposed to various aspects of culture and learning: art, writing, poetry, music, crafts, math, geometry, language, literature, etc. Well-rounded does not mean forcing children to be good at all subjects or ridiculing children for not being "good enough" in the subjects we adults think they should be good in.

I'm not a huge fan of poetry, nor do I like trying to write poetry, but I am thankful for the opportunity to study poetry and to learn about various poets. I am not an artist, nor do I wish to be one, but I have learned what I appreciate in an art piece and quite enjoy what pieces I have. I also recognize how algebra and geometry affect my life, even though I am neither a mathematician nor an architect.

Single-focused, highly specialized students are missing out on the different kinds of beauty that Gd has created for us. I'm also finding that highly specialized students are not learning how to think "outside the box" - if a situation comes up that requires creative thinking, they tend to get stumped if it wasn't something specifically addressed in their learning.

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