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What A 19th-Century Educator Taught Me About Jewish Home Schooling In Age Of Betsy DeVos

The contentious confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary provoked a fair number of outraged folks to threaten to exercise their own right to school choice and home-school their children. Timing-wise, this announcement coincided with Orthodox Jewish parents starting to get their tuition bills for the next school year. One friend in New York City, a working mother with two toddlers, will be shelling out almost $42,000 next year just in tuition for less than full days in school (plus nanny costs). “That is just ridiculous,” she complained to me. “I could just fire my nanny and hire an entry level teacher for that.”

Generations ago the English did exactly that, and called the woman a “governess.” And it is the woman who spearheaded the governess educational philosophy who I intend to follow when I create my own future home school (as, currently, my children are a touch young for a curriculum).

There are a dozen or more popular home school philosophies and methodologies, including classical education, Montessori and unschooling (where students direct the lesson plans), and countless more companies with products marketed toward home-schoolers, selling everything from educational toys to math programs. The program we will follow, conceived by Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), eschews most of the trendier (and pricier) options in the American home school market.

In 1984, a book by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay titled “For The Children’s Sake” introduced Mason to mainstream audiences, popularizing her theories for a new generation of parents. Mason’s method is best known for its two main attributes: a dedication to appreciating the very best that the arts (literature, art, music) has to offer and a reverence for nature, for it is the truest expression of God’s hand in our lives, which we can see with every snowfall, every sunrise and sunset, and more.

“We attempt to define a person,” Mason wrote, as quoted on the Charlotte Mason Institute website, “the most common-place person we know, but he will not submit to bounds; some unexpected beauty of nature breaks out; we find he is not what we thought, and begin to suspect that every person exceeds our power of measurement.”

Sitting in a conference room in Maryland recently, listening to Carroll Smith, director of the Mason Institute, lecture on the finer points of how to deliver a Charlotte Mason education, I realized these were the same things that drew me to Judaism as a young child — namely, an appreciation for reading and for God in our everyday lives.

One of the keys to a Mason education is the reading of “living” books, books written by one author who takes a special interest in his or her subject. For example, if you’re studying the Civil War, read a literary narrative either by someone from that time period or from a contemporary expert on the subject instead of just a broad textbook. Depending on age, a student might read a firsthand account of fighting for the Union or the South, or James Swanson’s best-seller, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer,” which recounts the search for John Wilkes Booth.

Mason explained that it is living books above all others that engage readers, spark the imagination and remain in our memory long after they’ve finished the last chapter. After each reading, the student “narrates” what has just been read, or retells the story. How did God impart His laws and lessons to the Jews? Through a narrative story: the Torah. And how do we still learn it? By narrating the story over and over and over — in classrooms, in living rooms, in synagogues, at Seder tables. This is what God demanded of us in Deuteronomy 6:6 and 7: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

In an article on parenting for MyJewishLearning, Rabbi Nachum Amsel said, “Possibly the most important educational principle for a Jewish parent to adhere to is the notion of bringing up each child according to his or her unique personality, character traits and talents (Proverbs 22:6).” 1Mason concurs. A cornerstone of her educational philosophy is this: “Children are born persons.” What does this mean? Children are not empty vessels. Our methodology should therefore match our beliefs, and a school environment filled with textbooks and worksheets is not how we can impart a tailored education to a unique child.

As with many home school communities, the Charlotte Mason world is Christian dominated. Every book written on her philosophy is from a Christian point of view. And at a recent conference in suburban Maryland that attracted about 150 audience members, I’m pretty certain I was the only Jew.

In fact, Mason experts frequently discuss the dearth of Jewish families who follow Mason’s teachings. While God is a central part of Mason’s work, those who follow her teachings also have a lot of Jesus Christ thrown into the mix. Still, given the high levels of unhappiness with education choices facing many Jewish families, it’s remarkable that home-schooling hasn’t caught on more among Jews.

Considering the shared philosophical views between Mason and our religion, if more Jewish families were aware of the option, and of her beliefs, this might no longer be the case.

Bethany Mandel is a regular columnist for the Forward. Follow her on Twitter, @bethanyshondark

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