Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-seven

The next verse is an immediate response to the previous one, where Jose ha-Babli compared learning from a young teacher to drinking wine out of the press. I’ll use Judah Goldin’s translation:

Rabbi says: Do not look at the jug but at its contents—there are new jugs filled with old wine, and old ones in which there is not even new wine!

This is Judah the Prince, by the way, as it always is when they just call somebody Rabbi without a name. And he does seem to be saying that Jose ha-Babli is just wrong. Which is fair; the combined learning seems to be that (a) you should arrange for your children to learn while they are still young, (2) it is better, in general, to arrange for them to learn from somebody with experience, rather than from a brash young teacher with New Ideas, but that (iii) do not assume that an old teacher is wise, or that a young teacher is ill-trained, but look into each individual teacher’s qualifications.

All good. Nothing wrong with that learning.

It does all remind me, though, of how public education (which is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing, and which is, on balance, possibly the Best Thing) does set up a system where the choice of teacher for our children is handled, well, professionally, with tests and accreditation and hiring practices and so on to assure, as best we can, that our teachers are good wine in uncracked bottles. My Perfect Non-Reader started fourth grade this week, and while there is a certain amount of choice built into the system (we could have swapped schools, or moved out of town, or taken her to a private school, or homeschooled) for most of us, it’s Hobson’s Choice, with Hobson being overseen by a Superintendent who is appointed by a School Board who are elected by us townsfolk all together, supported by a University system, backed by the state and federal governments. We waited to hear who her teacher would be, and while we had a preference, perhaps, we knew that there aren’t very many really lousy teachers at our school, or in fact in any of the schools.

Even for Hebrew School, which is much less professional a thing, we have a limited range of choices: we choose our congregation, and we participate (to varying degrees) in choosing a Rabbi, a President, and a head of the education program, and perhaps we volunteer ourselves or we push our spouses or friends to volunteer, but on the whole, we sign our kids up and take what they get, in the knowledge that Somebody Else is handling it. The Rabbis of our verses lived in a very different world, where placing your children with someone was giving them a master to follow, possibly in a different town, and your own day-to-day life would be very separated from their lives, after that choice. More like sending your kid to college, only at ten years old. Or how the old English Aristocracy would chose tutors and governesses, I suppose.

Well, anyway. The emphasis throughout Avot on choosing a teacher is from a different world than ours, which isn’t terribly surprising, I suppose. And, of course, there are good things and bad things about that—while I do on occasion read these things and thing that I really should taste the wine in the jug before, um, metaphorically dunking my kids in it, the professionalism of teaching has not only broadened the range of kids who get educated but narrowed the range of incompetence and brutality of the teachers. I wouldn’t want to live in the Rabbi’s world, myself; I can’t help thinking that I would send my kids to the wrong teacher, or be sent to the wrong one myself, and then what?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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