A Lesson in Education

letter-447577_1280

By Karen Greenberg [A Young Writer Submission]

When I first decided to become an English major, I didn’t really anticipate any problems that would involve my Judaism. This is not a common choice for Orthodox college women, but I chose a different path because I knew what I loved and I was confident that I could land some sort of job with an English degree. Throughout my young adult life, I have read books that both complimented my Torah worldview and contradicted it. There were no problems with those books that were complimentary, but then I would pick up an Ayn Rand, for example, and I would have to learn to separate my aesthetic enjoyment of the work from the parts of the books that contended with my Jewish perspective on life. If I disagreed with what I read, there was no one to actively argue for the book’s point of view. In a debate between myself and a work of literature, I always won; and so I thought my college literature classes would be in the same vein. I would continue reading and writing, as I had always loved to do, and would simply filter out anything that came along in contradiction with Orthodox Judaism. All Orthodox students going to secular college are well aware of how this goes, but a personal experience opened my eyes to the minefield of a forum where all views are considered, regardless of our opinions as Torah Jews.

This summer I took an English course that focused on poetry from 1945-present. The class was not required for my major, but I chose it as an elective. The course description was pretty vague, but I anticipated a survey of modern poetry over the course of 6 weeks. When I got to class, I learned that we would actually spend about 4 weeks focusing solely on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose works revolve almost entirely on an agnostic worldview. This, I felt, was not the ideal situation for me as an Orthodox student.

When I continued taking courses, things got a lot more complicated than that. The writers who argued for agnosticism and atheism were no longer a silent page that I could turn over, but were brought alive by my professors. My teachers would explain the rationale behind these controversial views and, since these were actual classes, I would have no choice but to sit and listen. Furthermore, I would have to write papers expounding upon these views, finding further support for perspectives that confidently deny the existence of G-d. Although these papers clearly did not reflect my personal opinions, they were nevertheless occupying the majority of my time. I can only assume that Orthodox students across the country are sitting in secular college at this very moment, actively filtering through a world of theory that completely contradicts Torah Judaism, but is being presented as fact, or at the very least, something they should be contemplating seriously.

So what do we, as students, do in such situations? The fine line between Torah U’madda becomes a lot more difficult to navigate in the college classroom, where liberal professors are attempting to mold your mind, and yeshiva education is a mere memory. As intellectuals, we are expected to consider all points of view, and objectively work through those fields of study which we involve ourselves in. As religious individuals, we expect ourselves to avoid situations in which we are immersed in agnosticism and anti-Torah sentiment.

We could, of course, simply avoid the classes that run the risk of such controversy. Many of the rabbis and peers that I discussed this with advised me to take other courses. So I could have chosen not spend my summer semester immersed in the poetry of Wallace Stevens; but that, to me, is simply the easy way out. We as thinking, religious Jews cannot run from situations in which our beliefs are challenged. That is not to say that one should get up in the middle of class and denounce all of his or her course material. Rather, we should tread carefully, anticipating what we will face in the classroom and bearing in mind that higher American education is an intellectual gauntlet unlike any other for the young Orthodox Jew. Amidst the philosophy and literary theory that make up our everyday occupation, we must remember to think critically, because madda is only secondary to Torah, no matter how convincing one’s professor may be.

I think this issue is becoming more and more relevant today as an increasing number of Orthodox students are choosing city and state colleges in this economic downturn. Many students do not properly anticipate what they will be facing in the classroom, especially coming off a year or two in Israel or straight from yeshiva high school. Because I am still struggling with the matter myself, I cannot pose a solution, but can only suggest that the Orthodox community be aware of what their college students are facing on an everyday basis. This is an issue that has always been around in some form or another, but I believe today’s college students are challenged on an entirely new level, and must therefore be duly prepared for an education they have never faced before.

Karen Greenberg lives in Queens, NY. She attended the Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) and spent her year in Israel studying at Midreshet Harova. She is now a junior at Queens College with a major in English and a double minor in business and secondary education.

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3 years 8 months ago

Readers may notice that we held up a few comments by Chareidi Leumi and Daniel Weltman for several days after submission. Here’s why: Our stated policy is that we won’t publish material that we believe is contrary to halacha or fundamentals of faith. The very interesting and rewarding exchange between Rabbi Doron Beckerman and the two commenters mentioned above certainly set off warning bells about a possible violation of this rule. We allowed the discussion to continue as long as Rabbi Beckerman kept supplying counter-arguments. When he signalled that he was ending his part of the discusssion, we had no choice but to quarantine the possibly suspect comments until we could better look at them and see if they had unwittingly crossed a red line.

I finally got around to it tonight, and quickly saw that there was much interesting and valuable material in the comments we had held up; we then approved them. This does not mean that Cross-Currents believes that they are halachically correct. Personally, I strongly believe that they are entirely incorrect. After all debate, we still follow halachic decisors. Rambam (as alluded to by one of R. Beckerman’s earliest comments) is abundantly clear about the halacha. Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:3 (free translation): “It is not strictly speaking Avodah Zarah that the Torah forbids us to turn to even in thought. In fact, we are forbidden to consider and contemplate any ideas that cause a person to uproot from his belief system important principles of the Torah. We are not to follow the musings of our hearts in these areas.” In other words, we are obligate to self-censor. Arguments and material that may cause us to abandon principles of faith are off-limits. Students straight out of high school, ill-equipped with strong background in Torah machshavah, have no halachic sanction to take courses that have in the past caused others to question their observance.

None of this really stands in opposition to anything pointed out by Chareidi Leumi and Daniel Weltman. They correctly demonstrate that some Rishonim – including Rambam himself – want people to build arguments for belief from the ground up. This process must include considering possibilities like atheism c’v, and lack of Sinaitic revelation. But those Rishonim do not advocate this process for everyone. Some are quite explicit about the prerequisites for such inquiry, including proper general and Torah education, refinement of character, and acquisition of self-restraint. Anyone who believes that students graduate high schools with these accomplishments should strongly think of giving up what they are smoking. For people without the requirements, the Rambam’s formulation of what is forbidden to study is completely on target. For those who acquire them, the Rambam’s formulation is irrelevant! They will not be adversely affected by what they read or think about. It is to this latter group that RSG and the Moreh address their words.

Without R. Beckerman on call, keeping up the dialogue exceeds the availability of time of the editors. By executive decision, this thread is closed.

Ori Pomerantz
3 years 8 months ago

Why not “attend” a legitimate correspondence school? They exist (WGU, for example), and they allow you to study without being immersed in a secular environment. BTW, college education in general is in a bubble. But STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is still valuable. Speaking as somebody who works in the IT industry, we need more people.

Yaacov Marsh
3 years 8 months ago

You may be interested in the following extract from an editorial that appeared in Hamodia last February.

Is Higher Education a Waste of Time and Money?
Since Jews began to enter the outside society during the so-called enlightenment, secular institutions of higher education have served as the first stop on the highway out of yiddishkeit for millions of young people. This is not surprising. Richard Rorty, a leading American philosopher, wrote in 2000: “When… college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists…we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We…go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity… those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer.”
In recent years, ways have been found to acquire the skills signified by college degrees while avoiding this toxic secular college environment, but despite the dangers many in the frum community have rejected these options as too limiting. Today, though, American society at large is beginning to question the hegemony of conventional higher education.
The reason for this evolving trend is economic. Over the past three decades, college tuition has increased more than tenfold, over twice as much as the fourfold increase in home prices during the recent real estate bubble. Many people are observing the higher education bubble and concluding that it must burst.
There are a number of reasons that people feel they need to send their children to college. First, they hope they will learn skills that will help them earn a good living. Second, it may make it easier for them to find a job, because employers believe that earning a college demonstrates the ability to stick at a task and complete it. Third, attending a college provides an opportunity to make contacts who may be helpful later in life. And many students just want to have a good time and delay their entry into the real world for a few more years.
There has been little questioning of the first reason until recently. The belief that higher education makes students more productive has motivated governments to continually increase the availability of loans and grants, and parents to spend or borrow huge sums. Over the past decade, federal spending on student aid has grown by 99 percent. Americans now owe more money for student loans than on their credit cards. And President Obama wants even more young people to attend college, perhaps so they will come to adopt his worldview. To this end, his 2011 budget includes an increase of $156 billion in federal subsidies for student aid.
That is unlikely to happen in the current economic climate. The public realizes that there is a need for both families and the government to cut down on unnecessary expenses, and the claimed benefits of higher education as we know it are now being scrutinized more carefully than before.
After measuring the actual competence of college graduates, the National Center for Education Statistics found that most are below proficiency in both verbal and quantitative literacy. Researchers at the University of California found that today’s students study an average of 14 hours a week, compared with 24 hours in 1961. And according to a survey of 714 colleges and universities by the American Council of Alumni and Trustees, “by and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum.”
Increased higher education is not a panacea. To quote an extreme case, the recent revolution in Tunisia was sparked by disaffected beneficiaries of free university education, which the government guarantees to all qualified high school graduates. Now, 57 percent of Tunisians entering the labor market are college educated – and have an unemployment rate exceeding 40 percent. The American situation is obviously not so bad, but it should be noted that 12 percent of mail carriers have college degrees. Walter Russell Mead of Bard College believes that worldwide trends mean that those with jobs requiring college degrees, including government workers, professors, lawyers, health care personnel, upper and middle managers are going to face a harsher environment, with increasing pressures of automation, outsourcing and harsh cost-cutting measures similar to those that have held blue collar workers down for the past thirty years.

Doron Beckerman
3 years 8 months ago

Dr. Bill,

1) I think we can agree that insisting on G-d’s existence is not overstating ikarei emunah.

2) The other end of the spectrum is not “eitzah tovah” but “Ploni(t) is objectively unequipped to deal with the challenges to Emunah he or she will face in that course and therefore it is unequivocally forbidden for him or her to attend.”

3) I wholeheartedly join you in encouraging the same, and not just for college students. Categorically.

dr. bill
3 years 8 months ago

rabbi beckerman, three points:

1) i wonder how much mekhankhim who overstate what are ikrei emunah and understate the breadth of views within our mesorah contribute to the problems students face when having to confront ideas and/or facts presented by others?

2) avoiding the main debate, i question when a person’s decision to drop a particular course is a generalized halakhic decision versus at the other end of the spectrum, an eitzah tovah, the latter being much more situational and hardly given to being a unqualified psak? i suspect most cases fall in between but often closer to eitzah tovah.

3) rather than categorical pronouncements, I would encourage college students to find a person with whom they can discuss what they find challenging to their beliefs.