Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Real Problem With University

A recent article in the Jewish Star making its way around the blogsphere has aroused the ire and scorn of the anti-religious crowd. The article tries to make the point that secular colleges/universities are dangerous places for frum kids and that parents should think very carefully before sending their children to one because doing so means gambling with the strong possibility that said children will leave the derech:
What about kashrut? Shabbat? Sure, it might be challenging for him to deal with religious observance over the summer. But that’s what real life is about, isn’t it? But then your rabbi confronts you with a troubling statistic: 25 percent of all Orthodox attendees to the summer program drop their Orthodoxy. Despite your skepticism, the rabbi shows you the surveys and it’s true: one-quarter of all Orthodox camp participants abandon Orthodox practice.
Would you encourage your son to go? It’s my article so I can say it: I wouldn’t. After spending so much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and money on conveying the importance of Jewish life to my children, how could I risk it all on one summer — no matter how enriching it may be?
If you haven’t realized it by now, I’m not writing about a summer program. No, I’m writing about attending secular college.
In a fascinating symposium published in a special education issue of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Meorot Journal, Rabbi Todd Berman writes about preparing students to thrive in non-Orthodox environments, specifically secular colleges. His essay focuses on important ways to mitigate the effects of the pressures to abandon religious life on campus, like sending educators from high schools to visit kids on campus; helping students form critical social bonds within the Orthodox groups on campus; and offering valuable courses both in high school and in Israel to help prepare them for college life
All of these represent good ways to help our kids retain their connection to Orthodoxy on the college campus. And yet, I wonder. Rabbi Berman himself states the numbing numbers: “one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews…changed their denominational identity while at college.” (Avi Chai Foundation, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Report, Jan. 2006)
That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years — after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.

Now for a clarification. Being up in Canada, the words "university" and "college" have different meanings than they do state side. Up here, university is what Americans call university and college. These are the liberal arts schools with the big campuses, tons of degrees and professional degree programs. What we call college is what are called trade schools or technical colleges in America. I will be using the Canadian defitions so I hope no one gets too confused.
Having attended two major Canadian universities, including one world-renowned for its parties and the physical qualities of its female students, I have had a great deal of opportunity to observe and participate in university life. After thinking long and hard, it is my conclusion that university is dangerous for frum kids. However, I think it's also dangerous for almost every other kind of kid out there.
Remember that historically universities in Europe were for the children of the rich. These were the students who could afford to spend years learning the arts, English literature, basket weaving, etc. without having to worry about every getting a job because their parents were either nobility, successful merchants or landowers. They would be inheriting the family estate without a need to do anything for themselves.
In North America the democratization of university has meant that a "higher" education is available to a large number of people. No longer do only the bluebloods of society get a chance to learn Shakespeare in the original Klingon. As a result, a liberal arts education is an achievable goal for many. There's only one real problem with this. A liberal arts education is useless.
Think about it. You send your child to university. You pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, residency, food and beer fees. Three years later your child comes home (hopefully) with a baccalaureate in English or some other soft subject. Very nice. Now the next day you start asking the hard questions. Have you found a job? Tens of thousands of dollars later, what exactly are you qualified to do? Other than a politically correct, leftist attitude, what do you really have to show for the last three years? The answers, in order, are: No, nothing, a piece of paper in a frame.
Am I dismissing the importance of a liberal arts education? Not at all, although again I must ask about how thirteen years in the general school system failed to provide one. What am I pointing out is that, other than those who choose "welfare recipient" as their career path, at some point the average post-high school person must consider what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. Contemplation of one's navel, an appreciation of the finer points of abstract art and knowing the difference between a trombone and a clarinet all make one far more interesting but they do not pay the bills. This former university student is statistically likely to get married/common lawed and eventually produce 1.9 children. How exactly does he expect to pay for the expenses these life events incur? For the average graduate of a liberal arts university, the degree is of no use at all.
In fact, about the only students who benefit from university are those with higher ambitions like engineering, medical or dental school. For them university is means to an end. The degree is what gets them to their next level which is what gets them into a career. These students are in the minority in two places. The first is on campus because, like I've noted, most people are there just to be there without a clue as to what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. The other place is at the parties.
See, the big difference between the average student and the goal-directed one is what each does with their free time. I clearly remember the difference from my undergrad time. The kids who had no goals other than walking up and breathing on a daily basis were endlessly partying. The goal-directed group, of which I was an active member, were in the library studying because our marks actually mattered.
(My favourite memory of this was when I compared exam mark goals with a friend. We both had "the magic minimum", the grade on the final that would get us the mark in the course we needed. His magic minimum would get him a 61% in the course. Mine was for 90%)
Thus many of the concerned mentioned in the linked article failed to materialize for me while I was on campus. I didn't participate in campus protests, mixers or parties. I didn't have the time! And, in retrospect, I missed little. Those who partied the hardest in first year generally didn't survive the fall mid-terms and most of the rest disappeared after first year. They'll always savour those graet memories as they ask you if you want fries with your order.
What this means is simple: if you're going to invest the money and time into an undergraduate education, make sure it's leading somewhere. Otherwise you're throwing your money into a sinkhole. This is the same no matter one's level of religion.
But that's all a digression from the main point of the linked article, that the social environment is inimacal to the religious Jew:
That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years — after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.
However, both of these issues, while not insignificant, pale in comparison to the social pressures and realities of campus life. As one junior put it, “it is hard to be ‘shomer negi`ah’ when a girl sits down on your lap during orientation.” From the promiscuous parties sponsored by the university to the open support of binge drinking, to the small things like the experience of living in an openly coed dormitory, students are made to feel, as one student told me, odd for not being sexually and socially active. A former student once remarked that just as the State of Israel lowered the red line on the Kinneret Sea, pretending that the water level had not yet declined to the danger zone, so do students redraw their own red lines, or even worse, forget why they were there in the first place. It is quite difficult to describe the tsunami of social-sexual pressure crashing down on the religiously oriented student. These social pressures, and not the academic or even the cultural, are the most difficult to withstand.

I would agree that these are definite concerns. After hours life in most campuses is a cesspool of casual sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Only the most idiotic would see such a lifestyle as having any redeeming qualities but the author of the article is correct that there is tremendous social pressure to participate. No one wants to be a wet blanket, the guy who stayed in his room to study while everyone else was getting lathered up. Yes, a frum student would be under tremendous pressure to conform.
But this is where another factor comes into play. What kind of home did the student come from? Generally frum kids are raised in one of two fashions. The first kind lives in a home where everyone is "doing Jewish". The second comes from a background where "being Jewish" matters.
What's the difference? In homes where people "do" Jewish, there is a greater fear that the children would lose connection to Torah and mitzvos when off at university. After all, one tends to do whatever is normal in one's domicile. At home therefore the children did Jewish things because that's what you do at home. In residence the children might instead easily be swayed into doing hedonistic things because that's what one does in residence.
however, the homes where people "are" Jewish are in a far different position. If a child has a positive sense of his Torah observance, if he is doing what he does not simply because that's what he's always done but because his actions are a positive choice based on a proper acceptance of Ol Malchus Shamayim then the danger of university is much less.
If one has a sense of dignity, a place in the unbroken tradition from Har Sinai on down, why would such a person agree to debase themselves for a momentary thrill? If one was raised to make valid moral choices, how could the drunken screaming of literary white trash affect that? These children are far less of a dangerous position because they have a preceding commitment to any lifestyle university might want to offer them.
Perhaps this is one reason the Chareidi community is generally so afraid of university settings. Having raised their children in a spiritual ghetto, having avoided confrontation with the outside world for fear of not being able to master its challenges, their children are in no position to do so when placed in a secular environment. But where has this lead to? Poverty, dependency and a sense of futility for hundreds of thousands of their members.
Despite the futile gesticulations of the skeptics, Judaism has answers to all challenges the modern world throws at it. A proper Jewish child is one who is educated to be prepared for those challenges and how feels self-confident in their Judaism as a positive choice, not something they simply grew up with. It is in this way we should be educating our children so they can achieve their dreams without compromising on their observance.

8 comments:

Off the Derech said...

Anti-religious???!!!!

Izgad said...

"They'll always savour those graet memories "

great

I went to Ohio State for three years and for some strange reason not a single non-Jewish girl tried to sit on my lap. :P
I guess I was just not looking for that in the first place.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Exactly my point!

Chaim B. said...

>>>If one has a sense of dignity, a place in the unbroken tradition from Har Sinai on down, why would such a person agree to debase themselves for a momentary thrill?

We can ask the same question anytime any one of us slips and sins. But nebach, we all slip -- nicnesa bo ruach shtus.

Honestly Frum said...

Rabbi Gil Perl wrote about this years ago. There is no good solution.

Shalmo said...

Garnel previously I have shared with you aticles highlighting how the new growing wave of OTDs, unlike previous generations, are not switching down to Conservative and Reform. Instead they are leaving all organized religion altogether. I have stated before that Jews if anything have a latend gene for atheism. Now that being an atheist has become fashionable so many in the frum world are being given the opportunity to let loose from religious holds, where as before they would just go to Christianity.

Articles like these show just how desperate the frum world is getting. If fear of attending secular institutions like EVERY OTHER religious group does, is this high then it seems your religious leaders have finally caught on to the "elephant in the room" so to speak.

Question is will they liberalize Orthodoxy to stop the hemerging from continuing?

David said...

Although I disagree with your slaps at a liberal arts education (indeed, I think the shortage of decent liberal arts educations has been a disaster for American culture), I think you're generally on target with this post.

Regardless of whether we see eye-to-eye on the merits or demerits of frumkheit, I think that strictly enforced ignorance is a horrible way to induce an attachment to Judaism (or, indeed, to anything else). If you are right, and Judaism has answers to the challenges of the modern world, then a Jewish education should involve imparting those answers to our children, not shielding them from the questions.

evanstonjew said...

I don't want to comment on the issue of becoming not Orthodox. I do want to register a disagreement that only going to college for a profession gets you a job.Much depends on who you are, how you network, how you connect with people outside of the Orthodox world. There are many excellent jobs where they hire the person, not the skill. If you look at the top executives in the Fortune 500, most were party animals in college. Quants are a dime a dozen and are competing with Asians and Indians. A good schmoozer, somebody who likes people and is liked by them is hard to find.