Monday, October 19, 2009

The Elephant in the Room 2: More Comments on College Campus Life

A commenter on the Jewish Star website responded to my article about attending college in America. I'll take his comments piece by piece and respond.
Attending a Jewish university may well have been the perfect decision for a Rabbi wishing to live in Israel.
First of all, let's set the record straight: When I attended college, I had no rabbinic aspirations whatsoever. I was actually interested in engineering, and figured that I would enroll in a joint program with Columbia University in that discipline. After attending YU, I changed my mind (I really didn't want to stop my Torah learning completely), and switched to Computer Science (in which I got my bachelors degree). When I finished college, I still wanted to continue learning (and had already enrolled in Semichah.) I still thought that I would end up working in the computer science field, and felt that a Ba'al Habayit with semichah can often influence communities in ways that even a rabbi cannot. (For that I can give credit to my father.) Only during semichah was I bitten by the rabbi "bug" and decided to enter the professional rabbinate. So none of my personal decisions to attend YU or study for semichah were related to a career decision. Rather, they emanated from a desire to continue my Torah education first and foremost, while I furthered my secular education.
However, for those of us who wish to build our lives and careers as Modern Orthodox Jews in America, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world, there can be no question that attending the best university that we are capable of opens doors and provides competitive advantage. Doing so at night or by commuting to school every day closes some of the most valuable doors that help transform children into adults – those related to social networking or extracurricular activities.
I strongly disagree with the assertion that you need to hang out in the college dorm in order to make the proper social bonds to succeed in your career and "get ahead." I just don't think it's true. Sure, if you're a member of "Skull and Bones" at Yale, that might get you a head-start on your presidential run, but do you really need to live on campus to write for the school paper, or participate in the economics society? Is it really necessary in order to get the "good job"?
Let's say that you learned at the Milwaukee yeshiva and attended the University of Wisconsin (which some yeshiva students have done). When you get to the interview, do you think that they're going to ask you about your favorite football tailgate party? The Wisconsin degree is strong enough on its own. Finally, most "good jobs" demand a graduate school degree. In grad school, no one lives on campus. Many students work and attend school, and even if they don't, they most often find housing near but not "on" campus. Those grad school connections are just fine to get into the most prestigious law firms. And to get into graduate school, you don't really need to have had a campus experience. Plenty of good yeshiva students (men and women) have gained admission to the most - the most - elite graduate schools in America with a BTL or a YU degree.
But his (rather weak) point raises a different question: let's assume that his incorrect assertion is actually correct, and that spending the four years on campus actually did open the doors to the inner sanctum of professional success. Would it be worth it? Would the benefits of those doors opening outweigh the spiritual challenges and dangers inherent in college campus life? I don't think so.
And YU is not the best of both worlds; it barely ranks in the Top 50 colleges, and Stern provides a worse education for women than that.
Hey, don't get me wrong, but top 50 is pretty good, if you ask me. A great number of liberal arts colleges would love to get into the top 50. More important is one of the main reasons that YU actually ranks so high: its students have very strong academic records, and consistently gain admission to the best graduate schools. In fact, I would argue that YU's placing in the rankings speak volumes about its success: YU could never compete with the course offerings and facilities of numerous colleges across the country. That's a function of the dual-curriculum, location, and many other factors. And yet, it still ranks in the top 50 every year. That's not bad.
One might ask why a competitive advantage is so necessary. The answer is the reason that we are MODERN Orthodox Jews – we want to live successfully in this world while observing Halachah, and, we’d like to provide funding for organizations such as the one for which Rabbi Spolter works.
Now he's starting to sound a little silly. You need to not only attend college in Penn, but live on campus so that you can get into the "good" businesses to make enough money to support Orot. Actually, I like that last part. We'd love to accept any donations you can send our way. But if you're looking to build a wildly successful business that will generate money to give to my workplace, maybe going to college isn't the best idea. The most successful businessman, in my experience, are not college graduates per se, but entrepreneurs who struck out on their own with passion, an idea, and a ridiculous amount of guts. Look at the Forbes 400 list: Bill Gates (dropout), Lawrence Ellison (dropped out of University of Chicago), the Waltons. The wealthiest members of my shul either made their money from a business they started, or inherited it from someone who did. (See the entire Walton/Walmart family). Perhaps one could argue that we put too much emphasis on going to college and working for someone else. What the Jewish community needs badly are precisely what we don't have enough of: gutsy, passionate business people with exciting ideas who are willing to take crazy enough risks to make it really big. And living on campus has no positive influence on those kinds of jobs. None at all.
Living as a Modern Orthodox Jews is complicated – we are often caught in a balancing act between what feels like two worlds. If we wish to teach our children to live as Modern Orthodox Jews in America (and not simply sitting in Kollel), we must teach them to be comfortable and strong in their beliefs. Where better for a test run than at college, where the stakes are low and they are surrounded by their peers? Rather than having to awkwardly explain to a boss and coworkers that you cannot order the shrimp on the menu, you could have already perfected your lines, explanation of Kashrut, and comfort during college.
Of course Modern Orthodoxy requires balance, trying to live between two worlds. But that doesn't mean immersing yourself in the center of hedonism and debauchery (the college campus) and expecting yourself to emerge unaffected. Campus life - the drinking, partying and sex, is one of the primary motivating elements driving many students' choices when picking a school. How then could a religious parent just shrug it off? "The stakes are low" in college? Sorry, but at that point in life, when students are young, prone to experimentation, and are in the process of forming their identity, the stakes are not low: they're at their highest. Instead of "perfecting their lines", too many Orthodox kids are accepting that drink, eating the shrimp, and abandoning Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Spolter’s article reeks of a slippery slope that ends in isolation. Yes, there is a chance that by crossing the street, one can get hit by a car, but the solution is not to live as hermits. Rather, we should teach our children to look both ways, decide when to walk and when to wait, and tread thoughtfully as strong individuals.
Like it or not, Judaism believes in a large degree of isolation. What are the laws of kashrut - especially the numerous rabbinic laws like pat akum, yayin nochri, gevinat akum and the like, if not blatant attempts to establish a line of separation between Jew and non-Jew? The eruv ensures that we live in our own communities; we send our children to private schools not just for the Jewish studies, but also to shield them from the influences of wider society. Of course we protect ourselves and our children. Not to do so would spell suicide for our way of life and the values we hold dear.
And yet, I agree that there must be a balance. College does have a great deal to offer in terms of the disciplines in academia, learning to develop a deeper mode of thought, and even just learning the skills of a needed trade. I have never advocated not studying in college. I went to one myself. What I reject is the need for our children to live at that college, to soak up the "college experience", and expose themselves to the negative spiritual influences so detrimental to their spiritual growth and identity.
That's not a slippery slope. It's falling off the deep end.