This piece is part of the series, “Readers Take Over Hevria.” People wanted me to write about “the lack of college education in Chabad communities.” My reaction was, naturally, to disagree.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not sure if the readers know, but I have no college education, and it’s sort of Chabad’s fault. I took a gap year that has been extended indefinitely. My bachelor’s degree is in Talmudic Studies and came with my smicha from the Rabbinical College of America. Anything I write about college is something I cannot possibly know firsthand. I have opinions on the matter notwithstanding. And when was the last time ignorance stopped someone on the Internet, anyway?
As I found out when I began to spend time with so-called “Frum From Birth” Lubavitchers (it’s questionable whether there is a frum twenty-year-old on earth whose religiosity can be gaplessly traced to their birth, but whatever), the definition of the term “magnet” is different in Crown Heights than it is in, say, Cleveland.
This leads to great hilarity. The Baal Teshuva, talking about his education, says he went to a Magnet School, and the shliach at his yeshiva begins to snicker. The term that some hear as “school for the gifted,” he hears as, “school for the touched,” touched in the head, since a “magnet” in vulgar Chabad parlance is one of the irredeemably strange people that show up at the local Chabad House or at “770,” drawn to us as if by some invisible force. (This term is made all the more charming for being mindlessly, innocently, offensive.)
What a strange turn of circumstance: a word that to the outside world denotes intellectual excellence is, to us, the guy I knew in Tel Aviv who was certain he was the messiah and blamed his every stomach ache on the machinations of the satan.
Similarly, “college education” tumbles into different ears and lands in each with its own meaning.
When I first made the decision to continue my Jewish education over my secular education, I thought a college education was a fine thing I was sacrificing to immerse myself in a religious journey. Many people I met on my journey did not share that reverence. On the contrary, most chabadniks see colleges as festering pits of evil. Because, firstly, colleges foster a rather heretical approach to life. As Francis Bacon once said, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism.” Some have noted a very little philosophy is often all that’s required.
More central to the Chabad criticism of college are the points brought up by the Rebbe in his letters, which focus on the moral degradation that the standard four-year undergraduate experience brings to bear on Jewish souls still young and impressionable. After all, if otherwise somewhat-reasonable eighteen-year-olds can be convinced to spend a second year in yeshiva by a band of black-frocked and bearded dinosaurs, imagine the depths of temptation and decadence a professor with a twitter account can pull them into.
All of this is an old discussion; it makes sense. To not beat around the bush: Boys who go to college from Yeshiva at eighteen find themselves suddenly surrounded by pretty girls. The pretty girls will, through a totally passive influence, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover inspiring the circular motion of the sun, inspire those boys to do stupid things they wouldn’t do if they were on shlichus in Argentina. And the difference (to those who are wondering, what’s the difference between this and the Yeshiva wi-fi) between college and the yeshiva wi-fi is that at college they’re much more likely to be convinced that the stupid things they do are actually smart things and that the religious strictures of their youth are stupid things. This, no bathroom-accessible wi-fi alone can accomplish.
But all of that is so graphic, obvious, and irrelevant. I am here not to talk about the moral impact of college, but about the education you get there, and how there’s a lack of it in Chabad.
On this front, I am pleased to say that college is almost always completely unnecessary for a Chabad yeshiva student. Indeed, to actually go to college after a full run through the yeshiva system is quite redundant.
Let me explain.
Growing up, my dream for college was basically a huge library full of interesting books and people interested in interesting books, just like me. There would also be other people, older, who had already read a lot of interesting books, and who had interesting things to say about them. Some of these things would be super-insightful, or life-changing, or really useful. Some of those things would even be new!
But that, from what I gather, is not what college really is, and most of the people that go to college are not really interested in something like that. As far as I can tell, college is something that we must go to because we must go to it, like high school but more expensive. Our entire lives, we are groomed toward attending college. “If she doesn’t go to that particular day care, who knows whether she will get into a good school?” This is done because we are told that going to a good college means having a good life. At least, our parents feel better.
In order to actually attend, there are all sorts of hoops to jump through that have nothing to do with merit, intelligence, or learning, unless acing standardized tests is a merit. Once we get there, already saddled with a ridiculous amount of debt, we have the privilege of being around fellow students who are going there because they have to, for socioeconomic reasons and because mom and dad expect it. We get to learn from teachers who are either interested in teaching but not particularly knowledgeable, or who are masters in their fields but don’t particularly enjoy teaching. A lot of professors seem to be there because their first job choice didn’t work out.
The topics we study are either dry and practical (computer science), or arcane and useful only to the academic (comparative literature), though practical things could be learned much more cheaply elsewhere, and most of the students are not destined to be academics. Big ideas that inspire a person to change their life and make them a deeper, more fulfilled person seem to be a rare encounter at University; again, most people are not looking for them. To paraphrase the Rebbe, rarely does any topic learned in University alter the student’s life and outlook more than the dentistry student’s studies effect his.
Indeed, the colleges’ attempt at ethical or profoundly humanistic education seems to reduce to a short laundry list of beliefs, useful for virtue signaling and politics, such as “socialism good, absolute morality bad.” More attention is paid to pushing a homogenous, unilateral view of the world than to actually helping anyone think for themselves or stand on their own two feet, intellectually or morally. This is why disagreeing with a college graduate often ends in being told, to one’s frustration, that if we had only attended college, we would agree with them. Thus (and this is saying something), more people graduate four years of college with solid jobs than with the tools to develop their own worldview, think for themselves, and pursue the good for the rest of their lives. Very few people seem to see this as a squandered opportunity.
But hey, at least the textbooks are cheap.
All of this is very, very different than Yeshiva.
After all, Yeshiva is something that we go to because we must go to it, just like cheder, just like mesivta. Our entire lives we are groomed to go toward finishing the Yeshiva system. This is done because if we finish Yeshiva, we get a shidduch from the right family, and we have a good life. At least, our parents feel better.
But in order to stay in Yeshiva, there are all sorts of hoops to jump through that have nothing to do with merit, intelligence, or learning, unless sitting still and doing what we’re told is a merit. Once we get to Yeshiva, already saddled with a ridiculous amount of debt, we have the privilege of being around fellow students who are going there because they have to, for socioeconomic reasons and because mom and dad expect it. The teachers in Yeshiva are either knowledgeable or good at teaching, but rarely both. Many seem to be there only because their first job choices didn’t work out.
The topics we study are either dry and practical (halacha) or arcane and useful only to the academic (gemara l’iyyuna; advanced chassidus), though practical things could be learned more cheaply elsewhere and most students will not become rabbonim. Big ideas that inspire people to change their lives and make them deeper, more fulfilled people are a somewhat rare encounter in yeshiva; most students are not looking for them.
Indeed, the yeshivas’ attempt at ethical and profound religious Jewish education seems to reduce to a short laundry list of behaviors, useful for virtue signaling and shidduchim, such as “short hair good, pointy shoe bad.” More attention is paid to pushing a homogenous, unilateral view of the world than to actually helping anyone think for themselves and stand on their own two feet, intellectually or morally. This is why disagreeing with a yeshiva graduate often ends in being told, to one’s frustration, that if we had only attended yeshiva, we would agree with them. Thus (and this is saying something), more people graduate 3-5 years of yeshiva with a desire to be a businessman than with the tools to develop their own worldview, think for themselves, and pursue the good for the rest of their lives. Not enough people seem to see this as a squandered opportunity.
But again, at least the textbooks are cheap.
Therefore, I really don’t see why a Yeshiva graduate need attend college, or vice versa. Both were created for the intention of sharpening the minds and adding to the knowledge of our intellectual elite. Both are now places that everyone attends for social reasons, which is not to the benefit of the average student or the intellectual elite. Both of them are perpetuated by societal systems that, too lazy to do their own research, demand a sort of coffee filter institution to sort for them the wheat from the chaff.
If the development of complete human beings and complete jews, temimim, is the goal, then we may have strayed a bit off-target.
And we must not let our schooling get in the way of our education. As Bacon once said, “depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion,” and once we get religion, we just might have a shot at G-d, if you’re enough of a magnet to believe it…