Over the past few years, I have read many an argument decrying the current state of higher education. These screeds tend to get especially shrill within the Modern Orthodox community when fears are raised regarding anti-zionism on campus, sexual impropriety among undergrads, or exposure to new and maybe uncomfortable ideas in the lecture hall. I do not normally pay these concerns much attention as they are often anecdotal, alarmist, and devoid of hard data.
But I recently read an article that was so off, I felt as though I could offer some clarity due to my position as a teacher in a Modern Orthodox high school with many of my former students in college right now.
The article in question was published in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Dov Fischer, who according to his bio, is [the] rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County; senior rabbinic fellow and West Coast vice president of the Coalition for Jewish Values, and an adjunct professor of law. Entitled “Modern Orthodoxy has a College Problem,” Fischer attempts to explain why contemporary academia is unsuitable for observant Jews. My goal here is not to directly show the opposite; rather I want to show how poorly he argues his point.
First, let’s take a look at his main argument. He states in the article, “The college campuses these children are going to are not the campuses you and I went to. Children today are receiving, not a liberal arts education, but indoctrination. Indeed, the social climate today is so rife with intimidation that kids are essentially being brainwashed.” This is an intense claim. According to Fischer, all of academia is now a liberal-socialist factory where our kids have no chance of surviving with their souls intact.
You would think that he would support this forceful allegation with, you know, evidence. He is a lawyer after all. But he offers no actual data to prop up his assertion. Instead he backs it with a few brief and silly anecdotes that do not even address the main crux of his point.
As he spends so little effort actually showing the evil nature of college, let’s take apart his whole “proof” for it. Here it is
“Today… a patriot like Gen. David Petraeus gets shouted off a CUNY campus. Jerry Seinfeld will not accept comedy gigs on colleges campuses anymore, not willing to risk his career over a joke that may offend an intersectionalist snowflake. It’s not just Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter being heckled. Less combative conservative voices – e.g., Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Dinesh D’Souza, and Heather MacDonald – are being canceled, too. Colleges today will rarely hire for tenured roles in the social sciences the kinds of occasional conservative or religion-friendly professors whom they hired in the past. The departments are ideologically homogeneous.”
That’s it. That’s all of the actual proof Fischer offers for why he thinks college is bad. Now, his is a brief article and no one expected him to offer a dissertation here, but he needed to do better than that.
In this excerpt he includes two different issues. First he decries the cancel culture on college campuses. But the examples he offers are immensely weak.
I must begin when he describes Ben Shapiro being heckled at university events. This is a laughable argument. Ben Shapiro speaks to packed crowds at colleges all the time. And while he is sometimes protested outside and heckled inside, he always controls the room and is able to make his points. He is not being canceled in any way. Also, if Jerry Seinfeld is uncomfortable booking gigs on campus, I’m sure students can find other ways to access his material.
So what is Fischer saying here? Is he saying don’t go to college because some people may act outlandishly when they do not like a speaker? That’s just plain silly.
This is also a foolish place to start his argument, as these examples do not come from the classroom. One of the main parts (if not the main part) of college are the courses one enrolls in. Guest speakers are not mandatory parts of college. Using this as his main argument against universities is like complaining about a restaurant because you do not like the complimentary bread. That’s not why you went and you don’t have to eat it.
This takes us to his next point, the apparent liberal homogeneity of social science departments. I say apparent because he offers no proof whatsoever for this claim. Nothing. So, I see no reason to trust him on this point or spend more effort refuting it. Due to his obvious bias against colleges, I do not trust any assertion that is not supported by evidence.
Before I move on from his ridiculous argument, it’s worth pointing out one more nugget nestled in this piece. “In our day, the non-Jewish universalist concerns were apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, and the terror of being drafted to die in the jungles of Vietnam. Today, by contrast, there are no issues of majestic consequence.” OK, boomer. The planet is growing increasingly uninhabitable, families are being separated at the border, school shootings occur with regular frequency, we have targeted disinformation campaigns against democracies worldwide by Russia, and Nazis are a thing again. But, yeah, our kids have no “issues of majestic consequence” to concern themselves with.
I read stupid things people write online all the time but I rarely write commentary on them. Fischer’s piece struck a nerve. As I wrote earlier, I am a high school history teacher in a Modern Orthodox school. Many of my students are currently matriculating in colleges across the country and I am fortunate that a number keep in touch with me.
Whenever I have a chance to speak to them, I always ask the same two questions. 1. Do you ever personally experience any antisemitic bias? And 2. Do you or people you hang out with ever feel the need to self-censor out of fear of fellow students or faculty harassing you for your beliefs? I have students studying at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Michigan, Barnard, Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, NYU, the CUNY’s, and, yes, Columbia. I have been asking these questions for years. Not once. NOT ONCE. has a student ever affirmed or implied that they have had any issues or witnessed someone else have issues on these fronts. At this point, this is not a fluke. This is a trend.
Many of these students are involved with Jewish life on campus and, as far as I can tell, maintain the same or similar level of religious observance they left high school with. These kids are alright.
Now, I am not claiming that no Jewish students face issues at college or that the current state of higher education is perfect. But Fischer’s arguments are so weak and over-the-top that they lose all credibility, especially when countered with my own anecdotal evidence.
My first real job was at my alma mater Yeshiva University. My boss at that time would frequently say a clever thing on this issue that is worth repeating here. It went something like this: If we want to raise the next generation with our values, we need a partnership between the school, shul, and home. I always liked this and now that I am a teacher and a parent, I have an even greater appreciation for its wisdom.
Our kids are going to eventually leave the nest. They will not always remain within our little bubble. But if we provide the right education and example for them at home, in shul, and in school, we have to trust that when they go out into the world they will know how to handle exposure to new and different environments and ideas. If they falter, it may not be their own fault, or the university’s fault. The fault may be our own. After all, if our children hear too many inane, easily-refuted claims from prominent people in our community when they are young, then how will they uphold our values in the face of better-argued alternatives when they are grown?