Monday, August 21, 2006

The Death and Rebirth of Humane Learning

by Jak Black and Bari

I. The Death of Mada

Recently, Harry posted a link to a summation of the thought of Rav Aaron Lichtenstein (henceforth RAL) a proponent of Torah U'Mada and Centrist Orthodoxy. Although my personal experience and understanding of the hashkafa were enough for me to reject it as a lifestyle, I decided that I would take a close look at the article and revisit the ideas. The article can be found here. In the comments section to Harry's blog, a fellow named Mark linked to a relatively recent article in Jewish Action which contained a critical analysis by Dr. William Kohlbrener of RAL's views, as well as a response to the raised issues by RAL himself.

I'll be frank. After reading the original article, plus the newer material in Jewish action, it is clear that RAL's views on mada have been refuted as a practical worldview, at least in its present academia-centric form. I choose my words carefully here, because although his vision of secular education has merit on a theoretical plane, in practice its value is dubious at best, and probably harmful to the average student.

I will present a summary of the arguments of Dr. Kohlbrener that I found particular compelling, though I advise anyone interested in the subject take a look at the articles himself. Following Kohlbrener's criticisms, I will add a couple of my own, followed by an analysis of RAL's rebuttal.

Dr. Kohlbrener begins by explaining he agrees with the theoretical assumption of RAL’s hashkafa of mada. Meaning, in its purest form, humane learning does have the potential to enhance general and Torah understanding; secular learning does have intrinsic worth. However, he finds serious problems with the implementation of the hashkafa. Kohlbrener divides his criticisms into two halves: problems inherent in the nature of the students (and the society in which they find themselves), and, "more fundamentally," problems concerning the nature of the modern university.

The first criticism is aimed at the nature of the students. Modern youth completely immersed in the secular culture really have no desire for the acquisition of humane learning. He writes,


When addressing a group of students from a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, I was surprised at the resistance that I had elicited through my comments about Torah Umadda (which reflected some of my reservations that I am mentioning here.)...Though most of them did, in fact, stand up for the concept, they failed to give the impression that it was anything more than a rallying cry that they had inherited from their teachers.


What explained their intense loyalty to the theoretical idea of mada, but their intense disinterest in actually acquiring it?


I remained confused...until one of the young men confided: "It's not so much that we're interested in Torah Umadda, what we are really interested in is Torah and entertainment"...He revealed that the primary concern of many yeshivah boys...is not incorporating the classics into the life of the ben Torah, but rather accommodating Torah into a contemporary lifestyle - of popular culture, of movies and of MTV.


Kohlbrener's second criticism directed toward the students (and in this case, the layperson too) deals with RAL's position that mada is mandated by the necessity of "understanding the secular mind" within the parameters of kiruv. Kohlbrener asks,


If knowing the zeitgeist means knowing Schwarzenegger, does it mean that we and our talmidim, the leaders of the next generation, should be on line to buy tickets to the next sequel to Terminator? For Rambam, knowing madda meant having access to the classical texts of Athenian culture. For the current generation, madda…includes Yahoo!, The Matrix and MTV.


Kohlbrener's next set of criticisms is aimed at academia itself. Simply put, there is very little humane learning left in the universities, and the average student is unlikely to be exposed to this remnant. It is my personal feeling that Kohlbrener's characterization of academia, excoriating though it is, is actually rather kind. Certainly, the constraints of an article in JA limit a full exposition of the subject, which has been analyzed in countless volumes. As I’ve recommended previously, I suggest the works of Bloom, D'Souza and Kirk as a starting place for a fuller understanding of the changes that have swept the halls of academia.

At any rate, in Kohlbrener's words, the problem with the modern university is that the attitude of engagement with the classic works "has been replaced by a hermeneutics of suspicion - an interpretative attitude in which the interpreter finds himself not subservient, but rather superior to the texts he encounters." Because the student no longer engages with the text, but rather seeks to impose on it his own ideas, it is unlikely that he will unearth the wisdom that lies within. One manifestation of this trend is the movement known as multiculturalism, which seeks, in broad terms, to impose our ideas of gender, race and class on the unwitting classics.

To these criticisms, I add the following two points: First, RAL admits that a student engaged in secular learning must constantly be on the lookout for pernicious influences. But unfortunately, RAL is short on the details of this scheme. If, for example, we sent an aged scholar wise in the ways of the Torah to a university, he would probably be able to detect the points which are out of synch with Torah hashkafa. But how is a simple student to do so? Worse, we’re discussing a student who has not even formed a coherent set of Torah hashkafos. How can he possibly avoid being perverted in manners both evident and obscure?

Second, it is clear that although there are humane insights to be gained from the classics, there is no question that incisive individuals will find those insights in the Torah itself. This is true whether we are talking about psychological insights, interpersonal sensitivity, historical awareness, or any other area of human understanding. Chazal themselves expressed this idea in the mishna, "Ben Bag Bag says: Investigate it and investigate it, because it contains everything" (Avos 5:22). It is true, of course, that the majority of people cannot uncover these insights themselves. Yet the same is clearly true of humane learning. And just as unique voices in the secular world transmit their understanding and insights into the classics to the general populace, so too gedolim such as the Alter from Slabodka and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky transmit their insight into the Torah to generations of talmidim who in turn become the next teachers of the Jewish people. When balanced against the risk the average reader takes when delving into disciplines that are as full of secular values and even heresy as they are of humane insight, there’s really no question about the advisability of such an endeavor.

In his rebuttal to Dr. Kohlbrener, RAL focuses on the distinction between ideology and practice, sticking to his conviction that while in practice it may be difficult, or even dangerous, to follow this hashkafa, the theory is still correct. Unfortunately, with all due respect, RAL seems to have disregarded Burke's injunction: "Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. the circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind." How true! If one chooses any value, even the most lofty of the Torah, such as love, charity and mercy, he finds that it has been qualified in one way or more likely several. Yes, we must love everyone - but not our enemies. Yes, we must be merciful - but one is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the merciful. It is quite clear that there is no such thing as an ideology distinct and distanced from its praxis. It is always the concrete circumstances which give vitality and meaning to a value. It follows that if there is no realistic and practical method for the implementation of RAL’s hashkafa, it cannot be viewed as anything but an intellectual curiosity akin to liberalism or socialism, which appear admirable on paper, but are useless in the real world of human passions.

RAL is clearly aware of the inherent weakness of this stance. He writes,


Does this concession relegate my argument to the dustbin of anachronism? I trust not...Hashkafically, it makes an enormous difference whether a prospective student shies away from classical culture out of an admiration tempered by apprehension or out of contemptuous disdain.


Well, that might be so, but it verges on the rhetorical. Disdain is the manifest destiny of reasoned apprehension, and the utilitarian and even useful social parlance of refuted ideologies. Sure, television might be great if it wasn’t so corrupt. But practically speaking, it’s contemptuous junk – nothing more.

RAL continues, "Secondly, my position remains meaningful at the practical plane as well," but then merely points to a few individuals as proof of this assertion. He claims that "Dr. Kolbrener may have tightened the noose, but he has not asphyxiated the patient." Frankly, I don’t see how this is so; the patient seems to have died decades ago. RAL continues,


Third, even advocates of Dr. Kolbrener's position can acknowledge the need to keep the home fires burning in hope for better times...Even if winter’s here, might we not, with inspired vision and informed counsel, anticipate the spring?


The metaphorical beauty aside, RAL is again short on the details of this scheme. He assumes that academia will rehabilitate itself at some point, yet I see no reason to make such an assumption; clearly, the trend is toward decadence rather than recrudescence. And who, precisely, should be the ones we send out to brave the storm? What percentage of our living, breathing children should we willingly sacrifice on the altar of mada for the pease-porridge of a distant dream? It’s certainly not going to be my children.

RAL as much as admits that his hashkafa will cause a certain amount of spiritual loss. His response?


Yet before we rush to judgment, we should bear in mind a crucial variable. In assessing benefits and risks, we routinely differentiate between focused dangers and statistical projections…It is palpably clear that many souls could be saved if kollelim were shut down en masse and their members sent out to engage in kiruv. Nevertheless, no such course is ever contemplated...Perhaps one might challenge any comparison between the danger of loss of the committed with forgoing possible gains among the currently uncommitted. Nevertheless, the example is instructive by way of illustrating a readiness to distinguish between focused threat and statistical projection.


I find these words rather shocking. RAL admits that his comparison is flawed for a number of reasons, but asks that we nevertheless utilize the kernel of the idea, that we must distinguish between focused threat and statistical projection. This is a straightforward admission that we are willing to trade a certain amount of our youth for the ideology of mada. Yet even according to RAL himself, the only purpose of the secular studies is that they might possibly lead to a greater appreciation and enlightenment of the Torah itself. Frankly, this is analogous to throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.

In the spirit of Barthes who pronounced the death of the author, I now pronounce the death of mada as a practical ideology.

II. The Resurrection of Humane Learning

Some, of course, will question the above in light of the realities if one of the authors of this diatribe. How can Jak Black, who insists on peppering his posts with obscure references to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and obviously continues to study secular works, have the gall to proclaim the death of mada? The careful reader will have noticed the answer already. The problem with mada is not in the secular learning itself, but rather in the practical forms of academia.

Let's be clear here. In the frum world of modern America, the marriage of Centrism, Modern Orthodoxy or even Chareidism with academia is not based on a love of mada. Oh, sure, some minority might wish to attend university for a love of secular learning and a true appreciation of the way humane learning can enhance the Torah (and I place RAL among this group.) But that minority is so insignificant as to hardly merit attention. The overwhelming majority of people attend college or university strictly for utilitarian purposes – because a university degree is a prerequisite for many types of livelihood. However, in recent years, it has become clear that the social and intellectual environment of the modern university, far from being conducive to a Torah lifestyle, actually poses to it a grave threat.

Chareidim have answered this challenge in a most logical and pragmatic fashion; through yeshiva/college programs, there has been a conscious effort to limit the exposure of students to secular studies, while still retaining the ability to receive the vaunted degree. University studies – as distinct from humane learning - are no longer viewed as intrinsically worthwhile, regardless of how they were viewed in the past, and by whom, but rather as the budding of a parnassah. This pragmatic view also counters any inherent problems of bitul Torah. And what of the gradations of quality? Sure, a Harvard degree might carry more weight than one from Touro. But this, it seems, is the place where bitachon must draw the line between the reasonable histadlus of attaining a college degree and the unreasonable hishtadlus of placing oneself for four years in an anti-Torah environment for the sake of a qualitative advantage, however great it might be. So college yes, Yale no.

Many in the Centrist world, on the other hand, begin with the assumption that only a full course of university studies is acceptable, and this preferably at an ivy league institution. The ideal of Torah U'Mada is then used, ex post facto, as a rationalization for the intrinsic worth of the secular program. Centrism, in which the supposedly balanced youth can juggle all disparate ideological elements and overcome all hormonal-induced challenges if only we have fortified him with enough strength and resilience, becomes the justification for throwing our children to the lions. Reality is never allowed to intrude on this pleasant reverie.

It helps to clarify the issue when we examine the roots of the problem. As I said in my previous post on educational issues, it was once taken for granted that the university is a place of humane study. But as Albert Jay Nock describes in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, academia was perverted with the unholy marriage of education and training. He writes,


The theory of the revolution was based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy. Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority. It will not tolerate the thought of an elite; and under a political system of universal suffrage, the mass-mind is enabled to make its antipathies prevail by sheer force of numbers...In the prevalent popular view, therefore, - the view insisted upon and as far as possible enforced by the mass-men whom the mass-men whom the masses instinctively cleave to and choose as leaders, - in this view the prime postulate of equality is that in the realm of the spirit as well as of the flesh, everybody is able to enjoy anything that anybody can enjoy; and the prime postulate of democracy is that there shall be nothing for anybody to enjoy that is not open for anybody to enjoy. An equalitarian and democratic regime must by consequence assume, tacitly or avowedly, that everybody is educable...

The worst result of this was a complete effacement of the line which sets off education from training, and the line which sets off formative knowledge from instrumental knowledge. This
obliteration was done deliberately to meet the popular perversions of equality and democracy. The regime perceived that while very few can be educated, everyone who is not actually imbecile or idiotic can be trained in one way or another, as soldiers are trained in military routine, or as monkeys are trained to pick fruit. Very well then, it said in effect, let us agree to call training education, convert our schools, colleges, universities into training-schools as far as need be, but continue to call them educational institutions and to call our general system an educational system. We will insist that the discipline of instrumental studies is as formative as any other, even more so, and to quite as good purpose, in fact much better. We will get up courses in “business administration,” bricklaying, retail shoe-merchandising, and what-not, agree to call our graduates educated men, give them all the old-style academic degrees, dress them out in the old-style gowns and hoods,—and there we are, thoroughly democratic, thoroughly equalitarian, in shape to meet all popular demands.

In truth, as many agree, there is value in humane learning. My point here is that there is very little humane learning left in the universities. A frank admission of this painful fact would help clear away many of the cobwebs that obscure this issue. Yet in truth, there is no reason whatsoever that humane learning must remain inextricably linked to academia. As Rabbi Fred puts it,


To the extent that universities actually try to teach anything, which is to say to a very limited extent, they do little more than inhibit intelligent students of inquiring mind. And they are unnecessary: The professor’s role is purely disciplinary: By threats of issuing failing grades, he ensures that the student comes to class and reads certain things. But a student who has to be forced to learn should not be in school in the first place. By making a chore of what would otherwise be a pleasure, the professor instills a lifelong loathing of study.

The truth is that universities positively discourage learning. Think about it. Suppose you wanted to learn Twain. A fruitful approach might be to read Twain. The man wrote to be read, not analyzed tediously and inaccurately by begowned twits. It might help to read a life of Twain. All of this the student could do, happily, even joyously, sitting under a tree of an afternoon. This, I promise, is what Twain had in mind.


This sounds so unsophisticated as to be naïve, but his words are utterly correct. If one really wishes to acquire humane learning, all he need do is open a book and begin to study. This can be done anywhere and any time of the day, and the truly diligent can even set aside times for his study. I imagine most Roshei Yeshiva would agree that if one is willing to forgo a time-wasting university schedule in favor of extra years in the beis midrash, that one might even set aside a complete night-seder for his humane studies. If one becomes so enamored of a certain poet or author that he is literally aching to hear what the modern world has to say on the subject, there are biographies and critical studies available on virtually every subject known to man.

Certainly, one who wishes to acquire a humane education will have no problem in his search. Every book known to mankind is available either new on Amazon.com, or used on Abebooks.com. All one need do is locate a book and study. In fact, this scheme has a great advantage, as modern educational methods, typified by the university, inculcate the fallacious notion that learning is something done in school. In truth, learning is a lifelong process. One might even suggest that a person who learns to be self-sufficient in his studies and to repudiate the stifling educational paradigms of academia will find himself more prepared for a humane education than his university counterparts. I am even tempted to suggest the unthinkable heresy that one who habituates himself to this manner of study will find himself more educated than the typical college graduate.

Of course, this is not easily done in the present age. Mass educational methods have succeeded in distorting the motivation of teacher and student alike, bringing education to the nadir where a majority of people associate humane learning with the fondness of having a tooth extracted. But if so, then so be it; I’m obviously not advocating secular studies. If one wishes to remain within the dalet amos of halacha alone, I’m all for that. I’m merely saying that if one really does wish to enhance his Torah with secular learning, that he needn’t – and shouldn’t – turn to academia as a means to that end.

Nor is YU the answer to the problem. The lines that divide the serious Torah students on one half from the average college students on the other were drawn long ago. For all intents and purposes, YU is no different from any other university. A student who is interested in truly immersing himself in his Torah studies, while merely salting that understanding with a modicum of secular learning will not even be allowed to receive a semicha - unless he runs the gauntlet of a "full" secular education. For those who carry nostalgic memories in their breast, read the words of "Former YU." Among a veritable laundry-list of fundamental problems with YU he writes,


Shaalvim and KBY students don't increasingly don't go to YU because almost no one feels a sense of caring about them. I left as the assistant mashgichim were coming but still the nature of the college is that no one cares if there are mechallei shabbos (some even b'farhesya), no kippah wearing, pornography in the dorms. That is from the non-frum and doesn't touch on the girls hanging around campus that detract from learning as well as internet, TV and movies. So unless one is highly motivated and is comfortable flowing against the tide it is very difficult to maintain the same seriousness as in yeshiva in Israel...

It is time for a frank admission from Centrists that academia has become corrupted, and that there is little humane learning left in the universities. If a person truly wishes to live up to the ideal of mada, there is nothing preventing one from acquiring that wisdom beyond the setting of a university. Unfortunately, that would require a true desire for mada alone, rather than the attendant jollity that accompanies a university education. Of course, if a university degree is strictly necessary for a chosen path of livelihood - and often it isn't - then ways must be found to mitigate the impact of academia, beginning with a dual yeshiva/university program that greatly minimizes the number of non-utilitarian secular studies. If not, the situation will only worsen over time, as academia continues its downward spiral into irrelevance. A more serious attempt to focus on, and apply, the ideals of bitachon in the realm of parnassah would be another excellent path of investigation (one can begin with: Igros Moshe, yoreh dei’ah IV 36:1. See also ibid. 12, 16.)

Mada is dead. Long live mada!

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home