Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of Dr. Schick’s reflections on his experiences as an Orthodox Jew in academia in the 1950s and ‘60s, picking up where he left off in “Going to College” in the March 13 issue.
When Allen, my twin, and I graduated from Brooklyn College and then received semicha from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, our minds were firmly set on going to graduate school. Allen went to Yale, which served as the launching point for a brilliant scholarly career that continues, while I chose New York University because I was determined to stay in New York where my communal activities took place.
Nowadays (as has been the case for some time) religious Jews who have college and graduate school training overwhelmingly tend to go into professional life, whether as lawyers, accountants, social workers, or some other field.
Very few look at secular higher education in terms of the conventional liberal arts disciplines and therefore very few teach in college. In fact, from the perspective of the larger society, there are now powerful reasons for avoidance of an academic career, primarily the shrinkage of tenure-track jobs in academia, so that those who labor many years to get advanced degrees, including doctorates, are in too many instances destined to encounter extreme disappointment – often accompanied by penury – because the only positions available are as low-paid adjuncts.
Even without this consideration, there would be few Orthodox Jews currently pursuing academic careers. It simply isn’t the thing to do. I cannot say that in the mid-1950s advanced university study beckoned a large number of Orthodox. What did happen, however, is that there were outstanding young persons who did go to graduate school with the aim of becoming college/university teachers.
For all the mystique of elevated intellectualism that envelops advanced academic study at a good university, the reality is a bit more nuanced. When compared to both the intensity and hours that usually characterize beis medrash or advanced yeshiva study, graduate school is something of a picnic. Typically, there are two 15-week semesters a year and that alone leaves a lot of idle time. Even during the semesters, there are about four or five courses per term, each meeting for two to three hours a week.
Although graduate school culture may have changed, in the 1950s and for many years after, grades were regarded as a cinch. Students were expected to be both bright and motivated and not only were F’s banished from the grading lexicon, in fact C’s and probably in the best universities even B’s were scarcely given.
The great challenge wasn’t to get through course work but to prepare for the comprehensive examinations preliminary to dissertation writing and then to the dissertation itself – and that did prove to be a substantial barrier for many students, as the graveyard of academia is full of monuments to students who never completed their dissertation.
There was, at least for me, one challenge, and that was the language requirement. We were required to pass examinations in both French and German, not because either of these languages would have any role in our future academic career but because that was the way things had always been done. Curiously, French was the easier of the two for me, as my familiarity with Yiddish apparently complicated my ability to translate from German.
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For all my extracurricular communal activity during these years, graduate school meant loads of spare time and, as I think is true generally of advanced graduate students, much of my time at NYU was spent schmoozing with fellow students and professors. For a year or two I had another major diversion, chess-playing in Washington Square Park. Now that was a delightful experience.