When I first decided to become an English major, I didn’t really anticipate any problems that would involve my Judaism. This is not a common choice for Orthodox college women, but I chose a different path because I knew what I loved and I was confident that I could land some sort of job with an English degree. Throughout my young adult life, I have read books that both complimented my Torah worldview and contradicted it. There were no problems with those books that were complimentary, but then I would pick up a book by Ayn Rand, for example, and I would have to learn to separate my aesthetic enjoyment of the work from the parts of the books that conflicted with my Jewish perspective on life. If I disagreed with what I read, there was no one to actively argue for the book’s point of view. In a debate between myself and a work of literature, I always won; and so I thought my college literature classes would continue in the same vein. I would continue reading and writing, as I had always loved to do, and would simply filter out anything that came along in contradiction with Orthodox Judaism. All Orthodox students going to secular college are well aware of how this goes, but a personal experience opened my eyes to the minefield of the intellectually honest forum.
This summer I took an English course that focused on poetry from 1945-present. The class was not required for my major, but I chose it as an elective. The course description was pretty vague, but I anticipated a survey of modern poetry over a 6 weeks period of time. When I got to class, I learned that we would actually spend about 4 weeks focusing solely on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, whose works revolve almost entirely on an agnostic worldview. This, I felt, was not the ideal situation for me as an Orthodox student.
When I continued taking courses, things got a lot more complicated than that. The writers who argued for agnosticism and atheism were no longer a silent page that I could turn over, but were brought alive by my professors. My teachers would explain the rationale behind these controversial views and, since these were actual classes, I would have no choice but to sit and listen. Furthermore, I would have to write papers expounding upon these views, finding further support for perspectives that confidently deny the existence of G-d. Although these papers clearly did not reflect my personal opinions, they were nevertheless occupying the majority of my time. I can only assume that Orthodox students across the country are sitting in secular colleges at this very moment, actively filtering through a world of theory that completely contradicts Torah Judaism, but is being presented as fact, or at the very least, something they should be contemplating seriously.
So what do we, as students, do in such situations? The fine line between Torah U’madda becomes a lot more difficult to navigate in the college classroom, where liberal professors are attempting to mold your mind, and yeshiva education is a mere memory. As intellectuals, we are expected to consider all points of view, and objectively work through those fields of study which we involve ourselves in. As religious individuals, we expect ourselves to avoid situations in which we are immersed in agnosticism and anti-Torah sentiment.
We could, of course, simply avoid the classes that run the risk of such controversy. Many of the rabbis and peers that I discussed this with advised me to take other courses. So I could have chosen not spend my summer semester immersed in the poetry of Wallace Stevens; but that, to me, is simply the easy way out. We, as thinking, religious Jews cannot run from situations in which our beliefs are challenged. That is not to say that one should get up in the middle of class and denounce all of his or her course material. Rather, we should tread carefully, anticipating what we will face in the classroom and bearing in mind that higher American education is an intellectual gauntlet unlike any other for the young Orthodox Jew. Amidst the philosophy and literary theory that make up our everyday occupation, we must remember to think critically, because madda is only secondary to Torah, no matter how convincing one’s professor may be.
I think this issue is becoming more and more relevant today as an increasing number of Orthodox students are choosing to attend city and state colleges in this economic downturn. Many students do not properly anticipate what they will be facing in the classroom, especially coming off a year or two in Israel or straight from yeshiva high school. Because I am still struggling with the matter myself, I cannot pose a solution, but can only suggest that the Orthodox community be aware of what their college students are facing on an everyday basis. This is an issue that has always been around in some form or another, but I believe today’s college students are challenged on an entirely new level, and must therefore be duly prepared for an education they have never faced before.Karen Greenberg