IT IS not surprising that 'The Jewish College Student: 951 Model" by Morris Freedman, in the October COMMENTARY, has provoked…
It is not surprising that “The Jewish College Student: 1951 Model” by Morris Freedman, in the October COMMENTARY, has provoked wide discussion. The inner resources and the future quality of American society have been subjects of much concern in recent years; and American Jews, in addition to sharing this concern, are speculating on the prospects for survival of the Jewish community and for continuance of the Jewish heritage in this country. Little wonder, then, that Mr. Freedman’s report on current trends in today’s generation of Jewish students should be searched for omens and predictions.
The interest aroused by Mr. Freedman’s article has prompted us to ask seven college teachers—all of whom were, after all, once college students themselves—for their commentaries on the subject.
In the editorial note accompanying the article, we had posed the problem in the following way: “In recent years, it has seemed to many that the classical type of Jewish student, the passionately devoted searcher after wisdom and learning, has been dying out; and it is often charged that the contemporary Jewish student takes a cool view toward the eternal values his forefathers sought. Is this merely a malicious illusion of middle age in the face of youth? Or is it in accord with the facts?”
For this symposium, assuming that the Jewish student of today has indeed changed significantly from his father of the 20’s or his elder brother of the 30’s, we asked our contributors to comment on such questions as: In what direction have the Jewish students changed? Have they changed more, or less, than their fellow students? And if it is true that the typical Jewish student is more and more becoming an authentic “Joe College,” is not something irreplaceable—and uniquely Jewish—being lost?
Not unexpectedly, the answers differ. But each does in its own way throw some light on the subject—and, of course, none pretends to say even the next to the last word.—ED.
Perhaps the “Jewish college student” exists. Every so often in my fifteen years at the City College of New York, people have talked to me about him. And now my gifted colleague, Mr. Morris Freedman, has sketched him in some five thousand words—sketched him, annotated him, given him a local habitation and a name.
But I’m sorry. I still don’t see him. Despite all the sprightly anecdotes, the statistics, the incisive and quotable sentences, the obvious sincerity of the author, I think he is dealing with a wraith. My reasons follow.
There are college students who call themselves Jews. There are college students whom others call Jews. But the “Jewish college student” strikes me as on a par with the Jewish baseball fan; his Jewishness is in each case irrelevant.
Consider Mr. Freedman’s opening anecdote about the mother of that “Paul Bunyan of Jewish intellectuals,” Professor Morris Raphael Cohen. She would have washed floors in order to send her boy to college. I have known mothers who not only would wash floors to give their children an education but actually did so. They happened not to be Jews.
Consider the author’s “composite image of the City College student,” whom he claims to be “the typical Jewish student in America during the 20’s and 30’s.” He is, says Mr. Freedman: “an argumentative intellectual, a sometimes brilliant, loquacious, rather truculent young man, who is partial to radical politics, disrespectful of authority, and whose erudition is as catholic as it is occasionally superficial.” This sentence is a thumbnail sketch of those well-known Jews, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, and Percy Shelley!
What starts out to be a psychograph of “the Jewish college student” in Mr. Freedman’s article soon narrows down by a bit of hocus-pocus to a personalized chronicle of CCNY supported by statistics prepared by a dean concerning the students of Brooklyn College—a study in which all questions of religion or race were left out. Mr. Freedman calls their omission “honorably motivated” but “pointless.” Not pointless at all. It is illegal in New York State for our municipal colleges to inquire into such matters—such inquiries are irrelevant and have in the past led to social mischief.
Mr. Freedman calls the students at CCNY in the 30’s “the select of the select,” and the burden of his article seems to be that they have got worse ever since. He was himself, I know, one of those golden boys; but he laments his successors; in other words he talks like an all too recognizable kind of Old Grad, or like an enthusiastic young professor shocked to find what a small minority really share his tastes and insight.
Now I came to CCNY in the same year as did Mr. Freedman, though as a teacher, I must admit, not a freshman. But I did not find “the bulk of the students” (horrid phrase!) to be passive Communists then or later. An undetermined number of young men who saw Red at that time only proved themselves to be green; they were noisy but not really numerous; they were imitating on the campus what they read about or saw in the world outside. If some Jewish Communists at the college and elsewhere changed their names, I suspect that it was in part due to zealous imitation of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov, and others of the Kremlin coterie who changed theirs. It was not, of course, a specifically Jewish phenomenon.
Students today are responding to the diverse pressures of environment as they have always responded, according to their temperament, abilities, and opportunities, but not, so far as I can see, according to their Jewishness or lack of it. At City College, which figures so intricately in Mr. Freedman’s article, far more relevant forces than religious background are at work. Situated in New York and upon the Eastern seaboard, where private colleges have consciously sought to maintain the appeal of exclusiveness, social desirability, athletic prestige, etc., City College pioneered for another ideal: the college career open to (intellectual) talents alone.
I have studied, taught, or lived for extended periods on the campuses of seven other colleges and universities of our country from here to California. At all of them I have known good students, mediocre students, atrocious students, the bone-lazy, the confused, the industrious, the brilliant. But “The Jewish Student: 1951 Model” is to me a new brand—or rather all these old brands under a new name-plate.
Why should this be so? Perhaps because 95 per cent of undergraduate work today can have no denominational or sectarian label. There is neither Jewish nor Gentile theory or practice of the semicolon; there is no Jewish dissection of frogs, no Jewish equation that e = mc2. There are, of course, Jewish history and literature—or should I say history of the Jews and writings by them? But most of my present students, 80 per cent Jewish as they may be by Mr. Freedman’s count, are obdurately, invincibly ignorant in that department.
One noted sentence from such writings occurs to me now: “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.” I regard the Jewish college student (as Mr. Freedman seems to conceive him) as I now regard an angel: I am ready to believe that others believe he exists. But no more than that.
Everett C. Hughes:
On the second day of my teaching career a good half of those who had been there on the first day were absent from my classes. Thus I became aware of Jewish students as a special category. They were celebrating the fall holidays. I had never, when I was graduated from college, known any person whom I identified as a Jew. Nor had I in my head any conception of a “Jewish student.” Although there were a good many Jews in graduate school at the University of Chicago, and although I knew them as fellow students and friends, I cannot conjure up any recollection of a category, “Jewish student,” from that time. Thus those Jewish students who stayed away from my classes at McGill University (Montreal, Canada) in the late 1920’s created the category in my mind.
Sociology was new at McGill, and associated in people’s minds with a small school of social service which had been there first. We didn’t get the pick of students, Christian or Jewish, in our courses at first. The brightest Jewish boys were either taking honors in economics with an eye on law, or were premeds. But we soon got a fine lot of girls in our courses: bright, competent, moderately hard-working, well-mannered, and well-dressed. Jew and Christian alike, they admired and emulated their successful parents, but were trying to escape some cramping orthodoxy. Some sought to expiate their parents’ social and economic sins by doing social service or by supporting liberal movements. The Jewish girls were just a little more eager, but perhaps a little less neurotic than the Protestant girls. They did well at school, but not so well as to prevent them from marrying soon after graduation. Not one of them was really an intellectual; nor were their brothers, the Jewish boys who were winning prizes and scholarships in economics, law, and medicine.
Eventually, some Jewish boys took honors (the specialized sequence) in sociology. Although they had to be bright and hard-working to make honors, they were a cut below the girls in ability and in social background. They were from the poorer North End. The very first one of them was the son of an immigrant teacher and rabbi. He wanted sociology and anthropology to help him rationalize his revolt against the orthodoxy of his father, by proving that all religion is a swindle invented by designing priests to exploit decent people like his parents. Most of the Jewish boys had some such problem.1 Sociology was a form of discourse that would help them win some argument with papa, or with the presumably hostile, anti-Semitic world. Or it was to furnish a career alternative to the one favored by parents.
When I left McGill and came to teach in the much older department of sociology at the University of Chicago, I found a large number of Jewish students for whom this subject was accepted as the basis for academic or public careers. But I still had, and have, the impression that sociology is for many of them an answer to some personal problem, a phase of some argument with parents, the world, or with themselves. Lately, we have been getting youngsters who are struggling to emancipate themselves from the pressure to go to Israel, from the deeply inculcated belief that youth in America is only a preparation for life on cooperative farms there. They cast off the spell of Zionist youth leaders in camps and clubs by writing “objective” term papers in sociological language, just as Kim saved himself by repeating the multiplication table firmly in English when Lurgan Sahib tried to hypnotize him in Hindi.
But is this something peculiar to Jewish students? I don’t think so. Sociology seems to thrive on personal marginality. It is, perhaps, the mentality of a phase of emancipation; that phase in which the individual is compelled or impelled to look in two or several directions at once. One looks back, longingly and perhaps angrily, at what his father, if not himself, was. He looks outward at other worlds. If he can bear to look well in the several directions, and if he can let associations come up freely into his conscious mind from the two or more worlds he sees, he may become a keenly perceptive observer of men and their ways. If his view is blocked in either direction by too much anxiety, he will “sociologize” in a cynical or defensive way, pass the written examinations handsomely, and turn his back on empirical, sympathetic but penetrating observation of people as they are.
The colleges and universities of this country are full of the half-emancipated children of parents of more ethnic groups and strange sects than ever got into any one country at the same time (unless India be the exception—and the solution there was the caste-community system). Some of them have just gone tolerantly slack, and head for the roundup at the coke bar. But others are made self-conscious and uncomfortable about who they are and what they are called upon to do to justify the education which their parents make such sacrifice to get for them. These are the ones we teachers of sociology get. The Jews among them are, in my experience, simply the “more so” case, the litmus paper that shows us what bothers and moves American college students in general. What will happen to sociology when Jewish (and other) students no longer have any argument with their parents or themselves, I don’t know. I suspect that there is enough tension and ambivalence left in America to keep up intellectual curiosity about the social processes yet awhile. I still find plenty of Jewish students (whose Jewishness is almost invariably talked of with me in a “taken-for-granted-so-let’s-talk-about-it” way) whose intellectual enthusiasms and curiosities mesh with my own.
Reading Mr. Freedman’s paper, I was reminded of how many other ethnic types, robbed in America of traditional Old World norms and restraints, plunged into solitary careers of what is known in factories as “rate-busting.” The Jewish student who rationalized his life to the point where all other activities besides study were subordinated to the accumulation of knowledge, or the quest for a grade, may be compared to the Polish steel worker or Italian track-layer or Japanese truck farmer who had lost, under the new conditions, all conventional and group-enforced limits on hours and pace of work. This type of Jewish student was, then, the intellectual analogue of Economic Man, and has met the same fate when, with the coming of unions and the integration of the immigrant into American life, effective sanctions can be brought to bear on the DAR (“damned average-raiser”), and effective rewards for social solidarity offered to the previously isolated. So passes from the campus area, too, the “unfair” competition of the immigrant worker.
As Mr. Freedman observes, this isolate, freeing himself from family and kin, looked to his academic teachers for models as to how to behave in the new setting and, in frequent disappointment, turned from them into a career of resentful rebellion. But this was not the only outcome. At least outside New York, the eager Jewish student before and after the First World War might have the good luck to encounter upper-class teachers who welcomed his intellect and sought to soften his manners, to make a gentleman—and therefore a scholar—out of him. For these teachers from the upper social strata did not feel threatened in their own class position by having to teach a few Jewish students; rather, having entered teaching because of a love of learning, they could feel Jews as kindred spirits and enjoy the polishing of rough diamonds. Indeed, the very moral and intellectual experimentalism of the Jews might be attractive (as compared, say, with similarly eager Anglo-Saxon students) because Jews from immigrant families were often viewed by non-Jewish intellectuals as a sort of cover for their own emancipation (the history of Jews as fronts for Christians in America and vice versa has still to be written). At any rate, the Jewish student under these circumstances, unable to find intellectual peers in his home circle, was brought into citizenship in the republic of learning under the sponsorship of cultivated men and women for whom his development was one of the rewards of their teaching.
Today, however, as teaching becomes increasingly the monopoly of people of lower-middle-class origin in search of status and security, the Jewish student finds himself taught by those who may serve as models of career success but not as models of a cultivated life of learning. In fact, as Mr. Freedman describes matters, many of these teachers will themselves be Jews who in turn have been deprived of the opportunity of exposure to such models. Such students can form themselves neither by rebellion against aristocratic ways nor by imitating them; they can only imitate each other, or their slightly older counsellors who are teaching them.
The unhappy result is that the integration into American life which Mr. Freedman describes is only partial: the students are several removes or academic generations away from the American humanistic tradition of lightly held learning, as this flowered in New England or among the Quakers, and in parts of the South and the Midwest. Paradoxically, the versatile Jewish student of earlier generations—such as Morris Cohen or Felix Frankfurter or many others who could be named—was far less alienated in this sense.
So perhaps it is true, as Mr. Freedman’s paper suggests, that the phenomenon is slowly drawing to an end in the Western world of the boy of lowly class origin who in his lifetime amasses the entire cultural capital of his age. For the leap from rags to riches was not only a pecuniary one: intangible goods of the spirit were acquired no less voraciously and excitingly. As the general level of education rises, and the individual level of aspiration falls in the way Mr. Freedman describes, such Horatio Alger heroes of the intellect may become less frequent. In the ensuing homogeneity, I fear we shall all be the losers.
Yet it is too early to know whether such homogeneity must be the inevitable outcome of the leveling process. We may find other bases for difference, such as individual variants of character and temperament, to replace the enforced differences of earlier ethnic modes of social stratification. Many students, moreover, starting from plateaus of relative security, may attain peaks no less high than those gained from the sea level of immigrant poverty in an earlier day. This is less spectacular, but the new climber has the advantage of not needing to lose sight of all other values in a single-minded pursuit of learning.
Also, there is no reason to assume that a business career is necessarily less intellectually challenging than academic and professional life. There is a tendency—now a full generation old, in my observation—for the sons of the wealthy to desert business for the arts and other presumably unworldly careers; today in many circles business is considered almost as unconventional as art once was.
Precisely because we are rapidly eroding our readiest source of variety in American life—namely, our ethnic heritages—we must guard against closing off any career lines, such as business, as possible lures to the imagination. That students are so readily persuaded, both by their peers and by their teachers, that business offers no careers to the imagination and the intellect, is perhaps another sign of their waning rebelliousness. And this brings us back again to the teacher-as-model, who can help to liberate students not only from the older parental pressures to enter business but also from the newer contrary pressures to view business as fit only for the uncreative, the self-indulgent, and the dispirited. This outlook is surely ironical for the Jewish student, for whom, as Mr. Freedman points out, many venturesome business careers are opening with the waning of prejudices—such as that against Jewish engineers—both within and outside the Jewish group.
Arnold W. Green:
Mr. Freedman’s excellent piece contains two emphases which in my opinion are at least overdrawn. First, it does not seem to me that there has ever been a clear-cut “Jewish student” type in this country. Second, Mr. Freedman describes City College in the 30’s as if that time and place were an expression of Jewish ethos instead of what, again in my opinion, it was—a time and place. He correctly points out that intellectually, socially, and politically, the 30’s are a distant age. But his half-regret and half-nostalgia for a time when tweed suits, parked cars, winning basketball teams, and middleclass respectability were all absent from City includes a tacit accusation that today’s young American Jews have forsaken a Jewish intellectual tradition. If there is such a tradition in America, its roots are as thin as its flowering was short-lived.
Take the introductory remarks about Morris Cohen—there were giants in those days—which are used to make a contrast with the intellectually shoddy present. Actually, Cohen was not “typical” of anything—a time, a people, or a culture. He was one of that small band of dedicated intellectual geniuses that appear in every generation in spite of their era and their background. Cohen no more typified American Jews than William Graham Sumner typified American Protestants; Sumner’s college classmates were corporation lawyers and stock-market riggers when he, after passing fifty, taught himself several new languages. Dedicated intellectual geniuses are probably as many, and as few, as they ever were, and no “tradition” produces them.
I have no personal knowledge of City, but I attended Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, during the 30’s; and Mr. Freedman’s description of the City College-that-was sounds just like home, the one difference being that at Clark about 40, not 80 per cent, of the student body was Jewish. The majority of students were urban “townies,” they were almost without exception poor and had to work in their spare time to pay their tuition on installments. Many of the faculty preserved a humorous “tolerance” for the unbarbered hair and unshaven faces and dogmatic challenging attitudes of their students. Fraternities were a joke. There were few gentlemen, and the noisy Communist claque passed out handbills, petitions of protest, and organized “peace rallies.” Clark students boasted that on Saturday nights the library was more crowded than the basketball game, and the cheering was always third-rate. Clark’s winnowing process was not so severe as Mr. Freedman indicates City’s was, but it was sufficiently rigorous to explain in part the self-conscious intellectuality of its students. Or was it intellectuality? In any event, they schemed and strove like Comanche warriors to lift more scalps than their fellows, in the form of grades.
With very few exceptions they, also, were first-generation collegians and second-generation Europeans, for whom literacy was a promise and a fulfilment. Minorities were in the majority: Jews, Swedes, Italians, and Poles, in that order. But, there was no “Jewish student.” Intellectual “seriousness,” radicalism of some kind or degree, a humorless determination to make high grades on examinations, scorn for the amenities, bitterness, these were characteristic of the entire student body at that time. A friend of mine who is now teaching at Clark assures me that the atmosphere has completely changed, in the direction that Mr. Freedman half deplores, and the proportion of Jewish students remains the same. The question I am raising is this: if some other impoverished minority had made up the bulk of City’s student body during the 30’s, would City’s character have been much different? There is, of course, no way to test the hypothesis that it would have been the same, but the question deserves to be raised.
As a teacher in several institutions, I have simply failed to find the “Jewish student.” The Jewish girls, like the other girls at the University of New Hampshire during the war, wore sloppy jeans and scuffed shoes, and during class read letters from their fiancés overseas. Later, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the wealthy Jewish boys in my classes, like the other wealthy boys, drove convertibles, drank heavily as a matter of principle, and never got assignments in on time. At American University, in Washington, where most of the students are Federal employees, the all-consuming interest is grades and degrees with which to secure a “higher rating.” Here at Penn State, the campus life of fraternities, sports, dances, and the like dominates all students without discrimination. If I have one budding Jewish scholar in my classes at the present time, he keeps himself well hidden.
Was the intellectuality of the 30’s (Jewish or otherwise) a “genuine” thing? Largely, I think, it was not. It was much less dedication than it was a personal defense reaction on the part of the intelligent dispossessed. At the same time, however, the importance of ideas went unquestioned by a much larger minority than today. There is little intellectual excitement among today’s gifted and, yes, interested minority. Mr. Freedman attributes this change mainly to the “security” that the American collegian now finds in his career prospect. This has something to do with it, but more important, I feel, is that the faith of the 30’s, that thinking makes a difference, is gone. The 30’s was a terrible awakening from the American Dream, but it was also a time of vocal adventure deferred in action, a time when the young, intellectual or not, held the idea that rational thought and rational persuasion would somehow be transformed into collective action in the near future, and that human problems would be solved. Today’s students discuss war, but they do not, like the students of the 30’s, discuss ways to stop it. They discuss it as news, or as something that may happen to them, but not as a challenge. A few of today’s students might be termed intellectuals, but their interest in ideas is a hobby; even these few show little earnestness in study, for they have little faith that ideas will ever help them to control their own destinies.
Any understanding of the Jewish student as he used to exist, both in actuality and in legend, must begin with the awareness that he was not really, as we easily suppose, a unique phenomenon. The old fierce and largely competitive intellectual drive of the Jewish student, like so many traits which are thought of as specifically Jewish, is in part to be traced to the manners, habits, and traditions of Europe, or of a particular part of Europe, and often of a particular part of Europe at a particular time. And Europe as a whole has for many centuries had a more intense and competitive notion of the intellectual life than has ever obtained in America except possibly in the early days of Massachusetts.
The competitiveness which is inherent in the European tradition of intellectual conduct no doubt has its aspect of disinterested-ness—it may be understood as arising from a sense of the passionateness which is appropriate to the mind, from a respect for what the mind can and properly should do. No doubt, too, we must take to be a sign of respect for mind the fact that in Europe men have long been able to gain great credit and even power by the exercise of their intellectual gifts. Since the days of Abelàrd, the populace of Paris has responded to intellectual triumphs with a vivacity that cannot be conceived in America (again early Massachusetts might be excepted). And from the days of Hegel up to the destruction of all intellectual life by the Nazis, the German professor had the possibility of an almost fantastic prestige. The life of Max Weber, for example, suggests a degree of social establishment which not even the most successful American professor would dream of.
It is perhaps true that the Orthodox Jews of Europe put a valuation on intellectual distinction in the mastery of the traditional Jewish knowledge that was especially high. Yet even this heroic estimate of intellect, which surely had its effect on Jewish habits even after the traditional knowledge had lost its hold upon the imagination, must be understood as but a part of the European attitude to learning and intellectual power. The hours of study, unthinkable to us, which the Talmudist required to fulfill his ideal probably did not exceed in number those which a German philologian felt he needed. And at least up to the war, even the secondary education of the middle and upper classes in most European countries required a degree of concentration and of accurate memory which we have never tolerated.
Then we must remember that the academic life of Europe was often more intimately connected with bureaucracy than it ever has been in this country, and that for members of the middle class and the lower middle class, success in examinations was one of the recognized roads to establishment in life. We should be less inclined to isolate a Jewish student type if we were more precisely aware of the kind of regimen of study through which an ambitious French boy puts himself, with the encouragement of his family and under the supervision of a physician, when he undertakes to win academic distinction and professional opportunity. It is not uncommon that his worn nerves and shattered spirit should lead him to think of failure as a good reason for suicide.
And we also have to take into account the special tendency of ethnic groups in a certain situation to make their way by means of the intellectual and quasi-intellectual professions. The determining situation seems to be that the group should have a strong tradition of respectability and ethnic pride, despite poverty and a degree of social inferiority to the dominant ethnic group. The case of Scottish intellectuality and devotion to study, quite as notable and legendary as the Jewish, is here in point.
If a change such as Mr. Freedman describes has really taken place, and I think it has, this is certainly in some part due, as Mr. Freedman suggests, to the growing acculturation of the Jewish group in America. The individual Jewish student is likely to be closer in type to the general image of the American student than his father was; his manners and habits distinguish him less from the generality; he is likely to make approximately the same estimate of his chances in the world; and he takes about the same attitude to his academic work—that is, among Jewish students there now tends to be the same distribution of indifference or commitment as among their non-Jewish classmates.
There is another factor in the change which I shall mention presently. But first I should like to raise a question about the elegiac assumption of Mr. Freedman’s article and of the editorial note which introduces it. The editorial note speaks of the “classical Jewish student” as being “the passionately devoted searcher after wisdom.” I have no doubt that many such students did exist and did represent an ideal of the Jewish tradition. But we must remember that whatever aura of disinterestedness may attend the intellectual life as it is lived in institutions, or whatever element of disinterestedness may actually be in it, the educational process in our culture, no less than in Europe although in a different way, is a recognized means of social advancement. It must submit to the same moral judgment we direct upon other ways of acquiring prestige. A somewhat greater degree of realism than usually attends the discussion of the “classical” Jewish student will remind us that a good deal of the old academic assiduity expressed itself as not much more than an accumulation of high marks, which were sought for the simplest practical reasons, or out of an almost mechanical competitiveness, or out of a kind of intellectual athleticism.
And even when the legendary Jewish student was—and indeed he often was—much more than a mark-accumulator, even when he thought of himself—as he often did—as a “devoted searcher after wisdom,” it is not quite clear to me that his legendary way of going about his search was the best one possible. Perhaps the intellectual life cannot be lived without dispute and the acrimony that goes with dispute, and certainly in American universities the intellectual life is lived much too blandly. Still, we have to ask ourselves just how much store we really do set by the European way of carrying on the intellectual life, with its harshness and fierceness and bitterness—for the European way, as Mr. Freedman implies, was essentially the way of the “classical” Jewish student. Mr. Freedman makes Morris Raphael Cohen the hero of the old vanished Jewish student ideal. Although I am not one of those who respond, as so many do, to the quality of the late Professor Cohen’s greatness, I am sure that he was, as so many say, a great man. Yet from what I know of Professor Cohen’s way of carrying on the intellectual life, both in his classroom and in debate with his peers, he does not seem to me the best model for the intellectual life. It seems to me that there was a disproportion between the degree of his intellectual contentiousness and what it produced; and although I am not competent to judge his technical achievements in philosophy, it has often seemed to me that his contentiousness as well as his rigorous intellectuality led astray his opinions on other than technical matters.
I have made reference to a circumstance, in addition to the acculturation of the Jewish student himself, which has helped to bring about the disappearance of anything that can now be thought of as a “type” of the Jewish student. This is the change in nature of the American college. So far as the “classical” Jewish student was a mere accumulator of marks, he did not necessarily show greater intelligence but perhaps only greater endurance and passivity than his fellows. But so far as he really was a “searcher after wisdom and learning,” he very likely had the virtue of being able to take more seriously than even his teachers the subject matter of his courses. For I think that a true seriousness was not nearly so likely to have marked college teaching two or three or four decades ago as it does now. I would say that nowadays in most collegiate enterprises the teachers are both more devoted and more enlightened than they used to be. The humanistic emphasis is greater, and seems to the students to have a lively connection with actuality. I don’t by this mean to give our colleges a clean bill of health, but I do think that in respect to having got rid of much that was merely routine and mechanical they have made considerable progress. The serious student is much more common than he used to be, and he is not necessarily a grind or brilliant. In such a situation the old Jewish seriousness and respect for learning do not appear as special and noteworthy traits.
And in general I think it is true that the intellectual life is more happily regarded in America than it used to be. The intellectual life seems now more available to more people than formerly and there is a tendency to think of the academic career as respectable and attractive. This is a tendency which is crowding and overcrowding our graduate schools and populating our writers’ conferences and suchlike institutions. It is, incidentally, not at all easy to know how to judge this general movement, for its motive seems to have a certain negative element, a mere distaste for the active life and the “world.” And it seems to bring with it a relaxation of intellectual standards of precision and industriousness and even to demand such a relaxation. But on the whole it is a promising thing, and it seems to me that the Jewish group has a proportionate part in it. Despite what Mr. Freedman reports of the indifference or hostility of City College students to the intellectual life, I have observed—as Mr. Freedman has—the considerable number of City College students who are devoting themselves to graduate study or who have in other ways devoted themselves to the intellectual life. And recently I have been struck by the number of well-heeled Jewish fathers, themselves without pretensions to intellectual interests, who have expressed to me their perfect willingness and even their satisfaction that their sons should be drawn to academic careers.
The change in the attitude of the colleges that I have described, as well as the general change in the attitude toward the intellectual life, have brought about a concomitant change in the intellectual virtues that are most prized. Intellectual distinction is as highly valued as it ever was, but its (as it were) quantitative aspect is not so highly regarded as it once was. I cannot remember ever having had a really good student, Jewish or not, who protested that a mark was not so high as he thought it should have been; to do so he would think quite below his dignity. High marks are, of course, not without their meaning, but the distinguished student is more likely to be interested in his teacher’s response to his originality and creative promise. I must add that this interest, which seems so enlightened, can also have its corruptions.
I cannot resist saying a word about brilliant students in general. Popular feeling, in America at least, is always likely to be hostile to the intellectual gift; and this feeling can make its way more easily than is supposed into the academic life, where intellectual force and enthusiasm are often ironically regarded. The academic community must always be on guard against using any other criterion than intellectual power as demonstrated in intellectual accomplishment. The honors should go to the student with the best marks, and we ought always to resist the effort to make “character” or “leadership” or “activities” equal in value to scholarship. And yet it must be understood that there is no necessary correlation between undergraduate brilliance and actual intellectual accomplishment. It is not my impression that the most gifted of my students have done as well in the intellectual life as they gave me reason to expect, while some who have wearied me by their dullness or irritated me by their indifference have gone on to do admirable work. The circumstances in which the professional intellectual life is lived are very different from those of the classroom, and the qualities it needs are very different from those to which teachers usually respond. Which leads me to say that if we are inclined to find a sad significance in the passing of the old “classical” Jewish student, we ought to control our elegiac emotions by asking what part he emerged to play in the general intellectual life. And we ought also to ask what part in his own private life of later years his young fierce intellect grew up to have.
Before making any observations on Mr. Freedman’s excellent article, it will be well to define the student body with which I have been working for seven semesters. Brandeis University, as is well known, is a Jewish foundation, secular in character. Its doors are open, needless to say, to students of intelligence and reasonable accomplishment without regard to ethnic or religious coloration. But no one who knows the structure and attitudes of our American society will be surprised at the fact that the overwhelming majority of our students are Jewish. They come to us as a matter of choice—not out of mere proximity—from twenty-seven states of the Union and from seven various lands, including Israel, England, Canada, France, Egypt, Liberia. Add the fact that out of a faculty of seventy this year forty-nine are Jews, and there arises the picture of a campus—the only campus outside the State of Israel—on which there are no anti-Semitic tensions, whether real or fancied.
Even so, human nature and Jewish nature forbade this from being, at least initially, an ideal situation. A number of students, especially among the earlier ones, entertained, whether consciously or not, the notion that under this absence of tensions and pressures they could retire to complete Jewish indifferentism. Boys and girls didn’t have to go to Hillel for appropriate “dates.” Since Hebrew was offered on the same basis as other languages, those who “took” it did so as unemphatically as others “took” French or Spanish or German. A very low spiritual temperature prevailed. But this temperature has risen measurably from year to year. Today, when more and more of the sons and daughters of affirmative Jewish families have joined our student body and a truly illustrious department of Hebraic and Judaistic studies functions, the temperature has attained a respectable warmth. Hillel functions and Intercollegiate Zionist Society functions are very well attended. Yet my first point of agreement with Mr. Freedman must be that this warmth rarely aspires to a degree beyond the very moderate. There is here, as elsewhere, a great rush toward the social sciences, which nowadays include psychology, and I record with agreement the quip of a witty faculty member: “The poor kids are looking for redemption and barking up the wrong tree.” But they are, at least, seeking for redemption and meaning, though the right passion in the search is rare.
How well I recognize Mr. Freedman’s description of the Jewish students of a certain period, though I was not actively teaching then—the argumentative, truculent, “radical” ones, the defenders, to the point of terrorism, of a sordid Utopia into which they fled from their Jewishness and their Judaism, for the sake of which a few of them finally betrayed not only the polity that had nurtured them not without kindness but also their more intimate and sustaining sanctities. Ah no, I could not have taught in those days and, indeed, avoided doing so. I have not, as Mr. Freedman seems at least to have, a gleam of nostalgia for those brutal and sordid days. When I am a little put out by the mildness of temper of the majority of my students today I at once say to myself: they are at least not that; they have not at least sold themselves to seven pagan devils; they are at worst, at worst, accessible to good.
They would be more so—and this is a crucial point which Mr. Freedman omits—had they not been warped in their most plastic years by those public schools which, as a great Christian educator, Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell, declares, seem to aim at turning out mixtures of miniature Nietzsches and John Deweys; had they not learned to babble the brash false superficial answers to everything and been deprived of the right reverence for any mystery. Thus a quite intelligent student, being asked why he did not attend the High Holiday services on campus, replied that that would have been “so unmotivated” on his part. Another asked on a similar occasion: “Do you want me to be a hypocrite?” These answers bear out Dr. Bell’s accusation. These students had been immersed in high school in a low-grade cocksureness. The riddles of the ages had been answered. They, these children, had vicariously mastered and sat in judgment on the accumulated wisdom and experience of the ages. They had found them wanting. So they played canasta (I suppose), not without a little bite of the worm of conscience, while the services were going on. I do not believe that these neither stupid nor ill-bred Jewish children would ever have fallen so low except for the abominable atmosphere of the public schools. In fact I know it. For the small minority of students who come to us from Jewish day schools, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Yiddishist secular, are well taught. They have a reasonable insight into the difficulty of all problems, a decent reverence for both knowledge and wisdom; they can even write correct English. They are, above all, well-integrated personalities.
In brief, any description of the character and attitude of the Jewish college student of 1951 must include some attention to the influences he underwent before he came to college. Had his schooling been better, there would not even be that residuum of those who ask the question formulated by Mr. Freedman: “What good can composition and literature be to an accountant or businessman?” But indeed, on this campus, there are relatively few such. The required humanistic courses are followed with patience and interest even by future “pre-medics,” chemists, sociologists; and the humanistic electives are cultivated by not a few whose future professional interests will be technological. No one, at all events, is ashamed of liking either poetry or philosophy. Indeed there is a pride, not passionate but genuine, in these studies and the accomplishments that grow from them. One repeats, one must repeat, the phrase “not passionate,” and a certain mildness does indeed seem to characterize this college generation.
Are the students “disturbed”? There was a flurry of dismay among the boys some months ago on the subject of military service. It seems, at least here, to have been allayed. No one doubts the Tightness of going if the country calls. No one wants to go. There is a hope that the worst may yet be avoided—the global war. Meanwhile one does what one can to pursue one’s appointed way. A similar sobriety characterizes the problem of the students’ Americanism. They are today, of course, the children of fairly well-adjusted parents. For few of these parents are alienated from Judaism; many, indeed, are active in their communities; a majority are, I suspect, though I have no statistics, affiliated with temples or synagogues; probably all contribute to the United Jewish Appeal. Thus the children—the overwhelming majority—accept their Judaism, again without much passion but with a fairly calm matter-of-factness. After vacations many of them bring me greetings from their rabbis or from former fellow workers in the Zionist movement. There is a certain feeling of unself-conscious coziness within the Jewish community which is not separated or divided from an almost equally unself-conscious feeling of being at home on the American scene. One group is, of course, intenser—the group that studies under my distinguished colleagues who teach Semitics and Jewish history, philosophy, and culture. And this group is certain to increase as time goes on. It may affect the general temper and attitudes of our student body. I think it will, but it is too early to be certain.
I return once more to the question of the general mildness of this immediate generation of Jewish students. The fact cannot be gainsaid and is matched by similar delineations of contemporary non-Jewish bodies of students. It is, doubtless, due to one of the oscillations of the cultural pendulum which are part of the historic process. After the sordid turbulence for no good cause of the decades described by Mr. Freedman, this particular reaction seems neither unnatural nor even undesirable. I, too, have been irked by a lack of fire, of tense aspiration, of generous passion among my students. But I consented to it from the beginning; I consent to it even more amid the dreadful recollections aroused by Mr. Freedman’s article. I am not unhopeful of the future of these young people. I note that almost everywhere the generation immediately preceding theirs, that of the young married people, is founding “young couples’ clubs,” is building new synagogues and temples when they settle in new communities. Doubdess, the majority of our students will in due time do the same and bring up their children Jewishly and be happier and better people both as Americans and as Jews, as Jews and therefore as Americans, than were their predecessors of the 20’s and 30’s. For they are, I would like to repeat in closing, accessible to good.
Today’s Jewish student is indeed far different from his counterpart a quarter-century ago. The difference arises primarily out of a general dulling of the sharp sense of separateness that formerly kept Jews apart.
Not that today’s young people are any less aware of their Judaism. On the contrary, there is a greater inclination now than there was twenty or thirty years ago to stress group identification. But that identification is taken as a matter of course, as Mr. Freedman indicates, without self-consciousness and without introspection. The growth of interest in religion has edged out the agnosticism and materialism of the 1920’s and 1930’s; and it is common to find indications of fresh involvement in national or communal causes.
These trends only serve to bring Jewish boys and girls into the kinds of activities that are preoccupying all the rest of the campus. The Hillel Foundation sits next to the Newman Club and the Epworth League; and the students who read Buber are akin in spirit to those who turn to T. S. Eliot. This is all part of the sudden turn toward a quest for tradition, the yearning for some fixed source of authority—whether it exists or not.
It is difficult to say how far this interest penetrates. It certainly seems to have little influence upon the day-to-day academic life. For these students the ends of education are clearly marked out, and they are no different for Jews than for others. For almost half the group, college is the last leisurely interval before moving on into the obligations of family businesses. Among these boys, who have access to cars and no lack of cash, there has developed a social life complete with clubs and weekends and marked with a kind of ruthless hedonism, long the ideal of the American campus. If the Jews differ at all from their fellows, it is because their parents, themselves excluded from that life a generation ago, are apt to be more indulgent. The father who himself commuted to City College or who remembers the withheld pleasures of the Midwestern fraternity to which he could not belong, is likely to be infinitely tolerant of the escapades of his son, the Harvard man.
The students for whom college is the first step of a career are necessarily more preoccupied with their studies. They approach their books and the laboratories with a methodical efficiency, out to earn the essential grades that will take them into the graduate schools. They carry obediently the few courses in general education that will furnish them small talk in later life; every man, after all, should have some hobbies. But only a handful will come to know some other meaning of culture.
Gone is the intense interest in ideas as such that distinguished the earlier body of Jewish students. There are few signs of the independence of mind that once led to a completely questioning attitude in which nothing was taken for granted and in which everything was subjected to adventurous speculation. I do not think the total docility of spirit so pervasive on the campus today rises out of fear, out of apprehensions of “witch hunts,” or out of forebodings as to what the FBI might some day discover. It springs rather from atrophy of the habit of discussing fundamental issues critically. It is as if ten years of reiterated slogans have stifled the will to ask questions.
These are grievances one could direct against the whole student body. Why single out the Jews?
One might expect the Jews still to be different for two reasons. For one, some of them are, after all, the children of parents who were at one time rebels and consumed with the desire for knowledge. For another, these young people are affiliated with the Jewish community which has always prided itself upon its tradition of learning.
But the parents, alas, have made good. Almost to a man they are at least a little higher up on the economic scale than their parents were. They themselves had rejected their own fathers: not taken up the same callings, not carried on the same way of life. Now in their middle age they fear the very same rejection from their sons. Far from provoking revolt or dissidence, they urge upon the boys the pleasures of conformity. Besides, everyone has read the writings of the analysts, or at least Gesell, and knows that in America children should be adjusted, secure; they wish to spare their offspring the bitterness of being outsiders as they had been.
As for the Jewish community, there is little likelihood of any stimulus to learning there. The tradition of scholarship has always been a myth with which American Jews flattered their self-esteem. It is true that the occasional figure who made his mark in the wider world earned also a certain measure of recognition in the Jewish community—Albert Einstein, just as, but no more than, Benny Leonard. In the brief period in which education held out opportunities for social mobility to the children of immigrants, the lamp of learning shone with the added luster of measurable advantages. But it is hard now to see in the organized life of the community any concern with the values of its culture. The handful of institutions dedicated to those ends attract pitifully meager support and, perhaps, deserve no more than they do attract; their low standards and the poverty of their achievements trouble no one. After all, did not a distinguished rabbi not long ago use “intellectual” as a term of reproach? Why then should the Jewish students be other than they are?
1 I remember the boy who was afraid to shave at home on certain days because his father would not like it, but was equally afraid to turn up on campus unshaven. One time he saw an ad about the demonstration of a new electric razor in a big department store. He stopped there and got shaved free—only to be mortified by seeing some of his classmates among the spectators. He always came to me right after such things with the bitter question, “Why do I do these things?” He eventually got a good education trying to answer that question.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Seven Professors Look at the Jewish Student:A Symposium
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?