Jewish Journal

Let’s Stop Coddling Our College Students!

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

May 20, 2014 | 8:44 am

This past weekend, my youngest son graduated from college. It was a true shehecyanu moment for our family, not least of all because it might mean that this was the last tuition check that I will ever have to sign.

The commencement speaker was Jose Andres, a celebrity chef and entrepreneur. It was an unexpected pleasure. http://eater.com/archives/2014/05/19/jose-andres-gwu-commencement.php He inspired the crowd with his personal story, and he dazzled us with his humility.

Good news. There was nothing offensive in his speech. Well, actually, it was “foodist,” because it might have implied that any culinary creation more complex than a Pop Tart is classist, elitist, and spiceist. 

Over the past few weeks, there has been an epidemic of commencement speakers being pressured to withdraw from speaking at various universities. There was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, disinvited at Brandeis for protesting the anti-female predations of militant Islam. Condoleeza Rice uninvited herself to speak at Rutgers University’s commencement. International Monetary Fund head, Christine Lagarde, backed out of a speech at Smith College because activists complained that the IMF contributes to economic injustice.

(Hmnn. Three of the disinvited were women – and two of them, women of color. I’m just saying….)

Former University of California Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau withdrew from a commencement address at Haverford College after protesters complained that he had authorized the use of force to break up an Occupy demonstration. The “replacement” speaker. William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, criticized those protestors for their “immaturity and arrogance.” http://mainlinemedianews.com/articles/2014/05/18/main_line_times/news/doc53795e91d19fb013408149.txt

This past week, The New York Times reported that universities are increasingly adopting policies in which class syllabi must contain “trigger warnings," telling students that class content could be traumatic, and could in fact trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a debilitating illness. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?_r=0  

Oberlin College would warn students about works that contain "racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression." Books in question would include Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (which contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (which addresses suicide). Not to mention, we assume: Huckleberry Finn for racism; The Great Gatsby for classism, and probably sexism; and who knows what else.

Seriously – after you cull out all of the works of Western literature that contain something that is potentially hurtful -- what’s left? Heidi? Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

There's always the Bible, right?


Homosexual incest? The end of the story of Noah. Classism and racism? Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Classism, sexism, and something like incest? Reuben’s sexual encounter with his father Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. Rape? The story of Dinah. Over the top violence? The end of the story of Dinah. Issues of privilege and oppression? The enslavement in Egypt. Ableism? Moses’ speech defect. Heterosexual incestuous rape? Amnon and Tamar (II Samuel 13). Sexual oppression of prostitutes? Check out this week’s haftarah portion. The prophet Hosea must marry a harlot, Gomer, in order to understand how God feels about Israel “messing around” with other gods. And, to be sure, there is a rabbinic tradition that says that certain texts (like Reuben and Bilhah, like Amnon and Tamar) should either not be translated into the vernacular, or not taught at all. So our sages were not insensitive to sensitivities. 

Zionism? Bag the whole Tanakh, aka The Old Testament.

About Zionism: At UCLA, candidates for student government were forced to sign pledges that they would refuse to go on any trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hasbarah Fellowship, a joint venture between Aish International and the Israeli government.http://http://www.jta.org/2014/05/19/news-opinion/united-states/u-of-calif-leaders-condemn-student-effort-to-limit-israel-trips#ixzz32GbDPDhA

And thus, all across the country, the gates of the mind slam shut.

What does Judaism say?

First, the UCLA situation. If the only country that students are not allowed to visit is Israel, and under the aegis of certain organizations, we should have a major problem with that. This is a continuation of the academic war against Israel. Our young people should be prepared for that war, and how to respond to it. 

Second: “trigger warnings.” A sensitive professor might inform students that certain subject matter is sensitive. But Jews believe that struggling with a text, even and especially a difficult text, is not something to be avoided, but to be embraced. It is as if God is speaking to us again. Christians, by the way, believe the same thing. There are Christian scholars who do nothing but specialize in the "hard sayings" of Jesus -- not to trim them out of the canon, but to make those sayings live. 

And, third: banning speakers who offer a controversial (read: not particularly liberal) perspective on world affairs.

Here, we Jews might show academics a page of the famed mikraot gedolot, the so-called rabbinic Bible – with the sacred text in the middle, surrounded by medieval commentators, none of whom would have agreed with each other. Even thought though those commentators are not on the same page, they are, actually, on the same page.

The ancient sages said that the Torah (substitute: academic truth) could be understood in seventy ways. The Talmud urges us to make our hearts “a heart of many chambers,” open enough to include even contradictory opinions – so much so, that the test of sagacity was to find fifty reasons why something should be permitted, and another fifty reasons why that same thing should be forbidden.

(Though, to be fair, I have always taught that one's mind should never be so open that everything falls out).

The Hebrew word for truth is emet. It consists of the first, middle and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet – to remind us that all truth is dialectical, that it must embrace all sides.

One thing is for sure. We do our young people no favors by treating them like delicate hothouse flowers who cannot tolerate hearing something that they find disagreeable. If they are that fragile, then they not only shouldn’t be at a university; just wait until they get into the real world.

To all of our college graduates -- good luck! In the words of the Talmud, may your realize your dreams in your lifetime. 

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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