Vayeishev 5771 -- The Value of an Ivy League Education; American Jewish History Museum
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 3, 2010
Hakaros hatov (gratitude), all the experts on shalom bayis (marital harmony) assure us, is the key to building solid relationships. I suppose it's no secret that my relationship with President Barack Obama has often been a troubled one. So I'm trying to work on my hakaros hatov. And I think I've succeeded.
I'm grateful to President Obama for having convinced the American public of the limited utility of an Ivy League education in picking its leaders. Already a year ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks noted with alarm that the public had turned decisively against the "educated classes." Brooks, the Times resident conservative voice, was so dazzled by then freshmen senator Barack Obama at their first meeting, as the two chewed over the finer points of the philosophy of Edmund Burke, that he urged him to run for president as soon as possible. (Perhaps Brooks can be forgiven: Had Obama shown any of Burke's skepticism about revolutionary change, he would not be in the pickle he is today.)
Noemie Emery, in the Washington Examiner, captures brilliantly what the American public has discovered about the Ivy League: "That our 'educated class' is educated beyond its intelligence, and mistakes mastery of its patois and attitude for wisdom and competence. It . . . values too highly its skill sets, which are entertaining, but not on the optimum level of consequence." Far more important, writes Emery, are "resolution, moral clarity, and an ability to understand and connect with a great many people."
There are two principal deficits to an Ivy League education. One is the lack of diversity of opinion to which one is exposed. With all the rush to affirmative action in faculty hiring, one group remains vastly underrepresented: academics of a conservative bent in the humanities and social sciences. Many bright young men and women enter university never having met anyone whose politics are not roughly the same as their own, and they are likely to leave the groves of academe just as they entered.
As anyone raised learning in chavrusah can appreciate, having to defend one's position in debate is essential to clarifying one's thinking. For that reason, conservative students are better served by an Ivy League education than their left-wing counterparts. The former spend their entire educational careers surrounded by people whose political views – and often social mores – differ sharply from their own. Their experience makes it impossible for them to entertain the idea that all intelligent people think exactly as they do. And they learn early on the limited persuasiveness of shouting at those with whom they disagree, "You're an idiot."
That is one reason that bright young conservatives are such good debaters. Think William Buckley (Yale College). Or Chief Justice John Roberts (Harvard College, Harvard Law), who was by general consensus the outstanding appellate advocate of his generation. Or Associate Justice Samuel Alito (Princeton College, Yale Law), another first-rate appellate advocate.
A lack of exposure to diverse opinions fosters the belief that there is one correct solution to social problems. That explains, in part, why liberals entertain so few suspicions of big government. Belief in one correct solution makes government coercion more palatable: One comes to view those who are not with the program as either immoral or congenital idiots.
Josh Goldberg of the National Review Online points out that Americans are not fed up with smart people, or even all Ivy Leaguers, but rather with "one subset of Ivy Leaguers . . . – the lawyer-social engineers-journalist-activists they churn out by the boatload." (Fitting two of those categories, I hereby renounce all my prime ministerial ambitions.) It is among that particular group – not physics majors or engineers – that the attitudes under discussion are most commonly found.
A second deficiency of Ivy Leaguers as leaders is the thinness of their life experience. The most important role of the president of the United States is that of commander in chief. Yet today few Ivy League graduates will ever serve in the armed forces, and many campuses do not even have ROTC programs. Indeed they may not even know anyone their own age who has ever served in the armed forces.
Yet being in life and death situations provides a depth that cannot be obtained in any classroom. I can still recall being interviewed at Ohr Somayach about thirty years ago by Time Magazine for an article on the ba'al teshuva movement, along with a number of Israeli ba'alei teshuva who had been pilots or naval commanders. I felt humiliated listening to them talk, like a child who suddenly finds himself thrust into an adult conversation, even though we were approximately the same age.
Dan Senor and Saul Singer argue in Start-Up Nation: the Story of Israel's Economic Miracle that Israel remains the world leader in hi-tech innovation, despite the depressing results of its high school students on all international math exams, largely because of compulsory military service. Military service, they write, teaches Israelis to "lead and manage, improvise, become mission-oriented, and to work in teams." (Other studies show that the problem-solving abilities of those with Talmudic backgrounds often far exceed those of students with far more formal education.) Again, the capabilities described by Senor and Singer are not skills that are picked up in the classroom. Yet they are far more crucial to leadership than the skills acquired in university.
One can still impress plenty of people with an Ivy League degree, and it definitely provides an entrée to securing a high-paying first job. But among those likely to be impressed again by a mastery of a certain "patois" are not American voters – at least not when it comes to choosing their next president.
The new National Museum of American Jewish History has opened in Philadelphia, and Judith Klinghoffer offers a devastating review at PoliticalMavens.com. The museum's theme is freedom, including, museum curator Michael Rosenzweig is quick to emphasize, the "freedom not to be Jewish." The museum's designers chose to exercise the latter. The architects were instructed to make sure that "there is nothing religious in the Museum," and they fulfilled their assignment: The resulting shiny, glass box building is devoid of any Jewish symbolism.
Some of the Museum's omissions suggest, in Klinghoffer's view, that while Jews are unquestionably free in America, they do not necessarily feel themselves to be free. Do they feel free enough, for instance, to assert their deep commitment to their age-old religion? In that vein, she notes, that Chassidic or Orthodox Jews (with the minor exception of Chabad) who look too Jewish are ignored, "despite their growing number and influence."
Do American Jews even feel free enough to take pride in their outsized contribution to America? Or are they afraid that the gentiles might accuse them of feeling superior? No mention is made of any of the Jewish scientists at the center of the Manhattan Project to create the first atom bomb, though there is a prominent exhibit devoted to convicted nuclear spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Similarly omitted is any mention of Jewish Nobel prize winners in science, medicine or economics. The only area to which the Jewish contribution is fully highlighted is pop culture.
Assuming Klinghoffer's assessment is on target, unless parents are looking for a celebration of assimilation in America, they would be well-advised to steer clear of the National Museum of Jewish History when looking for a Chol HaMoed outing with the kids.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, American Jewry & Continuity, Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Intellectuals
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