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From the Commie Archives--Philosophy Requirement

Editor’s Note: The Commentator has decided to reprint several articles—two editorials and one Letter to the Editor—written in three consecutive issues in this newspaper, over 70 years ago. Though those involved are long gone from Yeshiva University, the topic at hand is, amazingly, quite relevant these many years later. These archives call to mind the recent observed trend of YU’s students’ waning interest in the Humanities, and the discussion about this topic. The second article in particular is doubly fascinating, as it very prominently shows how students in YU balanced college difficulties with the ongoing realities of World War II.

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Title: From the Archives (May 4, 1944; Volume 9 Issue 12) — The Requirement of Philosophy

Author: Commentator Governing Board 1943-44

The removal of philosophy from the list of required subjects can lead to little but bewilderment on the part of the students. A liberal arts degree is well-nigh meaningless when one can blithely ignore the best that men have thought and said, to emerge, parchment in hand, and chaos in head.

This is even more true in the Yeshiva College; for, if synthesis is to have any value, it cannot come about through a miraculous, meaningless fusion of two disparate worlds. Philosophy is the catalyst which makes synthesis meaningful and vital.

The action appears even more incongruous when we consider the Dean’s recent statements stressing the increased importance of the social sciences in the College. Philosophy has always been in the social science field of concentration and has always had a large number of “majors”. The past and present enrollments and interest in philosophy point to the need for additional courses, and instead we find it removed from the list of requirements. Certainly Plato and Aristotle are the least “expendable” part of Western civilization, and the educators who allow the student to dispense with this heritage of reason as “non-essential”, might well provoke MacLeish to a second, and more justified, “The Irresponsibles”.

The elective system may serve as a liberating influence. Yet this liberty yields to confusion when the system is administered in indiscriminate doses. There should be some nucleus of required subjects which will afford the basic knowledge expected of any “civilized” man. Just as this nucleus is to include one year of science and two years of English and a language, so should it contain at the very least, one year of philosophy.

Philosophy needs no further defense; its disparagers do.

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Title: From the Archives (May 10, 1944; Volume 9 Issue 13) — Maybe I’m Wrong: Philosophy Is Prerequisite To Intellectual Potency

Author: Isaac H. Friedman

Intellectual activity is a danger to the building of character. The intellectual side of things fills me with disgust. Philosophy? There’s a reactionary concept for you! I put on my helmet, I draw my dagger and declaim heroic verse.—Joseph Goebbels in his autobiographical novel “Michael.”

Whenever mundane “normalcy” is on the upgrade, intelligence and culture must perforce decline. Mediocrity and culture are opposing concepts which are contradictory, therefore the ascendancy of one is the destruction of the other. In time of war we may see this demonstrated quite clearly.

War is evil! This truism is one which deserves thought. All experience the horrors of war, regardless of position, intelligence or extent of education. The ravages of war convey a picture of physical suffering and destruction. That which is known as “mental anguish” stems primarily from this picture of physical suffering and material destruction. Naturally, we expect the same reaction to war from all type of people. A man need not be brilliant to appreciate physical pain.

A War Casualty

Without minimizing the aforementioned, there exists an evil of war far more subtle, but with much more catastrophic consequences than the physical abominations of war. The constant lowering of existing moral norms and the uncompromising annihilation of intellectual forces most certainly is the most damaging aspect of war. The disintegration of the liberal arts education is a reality which we witness. You may bring this to the attention of the man in the street, but he will not understand it and most likely deny it; moreover, almost invariably, it will not be considered by him. The mass man of the present is mediocre (even the most ardent democrat will admit this to be so). Intellectualism is a meaningless concept for him and in a great number of cases he is hostile to the intellectual and without understanding him or his work is desirous of destroying both. It seems that during wartime, all wrongs may be committed against the student.

The Danger of Mediocrity

In such times one must look to the cultured, to the educated for support and guidance. The scholar will fight obscurantism and ignorance, if no one else will, and most certainly the college will be his bastion of defence. No one realizes dangers of mediocrity as the learned, and logically, no one will fight this evil as he will.

The most potent weapon to be used, is undoubtedly, the intellect. And for one to use this weapon he must first study and master the history of thought. The struggles which the great minds of the centuries have had must be understood and carried on; each intelligent human being doing what his compatibilities allow. The study of philosophy is a minimal prerequisite for one to become an intelligent and rational human being. At this crucial moment when liberal education is fighting for its very existence, the faculty and administration of Yeshiva College finds it fitting and proper to drop philosophy as a required course. Think! To study the history of ideas has now become less important than physical education; to seek in the greatest minds of the past and present a praxis for the future, is now to be merely a question of whim or fancy.

False Utility

This college, founded on the premise of synthesis, now finds it possible to achieve this “synthesis” without the aid of philosophy. A more sorry plight need not be asked for. To understand such a move either on a rational basis or in the light of one’s intellect, would challenge the composite minds of Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza. May one speak of the ignorance of the uneducated, when in a place of “learning”, philosophy becomes a mere elective?

Perhaps the only answer to this development, is that “modernism” is finding a home in certain “academic minds”. Those who found it compatible with their conscience to allow philosophy to be defaulted on the altar of false “utility” may indeed write a second “LIBERAL EDUCATION”!

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Title: From the Archives (May 25, 1944; Volume 9 Issue 14) — Letter to the Editor

Author: Joseph Karasick (Editor-in-Chief 1942-43)

To the Editor Of Commentator:

As a former editor of Commentator, I have been asked by many of my fellow alumni to lodge a formal protest, through this medium, with respect to the abolishment of philosophy as a required subject. If this action were part of a general policy to abolish all requirements from the college curriculum, there might have been some justification; but upon seeing that other, and far less important, subjects yet remain on the required list, we frankly do not understand the logic of this move.

Yeshiva College, perhaps more so than any other institution, has blown to bits the age-old prejudice against philosophy. This study is no more “a devil lying in ambush, waiting to pounce upon the weak-willed mind of innocent youth.” The importance of philosophy in all forms of intellectual endeavor, generally, and in an approach towards Judaism, particularly, has been aptly demonstrated to the generations of Yeshiva students. It has been seen in a positive light, as an important complement for the development of the modern mind. Therefore, for us to turn about and relegate this study to a subaltern position, which is tantamount to an apology for every having fostered philosophy within these walls, is but to add quick-burning fuel to the ever-ready fires of our antagonists.

It may be argued that philosophy has by no means been abolished, that it is available for all who seek it. If the student is not trusted to “seek out” history, mathematics, science, English, or public speaking, then there is no reason why he should burden himself with philosophy. And surely, none can deny that for the well-rounded Yeshiva education, in its unique sense, philosophy is just as important, and I daresay more important, than the above-mentioned subjects.

We therefore request the administration to reconsider its decision, and once again incorporate philosophy as a required subject.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph Karasick