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Crazy Liberals, Yeshiva University, and Me

The plate of food teetered in my mother’s hands, hanging over my head. Her question saturated the air with anticipation, but I remained silent, hoping that I would not be forced to go to bed hungry, or end up with food spilled over my hair and clothing.

“So, who are you going to vote for in 2012, Jina?”

Fox News blared in the background. My Communist-escapee parents were waiting to confirm that their daughter was still sane, still Republican. There was only one right answer. It was futile to bother with the logic of stating that we do not yet know who the Republican candidate will be, or the number of variables that go into a decision like voting for President - as long as I was not considering putting an “x” next to his name, I would be safe. The name “Barack Obama” carries the same danger as “Voldemort” in my household. My mother, alongside the rest of the Order of the Tea Party, search for all of his horcruxes – masquerading in universal healthcare, raising income taxes, and refusing to drill for oil – ready to put an end to his liberal antics once and for all.

“It depends,” I whisper.

Apparently, my indecision would save me tonight. Before putting down my plate, my mother responded, disapproval blending in with her Russian accent: “I can’t believe you became such a crazy liberal in college. You go to Yeshiva!”

This aforementioned scenario is fairly accurate, as are the tales of my parents calling me a “crazy liberal” for suggesting that we recycle, due to my belief in global warming, or when I expressed my desire to go to India to teach English to underprivileged children. Well, strap me up in a straightjacket and call me insane.

My parents were not the only ones to notice the phenomenon of adolescents seemingly becoming more liberal in college; it is the focus of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 2010 study, “The Shaping of the American Mind.” The ISI’s study has three “major findings,” one of which is that “[w]hile college fails to adequately transmit civic knowledge, it influences opinion on polarizing social issues.” Based on civic questions posed to college and graduate students, the study determined that while their sampling had very limited knowledge of civic facts, the college students’ views on a number of social issues were extremely liberal. For example, only a fragment of college students who participated in the study could rattle off the three branches of the American government. However, the ISI discovered that given the same knowledge of civic issues, a student who graduates from college is more likely to favor gay marriage and abortion, disapprove of teacher-led prayer in public schools, and disbelieve that the Bible is the word of god. The ISI’s conclusion was that college could be seen as more harmful than positive.

Certainly, a knowledge of American history, constitutional amendments, and the judicial system is important, but in an age when every court case is available online with the click of a mouse, and my pocket constitution is on my iPhone, are we truly going to judge the caliber of a college student by their ability to recall facts, their desire for a separation between church and state - which I am fairly certain, if AP United States History serves me right, is in the Constitution - and the notion that every citizen, regardless of sexual orientation, should be given the same rights?

Naturally, Fox News jumped on this study like a leopard on a gazelle, asking: “So what is the answer here, how do we fix this?” In an interview with Tucker Carlson, a Fox News contributor, the reporter suggested that perhaps it would be better not to attend college than to run the risk of being infected with liberal propaganda. Surely, I acquiesced, better to be uneducated and Conservative than well-rounded and Liberal.

Although I was not a participant in the ISI’s study, I could not help but reflect on my own college experience, and attempt to determine whether this study translated. At Yeshiva University, an institution that values the principles of an Orthodox lifestyle, many of which match up with the values of the Republican Party, are students susceptible to the same liberal trap? While I do believe in a number of elements on the so-called Liberal agenda - such as equal rights, the separation of church and state, and opportunity for all deserving individuals, regardless of socioeconomic class. I wonder whether this is a result of my career at YU, or if it simply because as I got older, I started thinking outside of the conservative box my parents had provided for me. Though it may be surprising that many of Yeshiva University’s student leaders identify with a liberal standpoint, it is essential that when one discusses their political and civic views, they are able to distance that opinion from their religious beliefs. For example, although I believe that all women should have the right to get abortions, I recognize that in my own life, there is a halakhic [Jewish legal] concern that goes into this consideration.

But the study did not stop at probing into the minds of the brainwashed students. The researchers approached the professors to find – you guessed it – they are, to quote my mother, “crazy liberals” too! When surveying college professors, the ISI discovered that one who has taught in college is more likely to agree that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant today, that educators should instill more doubt in students and reject certainty, and a number of other conclusions about the state of our academics. Addressing the two aforementioned viewpoints, I would like to question whether it is any American’s responsibility to believe in the importance of the Ten Commandments, when we have a full legal code of our own. Furthermore, instilling “doubt” as opposed to “certainty” means to me that students are granted the ability to examine more than one viewpoint rather than simply accepting whatever their professor, parent, or mentor has told them. I can’t imagine that hard-earned American dollars would want to be thrown at an institution that does not believe in multiple truths, exploration of various ideas, and free thinking. Perhaps, I pondered as I read, memorizing documents like the Constitution (and the Ten Commandments) would force one to stick to a conservative view of its words, and would leave no time for looking outside, assessing the climate of civic needs today, and amending this document to better fit the needs of the American people.

When I consider my tenure at Yeshiva University, the first two words that come to mind are, of course, Torah u-Maddah. Interestingly, the Republican Party seems to have gravitated toward the Torah part, with their concern for prayer in public schools and instance on believing in the importance of the Ten Commandments; however, their affinity for the sciences seems to have decreased significantly. In a recent New York Times article, Op-Ed columnist, Paul Krugman, pointed out that Texas Governor and potential presidential candidate, Rick Perry, has made remarks that deny the validity of evolution and human-influenced climate change. Krugman urges readers not to fill the Oval Office with someone whose party is “aggressively anti-science – indeed, anti-knowledge.” This does sound like a party that would deny the virtues of college, but certainly does not sound like a party that upholds American values, one of which is education. While Krugman’s sentiment takes a sharp left off of the Independent street I am driving on, his article brought to light one of the gaps that I found in the ISI’s study, and additionally, in my parents’ remarks that I have become a crazy liberal.

And that’s how I found myself at the intersection of open-mindedness and thinking. I have been told that the balancing act inherent in being an open-minded person is the ability to be open-minded enough that you are able to absorb new ideas, but not so open-minded that all of your own ideas “ fall out.”

It seems that beneath all of the political debates, and questions as to whether college actually accomplishes anything positive for students short of driving them to gay parades and atheist conventions, everything comes down to 2008 Obama’s favorite word: Change. Those who are proponents of looking into the Constitution and not deviating left or right - even when left seems like right and right seems like left - tend to fear Change like New Yorkers feared Hurricane Irene before she turned out to be a drama queen. Liberals, on the other hand, have mastered the art of being open-minded to Change, but often change so much of the original blueprints of America that it begins to look like something else altogether. What, then, is the glue that enables one to be sensitive to new ideas, open-minded, and yet, still have a mind of one’s own? Independent thinking. Despite common misconception, thinking is not something one is able to do simply because he or she has a mind; rather, thinking is a skill. It is the ability to discern important from insignificant information, to analyze carefully, and to connect the different pieces of knowledge one has attained, in order to arrive at a unique and genuine conclusion. And that, Intercollegiate Study Institute, is what I have been able to sharpen during my time at university. Not by means of memorizing the Constitution, or refusing to look at new and different ideas, but by being exposed to philosophy, art, science, history and literature. My mind has grown and expanded.

Here are three things that I know to be true: one, higher education is an incredible gift for all those who are able to take advantage of it. Two, I believe in equal rights for all people, the separation of church and state, and extending a hand to the global community. And three, the five rights afforded to every American in the first amendment are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition. I also know that I could have looked up that last one on Wikipedia, but I only learned the first two because I go to college.