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There is Honor in the Margins: A Reflection

The writing on my Yeshiva University I.D. has faded. The back is scratched, the edges smooth with wear. A lot has happened to this card. Many caf store meals bought, many library fines charged. A “Spring 2014” sticker from the registrar sits high above others: one for each semester, plus the summer, plus the library’s validation card. I have reserved a seat on many downtown shuttles—for literary events, obviously—using the number on the back and the picture on the front.

The smile in that picture? That is not a smile. It is one of those anxious half smiles that doesn’t reveal my cute dimples. I was terrified. I knew precisely one person in Yeshiva University and he was two years ahead of me and kind of weird. When I was a freshman sitting in front of that camera I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I had no idea how the subway system worked, how the college worked. I couldn’t tell my Zysmans from my Belfers.

I immediately gravitated to my professors. I was lucky: in my first semester, three of my courses had five students, the other three had a sum of twelve. My professors guided me to my first museum visits, steered me to delightful books. They pushed me to write and edit. They taught me to resist obvious meanings, to reject common joys (sleeping, eating, having a basic social life), and to dissect intellectual experiences into their most elemental forms.

 My professor from my writing seminar, Dr. Joanne Jacobson, opened her office to students and within fifteen minutes of talking with her, I remember feeling captivated with the English Major (check), interested in writing for The Commentator (check), and taken with the possibility of joining Teach for America after graduation (soon-to-be check).

I’m not alone. A well timed Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates, now making its rounds on the internet and no doubt to commencement speeches near you, found that the type of institution students attended mattered less than what they experienced there. The what and who of college—not the where—has a “profound relationship to a graduate’s life and career.” Forget the Ivies. Focus on the student-faculty ratio. Those one-on-one meetings, mentorships, and extracurriculars, the study concluded, cannot only make or break a college career, but may shape our future well-being.

The poll found that graduates who recalled having a professor who cared for them as a person—not just as a student, who sowed within them a passion for learning, and who galvanized them to pursue their own passions, doubled their post-college productivity.

The poll, titled “Life in College Matters for Life After College,” asked students about the most important aspects of college. 63 percent of those surveyed agreed that they had one professor who made them excited about learning. 27 percent agreed that professors at their college cared about them as a person. 22 percent strongly agreed that a mentor encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams while only 29 percent said that what they learned in the classroom impacted their internships or jobs. 32 percent of college graduates said that completing a multi-semester project strongly impacted their college careers while 20 percent said they were extremely active in extracurriculars and organizations. Sadly, only three percent of those surveyed agree with all six statements.

This survey of 30,000 students should be surprising. The vast majority of American students ghost through college without a memorable mentor, without joining a club, or completing a thesis. But there is no doubt in my mind that those numbers would increase dramatically in a poll of soon-to-be YU grads. With our 1:6 faculty to student ratio, the vast majority of YU students form strong connections with professors and rabbis. Nearly ten percent of students participate in NCAA sports. A growing number work in labs or write theses. In a totally unscientific poll, I’ve found that nearly every student I ask at YU can point to a professor or rabbi or advisor or coach who had taken them under his or her wing.

YU is one of a shrinking class of universities that resemble the initiate liberal arts universities of the 1960s, institutions that U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr called communities of “student-centered” education.

Oddly though, in a poll of college life, Gallup completely missed a crucial aspect of college life. While Gallop mentioned the importance of extracurriculars and organization, professor and mentors, it failed to ask any questions about the horizontal relationships in college—our peer-to-peer, friend-to-friend, captain-to-player, editor-to-writer, chavruta-to-chavruta, girlfriend-to-boyfriend, roommate-to-roommate relationships.

It failed to grapple with the aspect of education that John Dewey called “the mode of social life,” the ideal of communal learning which insists that learning is not simply a vertical transfer of information between teacher and student, but also a “lateral” learning experience, as Andrew Delbanco writes in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Isn’t that “life in college?”

I remember the bad roommates who taught me patience, the failed romances that taught me resilience. My editor who pushed me farther, the peer with whom I clashed in debate. My chavruta who constantly sent me “seriously, where are you?” texts.

But I am worried.

I’ve written before about my worry that, in the face of far reaching budget cuts, adjuncts will replace long-term professors, professors which the Gallup poll deemed crucial to college life. I’m still worried about the cuts already in the pipeline that will harm vertical learning.

But as I leave YU, I am also concerned about a growing trend among students to stunt horizontal, lateral learning. In a recent conversation with a long-time professor at YU, I learned that, for the first time in decades, this professor had to create an anonymous online space on which students could interact—the classroom simply became too hostile for civil conversation. The professor noticed that students were afraid to speak their minds, wary of signaling an internal schism, while others detested some of their classmates’ values and comported themselves with aloof disdain.

Increasingly, I see a complete bifurcation of the college along ideological lines, one half denying that the other exists. Both sides promulgating definitions of “in” and “out.”

I go to large events on campus—student dinners or charity events, shiurim or clubs—and it seems as though I attend two different universities. Half attend a sichat mussar and half attend a Maccabees game and never the twain shall meet.

A growing number of students believe that “Centrist” Orthodoxy ironically means pretending that no one exists on the left. They dismiss their classmates, for some reason or another, as treif or kofrim or, heaven forbid, “liberal.” Liberal students, at the same time, are fond of chastising the right for living in an echo chamber of MYP by day and night seder by, well, night, with no other reality penetrating the bubble.

We all have roughly the same YU I.D. cards. We were all nervous on that first day, anxiously anticipating the next few years here. We’ve all accumulated our fair share of nicks and scratches. And let’s face it; few of us use the shuttle for academic purposes.

We are, ultimately, members of the same academic and spiritual community. Soon enough, we’ll be part of the same alumni community. We all benefit from this “student-centered” education. We have to engage in ideas, not ideologies, dispute arguments, not people. “The exclusion of an opinion is not a refutation of it,” Leon Wieseltier, the great Jewish essayist, recently wrote. “There is honor in the mainstream and there is honor in the margins.”

When we cut off our classmates from the conversation, when we are afraid of expressing ideas lest others label us whatever, we are making our world smaller. We are robbing ourselves of our own education.