Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Homophobia, political correctness and intellectual dishonesty: Answering The Ethicist

The New York Times Magazine's Ethicist published a column about a homophobic slur against a professor by a student in an anonymous course evaluation. I sent the following email in reply:

Having been to college and completed anonymous evaluations of professors, as well as having been evaluated anonymously as a lab instructor, I found your column of January 20 interesting. Columbia University during the 1970s did not have a “speech code,” and I would be very surprised if that has changed since. One of our core values is free and unfettered speech, as we saw when Iranian president Ahmadinejad was invited to campus. The situation you describe, therefore, would not have arisen at Columbia. Because your writer’s college in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the former component of the late unlamented Soviet Union) did not follow your advice, it made the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. The trust between students, professors and administrators, so vital to the academic enterprise, has been shattered. The “guilty” student was required to write a politically correct essay on how his actions can affect the gay community, and to write an insincere, and therefore worthless, letter of apology to the professor. Since the evaluation was not for consumption outside the university, the effect on the outside gay community is minimal if any. The student may very well feel that he did nothing wrong for which an apology is warranted. Since you do not tell us exactly what was written we cannot evaluate the egregiousness of the slur. At any rate, any essay and letter satisfactory to the administrators would be dishonest, and intellectual dishonesty is an academic sin far greater than any putative harm from an anonymous (and therefore cowardly) homophobic slur. The student must then compound the dishonesty by enrolling in a program meant to teach tolerance for what he may consider an abomination not to be tolerated. Perhaps the students should boycott the evaluation process unless and until the punishment is rescinded. Another possible countermove would be to assemble in front of the administration building decked out in T-shirts reading simply, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination,” which the administration would probably consider a homophobic slur and not a Divine command, and dare the administration to discipline them all for quoting the Bible!
You advise that in the future the guarantee of anonymity be explicitly limited to comments about the professors’ work and not extending to sexist or racist cracks. However, the line between the two is blurry. Consider the following evaluation of a lab instructor expected to set up the lab before class: Prof. X, being a woman, is too weak to lift the equipment and, being a feminist, is too embarrassed to ask a male student for help, making for awkward situations when that equipment is needed. Or, alternatively: Prof. X lifts the 25-kilogram apparatus as if it weighed nothing. Bull dyke! (The poor lady can’t win! :)) Male chauvinist pigs may not be kosher, but should they be punished for honestly expressing their opinions? We live in a country where the president of Harvard University, no less, was forced out for daring to suggest that there are biological differences between men and women that might affect their aptitude for math and science. I went to school at the height of the Cold War. We were taught that America was the land of the free, and that under Communism there was a party line and woe betide anybody who did not adhere to it. Forty years later, the Cold War is won but American academia has a party line with woeful consequences for anybody who declines to follow it. What is this country coming to?

Zev Stern, Ph.D.
Brooklyn, NY

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Time for Courage 2

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings – Wm. Shakespeare

How many yeshiva high school students would recognize this quote or be able to place it in its historical context? Not many, especially among the boys. This was the topic of a recent lecture delivered in Brooklyn by Prof. Yitzchok Levine, a math professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Secular studies are denigrated by rebbeim in yeshivot, and this attitude trickles down to the students when it is not taught to them outright. Nor is this a new phenomenon. Some 25 years ago I was tutoring in remedial math workshops at Brooklyn College, where I did my graduate work. The college still had an open admissions policy and many students needed to be brought up to specs. I expected that public school graduates would be unable to do basic math, but I also encountered yeshiva high school graduates who could not add, subtract, multiply or divide. We’re talking fourth grade arithmetic here. In my naiveté, I became angry at the students, when my anger would have been better directed at their rebbeim and yeshiva administrators. When I asked students how it was possible for them to be so lacking in basic skills, one replied that, since a high school diploma was needed to earn a living and the yeshiva could not deny its students the possibility of earning a living, it doled out diplomas regardless of achievement or lack of it. Note that 25 years ago yeshivot still expected their male graduates to eventually earn a living; nowadays that is not necessarily the case. Somehow it escaped the notice of the rashei (resha'ei?) yeshivot that a worthless piece of paper masquerading as a high school diploma would not enable graduates to compete in the job market, and would cause hillul Hashem into the bargain.
According to Prof. Levine, the problem has gotten worse, much worse. Yeshivot no longer even concede the necessity of their male graduates earning a living and supporting their families; they will marry rich girls who will support them while they sit and learn “Torah.” And I suppose that those girls will have their babies in the office and care for them there. The attitude to secular learning has “progressed” from indifference to outright hostility. Rebbeim are telling students to skip secular classes when they can get away with it. If that is “Torah,” then we should go to the mountain and give it back. But of course it is not Torah; it is merely the gospel according to our naked emperors, aka gedolim, and their fawning lapdogs in the rabbinic establishment and yeshiva administrations. Prof. Levine professes that he does not know what the solution is. Of course he does not know – he is part of the problem! In the Q and A following his presentation, the first question asked (itself a sad commentary on the state of knowledge among adults in the community) was “How would you handle evolution?” Prof. Levine replied that he would teach it, since it is required on standardized tests and students need to be prepared for college, but then he would tell the students that it is against the Torah. This is coming from a college professor! He needs to take his own medicine, and also to read Rabbi Slifkin’s Challenge of Creation.
As Prof. Levine stated, many haredi parents admit in private that there is a problem but say nothing in public for fear of repercussions, such as shiddukhim being ruined or children being kicked out of yeshivot. There, dear Brutus, is the problem, and there lies the solution. It’s called C-O-U-R-A-G-E. Parents have to bite the bullet and publicly demand quality education for their children. And if their children are expelled, what of it? A yeshiva that expels a boy because his parents demand that the hanhala provide what the parents are paying a fortune for in tuition is a yeshiva that parents should not want their children to be in. A ruined shiddukh? So what? A prospective spouse who would call off the marriage (or allow his/her parents to call it off – what a wimp!) because the in-laws are zealous for a sibling’s education is someone that one should not want one’s child to marry! If the parents do not get satisfaction from the yeshiva administration, then they must organize as a community and establish yeshivot whose administrators are living in today’s world and not in a world that has long since ceased to exist. My alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, could serve as a model. Its administration is independent of outside “authorities” and accountable instead to its parents and alumni. Hebrew (studied in Hebrew!) and secular studies are interspersed throughout the day. Students do not begin their secular studies stressed out from a full day of Hebrew and without the energy they need to excel, nor are they encouraged to regard either as more important than the other. God wrote both books, Torah and secular knowledge, and both need to be mastered. Secular teachers, for the most part, teach full time in the yeshiva. Yeshiva students deserve better than stressed out moonlighting public school teachers – and public school students deserve better than teachers who bolt as soon as the final bell rings in order to get to a second job.
Parents, when putting down roots in a neighborhood, should ascertain not only the quality of the yeshivot but that of the public schools. Good public schools anchor and stabilize a neighborhood, and keep yeshivot honest. Administrators who neglect the school’s secular curriculum should have to fear that parents will remove their children, and their money, and place the children in the local public school. Not that parents should actually do that except as a last resort, but when fighting a cold war perceptions often count for more than realities. We never contemplated actually firing off all those missiles at the Russians, since that would have meant the end of the world as we know it, but it was necessary to have the Russians believe that we just might.
Many yeshiva parents know that their children are being shortchanged. Sooner or later (sooner, judging from the off-the-derekh phenomenon) the brighter children will recognize that they were lied to by their yeshiva teachers and cheated out of the quality education that is their birthright. They might then throw out the baby with the bath water, not only repudiating the naked emperors that failed them every step of the way, but abandoning Torah observance entirely – going to the mountain and giving it back. Courageous action by us, parents and interested adults in the community, can avert such a tragic outcome and restore sanity to Orthodox Jewish life.

(Hat tip: Brooklyn Wolf)

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