Scaling the Ivory Tower

January 6, 2010
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Gordon Bernat-Kunin

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine devised a family Passover seder in the hope of provoking domestic drama. The basic idea went like this: The Haggadah tells two stories, one about leaving Egypt (“We were slaves…”) and a second about idolatry (“In the beginning, our ancestors worshipped idols…”) While most sedarim revolve around the first, this one focused on the second.

After studying the midrash of Abraham smashing the idols, the first question was, like Nimrod’s fiery furnace, incendiary: (Adult) children were asked to review their upbringings and identify what they saw as their parents’ idols. After the conversation heated up a bit, the parents were then asked to signify what they saw as their own parents’ idols. Finally, in the spirit of covenantal solidarity, the whole family was challenged to consider how overcoming idolatry, like leaving Egypt, is a perennial challenge that requires delicate partnerships between generations to shatter enduring idols.

In this family’s seder, one resounding idol emerged among the children: Yale University. To be fair, no one actually believed that the school itself constituted idolatry. What I imagine they meant was that the institution had taken on a salvific stature of redemptive proportions. Light and gladness, joy and honor all depended upon acceptance into Yale’s sacred precincts. All but one member of the family had attended, and when that remaining family member decided to attend another very prestigious Ivy League school, this was seen by the patriarch as bordering on sacrilege.

Reflecting upon this seder led me to ask why I was once so driven to attend a highly prestigious university. In junior high, I recalled a class trip to the East Coast, where I was smitten by the ambiance of Harvard Yard. It was around that time that my favorite ninth-grade public school teacher impressed upon my parents that my best chance for admission to a top-notch university was to attend a celebrated local college preparatory school.

In retrospect, Harvard was not the right choice for me, from a social or academic perspective. I struggled to find and build community and would have done better in a more undergraduate-oriented institution. Lacking focus, I squandered many riches, including an outstanding Hillel, in which I had no interest until senior year. In my sophomore year, I managed to escape to live and write in Berkeley. But, alas, those Cambridge sirens beckoned and I lacked the fortitude to remain in Berkeley. When I really think about it, I was far more enamored with the idea of going to Harvard than with making the most of what it had to offer. For many first-generation parents like my father, higher education was a way up and out, the key to the kingdom, a ticket to social opportunity and economic mobility.

Now, having worked in a Jewish community high school for many years, I have often pondered the lure of the university. Why do American Jewish day-school students feel such awesome and irksome pressure to achieve acceptance into our nation’s most prestigious schools? When does the quest for admission begin to resemble idolatry, bestowing magical power and control where they do not belong? When does what should be relative become absolute? When does the admission obsession undermine rather than serve sacred ends?

Universities are wondrous places that can provide not only extraordinary opportunities but rich culture and values. The potential idolatry comes from two directions — failing to chart one’s course by what is within and by what is beyond. The former occurs when we alienate or fail to respect the dignity of what makes us unique, bowing to what is culturally venerated. The latter occurs when our vision is too narrow and we fail to navigate according to greater sources of meaning and purpose. In both cases, the focus shifts from “what gifts do I need to cultivate?” or “what higher purposes might a university education serve?” to “what do I need to do to get in?”

I continue to wrestle with these questions — in part to help my own children and professionally to help my students. So far, this is what I have gleaned: Learning, like power, has the awesome potential to foster human dignity, expand our capacity to exercise responsibility, and enable us to pursue sacred ends. If idolatry makes the relative absolute, confusing the part for the whole, then overcoming idolatry reconnects the power of learning with spiritual purpose and moral responsibility.

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Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, PhD, is currently serving in his eighteenth year as rabbinic director and director of the advanced Jewish studies center at the Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. Last year, he was one of seventeen scholars named to the inaugural Hartman North American Scholars Circle at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he continues to develop educational leadership programs for North America.

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