Friday, March 26, 2010

An Opinion Piece on Attending Secular Colleges

To be published in the forthcoming issue of MTA's student newspaper The Academy News:

And when you examine the matter you will see that only connecting to G-d constitutes true perfection. And that is what King David says: “And I, for me 'good' consists of closeness to the Lord.” And he [also] says: “One request I have asked of G-d, that [thing] I seek, that I sit in the house of G-d all the days of my life...” For this alone constitutes “good,” and any other thing that people think constitutes “good” is but vapid and naught, [leading them] astray. However, in order for man to attain this “good,” it behooves him first to toil and attempt with his efforts to acquire it. And this is by striving to connect to Him, may He be blessed, through deeds that bring about this matter, and these [deeds] are mitzvos.

(Mesillas Yesharim, Chapter 1)

One request I have asked of G-d” – I do not ask for many things when new needs arise, for [were that the case], a person would have to ask for different things at different times – viz., health, sustenance, salvation from enemies, etc. Rather, I have only asked for one request in the past, and that same request I will ask in the future, for this request encompasses all requests. And that is: “That I sit in the house of G-d all the days of my life...”

(Malbim, Tehillim 27:4)

The question of which college or university one should attend is an important issue, and arguments can be made pro and con secular institutions. However, to paraphrase the Malbim, there is an overriding issue that encompasses all other issues: How will my secular education and my career choice mesh with with the core and critical value of Shivti b'Beis Hashem kol yemei chayai? What quantity and what quality of learning suffice to fulfill my purpose in life? What kind of environment do I need to ensure that my Yiras Shomayim and Avodas Hashem are in sync with my all-encompassing quest of Shivti b'Beis Hashem? And, even more importantly, is my main ambition, that which I seek in life, a holistic synthesis that makes as many of my pursuits as possible reflect that core value and all encompassing quest? Granted, we are human, and far from perfect, but we have to optimize...

In short, the choice of college or university must be informed by several intertwined values (not in any specific order):

  1. Optimizing Talmud Torah.

  2. Safeguarding Yiras Shomayim.

  3. Defining a personal fulfillment of Shivti b'Beis Hashem.

  4. Syncing education and career with ultimate purpose in life.

  5. Avodas Hashem and Kiddush Hashem.

A final point: In Hamlet, Polonius exhorts his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true...” Easy to say, but hard to practice. As the Ba'alei Mussar teach us, we far too often are rendered incapable of objectivity by our vested interests (“negi'os”). It is therefore obviously advisable to consult in such matters with a Rebbe or other mentor who knows you, and who you know to possess the ultimately proper values. Such consultation will likely make it easier to perceive the Ratzon Hashem. May He guide us in the right pathways throughout our lives.

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