In the distant past, in Europe, Jews were prevented from attending college for the most part. There were of course exceptions but relatively few ones. Anti-semitism was rampant. Thus, for the vast majority of Jews, their opportunities were limited to "blue collar" jobs. Jews were relegated to "menial" labor regardless of aptitude or intelligence. The "lucky" ones started small businesses of their own--a grocery or bakery or butcher shop. Yes, and the very few also managed to start bigger businesses, more successful ones. Fast forward to the United States.
Yes, at some points in time there was a quota system in affect; the "better" colleges would only except a limited number, if any, of "minority" students, Jews included. But where there is a will there is a way. Jews found themselves at colleges not counted among the "ivies" who, while not eager to accept them, allowed some of them to register if they could pay the tuition. And then there was the advent of the City University, a totally free university for the diverse immigrant-based population of New York.
Jewish immigrant parents recognized that, if their children were to "make something" of themselves in the US, education would be the key. They scrimped and saved and encouraged and nudged and sent their children, at first only their male children and after a while also their female children, to college. Finally the Jews had found a place of opportunity. No, not all the kids went to college, but then not all the children in the greater community went either. Those with an aptitude for business went into business. Many went into teaching on all levels. Those with an aptitude for the "building trades" went into the trades--those professions requiring training and apprenticeship, such as being an electrician or a plumber or a contractor. And those with no specific "calling" found jobs in the service industries that abound in New York.
And yes, the Jews, liberated after many centuries to be whatever they could be, flourished. It is not by accident that so many of the prize winners in the sciences were Jewish, nor that so many key people in social advances were Jewish. The Jews were making up for lost time. Given freedom and opportunity, they grabbed both. For those who found this hard to take--the Jews seemed to be everywhere--they needed to look at parents with deeply buried ambitions for their children, ambitions that had been thwarted for centuries. It is not that we were "taking over"--we were just taking our rightful places in society, at last.
Fast forward to today. Once again there is a divide as regards college education for Jewish children, but this time the divide is one that Klal Yisroel has created. Yes, there are still parts of Klal that value college and that push and nudge their children to go. Not just college but the various types of graduate schools as well. These parts of Klal consider a college education as a necessity for someone living in the US in this time period. Without college it is hard to "get ahead" in the world. The children of these parts of Klal generally have a positive attitude about college, or at the very least recognize it as their "road to success."
Then there are the other parts of Klal Yisroel. It is hardly a secret that most of the yeshivot of "higher learning" are not in favor of college for their talmidim. For a time, during the 50s, 60s and into the 70s, they had an uneasy truce in place with parents of talmidim in the yeshivot. The boys could go to college a few nights a week, preferably to the City University, which had night classes. They fell in line because their "money men" saw college as a necessity. Thus the boys would sit and learn and would also have a means to make parnoseh. A few of the yeshivot did not fall in line with this policy but most did. And yes, many of the girls also began attending college, again mostly City University, where they were channeled into teaching or the emerging fields of the various therapies.
Fast forward. A strange thing happened when those boys who both learned and went to college began to be successful in the business world. These boys began to donate money in record amounts to the yeshivot they had come from. They built the huge mosdot that dot Ocean Parkway and other parts of Brooklyn. They built the big out of town yeshivot. And the bigger the yeshivot got, the more students they were educating, the less they came to value a college education.
Yes, there was something of a "social revolution" that began in the 60s and is still seen today. Yes, college campuses became hotbeds of "liberalism," whatever that may really be. Yes, the "sexual" revolution and the "feminist" revolution took hold. And yes, the yeshivot may well have been trying to "protect" their talmidim. But in doing so they "protected" them right back into the dark ages when Jews did not have the education to compete for the jobs that provided good parnoseh, only this time it was not anti-semitism that was keeping the Jews out of college.
Shidduchim also play a small roll in this scenario. If a boy was attending college and was not quite finished when he entered into the shidduch parsha there were a few parents who would "hold out" the family until he finished college. But then there came the point where the answer to "what does the boy do" was "Nothing, but he's bright and he will go into business when he finishes learning." And many a parent of a girl was perturbed by this answer, because many of these parents knew that "going into business" was not going to be all that easy for boys with no education and no specialized training. And I am convinced that it is then that was born the idea that "the girls parents will support the kids." Also born then was the idea of the wife in the family becoming the support of that family. And with that also came the idea that girls needed a college education if they were going to support families, something that didn't sit easily with many families.
Fast forward again, to about 10-15 years ago. A major New Jersey yeshiva approached the president of the company my husband works for, a well-known baal tzedaka, and held a "crisis" meeting. There were two issues involved: "boys" who were more than grown men, who were still sitting and learning and who had no way to make a living and "younger" men who had no skills and training to make a living. What could be done? Some training courses were put into place but they were clearly a small bandaid trying to cover a large wound. Today this same yeshiva has set a "cap"--up until 30 years of age and then you are out of yeshiva. Of course, the problem of what to do for a living is still there.
Slowly, very slowly, the yeshivot saw that they were "killing" the hands that fed them and destroying the ability of a large part of Klal to support itself. Slowly, very slowly some of the yeshivot began allowing their talmidim to go to college on a limited basis. When a college under Jewish auspices began a division in Flatbush the uproar was incredible. Roshei HaYeshiva screamed loudly that how dare this "mokom" of "treifkeit" move into the "holy" area of Brooklyn. An uneasy truce was brokered between the college and the yeshivot whose talmidim were the "target" students for the college. A number of "chumros" were put into place to protect the students from the "terrible" things that could be learned in college. Literary works were to be strictly censored to meet the criteria of the yeshivot. Classes would be strictly segregated by sex on different days of the week so that men and women would have no contact. The library of the school was also to be segregated by sex so that men and women could not be there at the same time. Credit was to be given for the learning the boys did during the day and in their years in Israel, and for the girls' time in seminary; after all, Tanach was also "literature" and also contained "philosophy" and "history."
Although this college has flourished and expanded the truce is still an uneasy one. Students, as students often will regardless of where they go to school, used the "it's treif" card when they wanted to get out of learning something. Fortunately the school has persevered in maintaining the standards necessary for its accreditation, and most of the students are getting a college education despite themselves.
And yes, some students are attending the City University and other colleges around New York City. And out of New York students from some of the "major" yeshivot are also in college.
The problem, however, is that when something is denigrated to the extent that going to college is, the students who eventually find themselves "having" to go to college do not get anything near what they should be out of the experience. They "resent" having to be there and they "resent" the thing that is keeping them from their learning and they "resent" the thing that keeps them from having any free time at all. Of course, they also "resent" low wage jobs and they "resent" not walking straight into a management level job when they do decide to go to work. They channel their resentment against the idea of college, when that resentment ought to be going elsewhere. They attempt every "shortcut" they can, and then cannot understand why they are not "competitive" when they get into the outside world.
When they think about it at all, they point to the fact that their fathers went to college and did better then they are able to do now. They don't, however, point to the very different attitude that was prevalent when their dads were in college, and yes, the different college education that their fathers received.
It was one thing when social forces present in society kept Jews from receiving a higher education that would have allowed them to "use their brains" in any way they wanted. It is quite another when it is Klal Yisroel, parts of Klal Yisroel, that are preventing their students from gaining the tools they need to function in the highly technological society that is the US today.
No, not everyone belongs in college; this was always the case. And yes, technology and training institutes are needed to give the specialized skills necessary in today's world. What is also needed is a serious attitude adjustment on the part of various segments of Klal. "He'll go into business" is a flawed answer.
Enough for one posting--still to come, "women, college, work and Klal."