Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Why Are the Haredim Holding Up? II

Reuben Seligman responded to Garnel and my comments to his last post:

In my post I said that I don't claim to know all the answers regarding how things changed. However, I can give you some suggestions, by looking at how people make choices (contrary to Ironheart, who believes in brainwashing). I was surprised when you said that as a non-economist you didn't focus on the economic issues, since as a libertarian, you should be focusing on those issues. Remember that people have many goals, economic goals, religious goal, and status goals. Let's first look at the "flipping" phenomenon. Their parents want them to study torah and indeed encourage them to study torah. They then come to the point where they go away to study torah for a year or two. They enjoy that year and they are told by their Rabbeim that they could and should continue that rather than going to college. They realize that they can fit into a community where they will have the status of a "learner" and that they can continue to enjoy a life of study. Yes, they realize that they may be poorer, but as you mentioned, because of the welfare state in both the U.S. and Israel we are currently in a situation where nobody starves. Economists assume that we discount future rewards. That means we value current rewards more than future rewards. It is thus not entirely irrational for a young man to prefer studying torah, rather than going to college, since the status rewards for studying torah are current and the resulting poverty is several years in the future (usually when he has children and his wife cannot work). If this analysis is correct, then parents may be able to pressure their children to choose college by not supporting them (after a certain period) unless they go to college, since that would cause the child to experience current poverty, rather than future poverty.

I will make another suggestion based on an idea that Berman mentions obliquely. Assume that Orthodox Jews want to form a community with other Orthodox Jews. They want to study Torah, participate in shul, and engage in all similar activities. In their community, they obtain status, in part by their activities (knowledge of Torah, piety, etc.), but also by the status of the group in which they are involved. This creates a "free rider" problem in which each person wants to be associated with people who are more committed, not less committed.  The people who are more committed then create barriers so that they don't associate with people who are less committed. These barriers are seen in schools and shidduchim: schools will not admit a child whose parents own a televisions, or are otherwise nonconforming and, by screening prospective marriage partners for their children, parents hope to gain status. A young person can gain status by showing that he is more committed (Berman mentions that as the reason why people continuing to study, rather than work). Thus, while studying and not working are not financially rewarding they provide status rewards for the family, as well as the person studying. (Note that if there are fewer barriers, there will be less of a push towards Haredism. For instance, in communities where there is only one school, the school cannot serve as a barrier. Similarly, if young people can meet on their own, rather than through shadchanim, there will be less of a pressure towards Haredism.)
I hope that you find these analyses interesting. I would have liked to take more time to think about these issues, but I understand the time constraints that apply to blogs. I apologize if my analyses are somewhat half-baked, but that is the best I can do given the time constraints. However, I do want to specifically address the issue you raised regarding the great books and classical culture. I assume that you would consider me well read. However, I do not see any future for that as an ideal. The reason is not multiculturalism, but simply that the world has moved from the view of education as bildung to an instrumental view of education. In the 1970s, YU didn't offer an accounting major because that is not in accordance with its mission of providing a liberal education. It all seems quaint now. Students want a financial reward from their education. Modern Orthodoxy would be better advised to compete by providing a better torah education while allowing people to make a living than by professing an ideal of torah and madda (with madda being some type of bildung). (I have some more ideas regarding YU and Touro college, but I cannot put them in sufficiently coherent form in the short time I have now.)


My response: Let us be clear, Garnel Ironheart does not believe in brainwashing people. He does follow the fairly common belief that people turn to terrorism because they are brainwashed. He would probably benefit from reading Eli Berman.

I see this change in how one views education, from bildung to being instrumental for making money, as coming from modern liberalism. I agree with Allan Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, that once the modern academic world stopped defending the notion of eternal universal truths then the humanities lost all claim to having any value. So now why should students bother to study Plato? Instead, they should go off to Sy Syms business school and try to make as much money as they can. One of the advantages the Haredim have (and this goes for all religious fundamentalists and explains why, contrary to the liberal narrative, they have been gaining in strength) is that they can still make claims about universal truths with a straight face. If you are interested in universal truths you are not going to go to liberal post-modernism and multiculturalism. (Maybe I am an intellectual optimist, but I like to believe that people care about their lives having meaning that they would be willing to accept the fact that death would be the end as long as they could believe that what they did accomplish in this life was actually meaningful in some ultimate sense.) I am probably old-fashioned and too much of an ideological purist, but I believe that Yeshiva University should never have started offering accounting degrees. In fact I would want them to abolish the entire business school. An education means a method of thinking, not just a utilitarian skill. As such real education means the humanities or a math or science. Accounting and physical therapy degrees are a contradiction in terms and are no more an education than a degree in managing garbage. If Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodoxy wishes to continue to be relevant they need to take up the banner of the humanities and of universal truths. Secular liberalism cannot maintain a faith in universal truths so it has lost the ability to defend the humanities. What is needed are people whose religious faith gives them a belief in universal truths and who value the humanities as helping us understand these universal truths. Such people could defeat the relativism of the left while defending liberalism (the classical kind) from the fundamentalism of the right.

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