Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Relevance of Secular Studies

"A secular education is a most beneficial help to our young in understanding the times in which they live and the conditions under which they will have to practice their life's vocation; hence it is most desirable also from the Jewish religious viewpoint and consequently deserving of warm support. But at the same time, and even more important, a good secular education can give our young people substantial new insights, added dimensions that will enrich their religious training. For this reason, too, secular education deserves the support of the religious educator.

There is no need to cite specific evidence that most of the secular studies taught at higher educational institutions, including our own, are essential to the future vocational careers of the students. There seem to be no differences of opinion in this respect. However, any supporter of education and culture should deplore the fact that when these secular studies are evaluated in terms of their usefulness to the young, too much stress is often placed on so-called practical utility and necessity. Under such circumstances, the young are in danger of losing the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake, so that they will no longer take pleasure in the moral and spiritual benefits to be obtained from study.

There is only one point we believe we must mention in support of the utilitarian view of secular education: the training of the young in skills that will earn them a respectable livelihood as adults is a sacred duty also from the Jewish religious point of view. According to Jewish tradition, a father who fails to give his child such training himself, or fails to provide for such training, is to be considered as one who teaches his child to become a dishonest adult. Thus, the general education of our youth should be conducted with religious punctiliousness even from the viewpoint of his future vocation.

But it seems to us that no thinking Jew, aware of his mission as a Jew, should deny that, quite aside from considerations of vocational and professional education, it is also essential that young Jews, particularly those of our own times, should learn about the factors that influence the life of modern nations; in other words, that they should be introduced to those branches of study that will enable them to acquire this knowledge. This would hold true even if we were not so fortunate as to be living at the dawn of an era, at the beginning of a new humaneness, signified, first of all, by a purer sense of justice, inviting also the sons of the Jewish people to join actively in all the humane, social and political endeavors of the nations. Even if our present-day contacts with -general culture were merely passive, as they were in the days of our parents, it would be of vital religious importance for us to see that our young people should be guided toward that high level of insight which would enable them to evaluate, from the vantage point of truth and justice, all the personal, social, political and religious conditions under which they would have to discharge their duties as Jews and as citizens. But now that our young people will be given an opportunity to participate in the public affairs of the land in which we live, how much more important is it that they should receive the education they will need in order that they may enthusiastically embrace all that is good and noble in the European culture of our day, within whose context they will have to perform also their own mission as Jews. Only knowledge, the ability to realize when we have erred in judging our fellow men, can guard us from prejudice. Lack of knowledge always breeds illusion and prejudice."

The Relevance of Secular Studies, R' Hirsch, Collected Writings, Vol. II, pp. 88-89

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