Sunday, December 23, 2007

Aesthetics of a Learning Community

The YU Vent is eager to spotlight guest posts from other other YU fans. Here is a guest post from YC Sophomore Matt Williams. Matt is the Chairman of the excellent Academic Senate and runs the Senate's blog - check it out. As well, Matt is a really nice guy. The YU Vent is honored to have Matt contribute. We look forward to more posts from active and caring student leaders.
Please send well written posts to - if they are about YU and well-written, they will be vented.

An often overlooked and vital aspect of any learning community is, in some sense, the most visible. The shelter, the paths, the physical structures of a community signify, or at least, reflect the values that the community places on the space designated for learning. This idea has religious significance as well, especially within the context of Judaism. Not only is a special decorum reserved for the Beit Midrash and the Shul in terms of actions, but also in terms of the aesthetic nature of the space as well.

The aforementioned reflection is inherently more of a mirror, it forces us to view ourselves, evaluate our values, and act accordingly. In that sense not only does the space represent values, but it also creates values. Visitors, trustees, prospective students and prospective faculty, those on the peripheral of the learning in the community, notice these visible structures and signets of value immediately. And their glances carry weighty judgments that influence the university in tangible ways: from choosing to go to another college, or not giving that huge donation.

This important issue of aesthetics usually does take lesser priority at Yeshiva University. In some sense, this is an admirable decision by the administration. The focus of a university should be the learning, and in the spirit of, say, the University of Chicago, excessive and decadent physical features detracts from the value of the education. Still, though, even if YU was as focused on scholarship as the University of Chicago, that attitude ignores the bleed between the learning and aesthetics that distracts from the education itself.

Take smoking on campus as an example: a practice that toes the line between acceptable ubiquity and hazardous. At this point in time, though, smoking has been nationally stigmatized as a dangerous practice that, no matter how common, leads to death, slowly and painfully. And, unlike other self inflicted pains, this action tangibly affects its surrounding aesthetics, filling an area with a tarry smell, smoke, and a second hand poison that also leads to death. This issue was raised at the recent town hall meeting on the Wilf campus. President Joel, motioning to Dean Vic Schwartz, stated that smoking is a major public health hazard and that he does not want to give it credibility by designating areas for smoking, but it will and should be curbed.

In the month after that statement, smoking is still persistent outside of every building on the Wilf campus. There have been no fines, no NO SMOKING signs, or other physical measures places to insure that smoking is controlled and removed from distracting the learning community.

Another example, one complicated and taboo, are the homeless who wander campus asking for charity from students on their way to class. In a sense, this is also a distracting aesthetic. Not to designate the unfortunate as non-living physical entities, far from it, this is an important distraction, an opportunity for a mitzvah. Yet, although the mitzvah is vital, the space in which it exists may distract from the aesthetics of a learning community. There must be some way for YU to compassionately interact with these people outside of the sphere reserved for learning.

Within the classroom itself, too, Yeshiva University falls short of addressing the importance of aesthetics to learning. Small and insular desks-seat combinations sit in just about every classroom on this campus. The dynamic between students lowered at these desks and professors standing above is a familiar one practiced at high schools around this country. With this arrangement a certain familiar expectation exists, one in which the teacher imparts his or her authority onto the student.

These expectations aside, how would anyone feel sitting in those desks, miles away from the nearest electronic outlet that already happens to be in use? Is that the sort of environment we want as the front line venue in our educational institute?

I sit here writing, incredulous that I feel the need to explain and argue these points, points immediately granted credibility and acceptance at the vast majority of universities across the country, at least since the 1960s. Yet, Yeshiva University willful ignorance and avoidance of pressing aesthetic issues, I'm sorry to write this, reflects the values it places on the learning itself and discourages greater expectations for excellence. This place has the potential to be great, although, if it continues with this current attitude, it will remain just adequate.


Anonymous said...

Are you suggesting YU is now supposed to limit peoples' freedom, whether they are part of YU or not? YU cannot tell people whether they can or can't smoke, no matter how stupid it may be to do so. Like restaurants in New York City, YU can ban smoking within the confines of their buildings, but can they do the same outside the buildings? I think not, the sidewalks around the YU campus are just as much ours as they are those unfortunate few who choose to kill them self slowly through nicotine. As well, while I find the two or three unfortunates who troll the YU campus for charity to be annoying, what can YU legally do about them? They have just as much a right to troll between 185th and 186th as we do. To follow your logic, the loud Dominican music that blares from peoples cars at all hours of the night, or the local high school students who hang out on the benches by YU, and play football on YU's supposedly grassy quadrangle, are distracting to the YU learning atmosphere. Should we ban them as well? Where does it end? YU cannot limit the freedom of movement or legal actions of people who are walking around the public spaces of the "YU Campus." Freedom is important; YU cannot limit it to just those that are aesthetically pleasing or fit within our mindset as being health conscious. Sharing space is not easy, but what can YU really do about it, Amsterdam is a public street and people have a right to do what they want within the confines of the law and common sense.

Julian Horowitz said...

while amsterdam avenue is currently a public street, who says it has to remain so? many NYC universities block off large amounts of city streets to give themselves a campus. i personally have not been allowed to take a shortcut across columbia because i didn't have a columbia ID. closing amsterdam, while possibly ruining traffic patterns, would also end the perennial game of "frogger" that YU students must play to get to class on time.

alum from just a few years ago said...

you are such a whining weenie.
you have it better than any yu students in the history of yu and dont even know it.
mountains have been moved the last few years to primp and pameper students like never befoire. in ways that were unthinkable prior to the early 2000's. grow up and wake up and count your blessings, you have no idea how great you have it.

Anonymous said...

Julian what you have suggested has been tried in the past; the only problem is that Amsterdam is a fire escape route, or something along those lines. As such it can’t be blocked off. Though I have heard that YU tried to buy 185th between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas, i.e. the street between Furst and the library, and close it off and make it into a "real" campus, assumingly with real grass, unlike the Quadrangle and Tenzer-Vietnam memorial wall-"Gardens." Why this didn’t work out I don't know. If you look at YU history, YU was never meant to be centered along Amsterdam, note why the library was built backwards. The most YU ever got was to make Amsterdam from 185th-186th into two lanes instead of four. Amsterdam was always dangerous, but student "frogger" has always been part of the YU experience, however deadly (I think in the 70's a professor was hit and killed by a car when crossing Amsterdam).

Sarah said...

I agree with the first anonymous that it is bizarre to want to ban smoking outside of school buildings in the name of "aesthetics." All the European students stand outside the Arts and Architecture library at Columbia and smoke, it actually looks pretty cool (which is probably what they intend). Also, banning homeless people because they detract from the aesthetic environment as well?
I agree that aesthetics are important, but this post did not refer to any actual examples of design, architecture or layout.It instead referred to offending "people," which is itself one of the most offensive ways to have such a conversation.

student said...

I find a discussion of disposing of homeless people for aesthetics to be pretty distasteful. At the very least, can comments not refer to them as "trolling" through the campus?

I've spoken to a couple of them about it, and when they're not trying to figure out where to get their next meal or spend the night, they're trying their utmost to get a more chic look to help create a trendy urban atmosphere that will help us feel good about ourselves. Also, I've been promised there will be no more threatening to beat us with clubs if we don't give them money as we cross their bridges, and no eating children.

All good?

(Yes, I know, you mentioned that you aren't designating them as non-humans, but just want to find "some way for YU to compassionately interact with these people outside of the sphere reserved for learning." I say, in practice you're asking to have them removed. Ok. Maybe let's think that one through more fully before we set it in stone.)

Anonymous said...

One entry found.


Middle English, probably from Anglo-French *troiller, *troller; akin to Anglo-French troil, trolle winch
15th century

transitive verb

1: to cause to move round and round : roll

2 a: to sing the parts of (as a round or catch) in succession b: to sing loudly c: to celebrate in song

3 a: to fish for by trolling b: to fish by trolling in (troll lakes) c: to pull through the water in trolling (troll a lure) d: to search in or at (trolls flea markets for bargains); also : prowl (troll nightclubs)

intransitive verb

1: to move around : ramble

2 a: to fish by trailing a lure or baited hook from a moving boat b: search, look (trolling for sponsors); also : prowl

3: to sing or play in a jovial manner

4: to speak rapidly

Student said...

con·no·ta·tion [kon-uh-tey-shuhn] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
1. an act or instance of connoting.
2. the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning: A possible connotation of “home” is “a place of warmth, comfort, and affection.” Compare denotation (def. 1).
3. Logic. the set of attributes constituting the meaning of a term and thus determining the range of objects to which that term may be applied; comprehension; intension.
[Origin: 1375–1425 for earlier sense; 1525–35 for current senses; late ME connotacion < ML connotātiōn- (s. of connotātiō), equiv. to connotāt(us) (ptp. of connotāre to connote; see -ate1) + -iōn- -ion]

—Related forms
con·no·ta·tive [kon-uh-tey-tiv, kuh-noh-tuh-] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation, con·no·tive, adjective
con·no·ta·tive·ly, con·no·tive·ly, adverb

—Synonyms 2. undertone, implication, import.

Two entries, actually:

troll2 [trohl] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation,
1. (in Scandinavian folklore) any of a race of supernatural beings, sometimes conceived as giants and sometimes as dwarfs, inhabiting caves or subterranean dwellings.
2. Slang. a person who lives or sleeps in a park or under a viaduct or bridge, as a bag lady or derelict.
[Origin: 1610–20; < ON troll demon]

Student said...

And regardless of this quibble, my general point stands.

8th yr senior said...

"while amsterdam avenue is currently a public street, who says it has to remain so?"

The city of New York. This is a tired subject. Its been kvetched about for decades. YU supposedly has their hands tied. Google it.

The proposals in the post were pretty asinine. However, I am always surprised that the Yeshiva community (student orginizations, the YU governing bodies, the CJF etc) ignore the homeless population on campus. To call Yeshiva "community-oriented", or "chessed-minded", while they turn a cold shoulder, or worse, thumb their noses at neighbors and locals seems ludicrous.

Matt W said...

I’d like to respond to some of these comments, since it’s so easy to turn this into a monologue without much accountability. I’d like to turn this into a dialogue. The first thing I’d like to clarify, and I’ll do this without quoting anyone specific so please forgive me, but many of the comments seem to take issue with my use of the word aesthetics. Ignoring its colloquial connotation (yes, I know what that means… ha) for a brief moment, the word means, in its classical Greek translation, a specific branch of tangible philosophy. The German incarnation of the word, formulated the linguist Gottlieb Baumgarten in the mid 18th century means of or relating to the senses. It is that definition I am most interested in. Many of you took the word in a different direction, whether intentionally or inadvertently (and some of the comments were quite funny), so I’d just like to shore that up for you.

YU cannot limit the freedom of movement or legal actions of people who are walking around the public spaces of the "YU Campus."

Smoking, unlike say loud music, is considered by many to be an illegal action in a public space. Although this idea is quite controversial, it is not with out precedent, and shouldn’t be regarded as something that just came out of left field. There’s a bill in Congress right now that says something to this effect, but more tangibly the city of Austin, Texas recently banned smoking in most of its public spaces. (

mountains have been moved the last few years to primp and pameper students like never befoire. in ways that were unthinkable prior to the early 2000's.

I’d first like to apologize if my tone came across as whiney. It was not intended, and in a school that prides itself (at least recently) in striving for excellence a common question is always – how can we improve? There is no such thing as a perfect method, and part of being a constructive and valuable member of a society is identifying items, which, at least, must be discussed.

Yes, I know, you mentioned that you aren't designating them as non-humans, but just want to find "some way for YU to compassionately interact with these people outside of the sphere reserved for learning." I say, in practice you're asking to have them removed. Ok. Maybe let's think that one through more fully before we set it in stone.

One of the programs I’m proud to propose to the Senate is a student (Sy Syms) run soup kitchen on campus for credit. This will be explored to its fullest capacity this coming semester. This is but one example of a space in which to appropriately and compassionately engage the homeless.

The proposals in the post were pretty asinine.
To briefly bullet point them:
1. An enforcement of health and safety concerns in regards to smoking on campus
2. A compassionate program that helps the homeless on campus
3. New classroom furniture that contributes to the educational atmosphere.

These do not seem asinine to me and to many others. But, as I mentioned before, I’d like a dialogue about these issues. My personal email is Please respond online as well to keep these issues, and this blog, in the public. But I’m more than happy to respond to hate mail of this sort. Thanks for your comments.
Keep it real,

Anonymous said...


Brilliant. I am so impressed not only with the maturity of your style, but also with your well developed and thought out points.

Although I have never met you, I know you will go far in life.