In last week’s essay, Yosef Y. Jacobson takes on the blessings and pitfalls of liberal education.
“We live arguably,” he writes, “in the most sophisticated age, free to question all absolutes with the objectivity of reason. Here in the United States, we have been redeemed, to a significant degree, from the maladies of bigotry, intolerance and prejudice that has plagued humanity for millennia. But instead of seeing our liberty as an opportunity to promote powerful moral commitments stemming from authentic and un-coerced desire, we utilized our zest to de-legitimize and trivialize any commitment that runs too deep. Many have retreated into self-centered solitariness, expending much energy in defending the principle that no choice is worthwhile enough to be taken too seriously. Is it possible that 5,000 years of the human search for truth were meant to culminate with no ideal larger than the quest for self preservation and gratification?”
I'd like to share my perspective from the point of view of a person involved in secular education, as a professor of Russian Language and Literature at the University of Virginia.
The biggest problem I see in academia is a lack of the very sort of conviction Rabbi Jacobson advocates in the above article. This has led to a moral and intellectual flabbiness among many professors, which has, in turn, led to what is known as academic politics. Academic politics is characterized by a gift for saying nothing very loquaciously and refusing to take a strong position on important issues so as not to upset the people who hold your career in their hands.
Many academics, until they get tenure, are insecure, shaking in their boots, never quite sure whether they're pleasing the right people or doing the politically correct things. This kind of slavish mentality is bred in us going back to our graduate school days, where we learned to live and die by pleasing our superiors. Academia, known for its encouragement of intellectual freedom, is one of the most intellectually conservative, risk-averse environments I know.
The other aspect of academia that I see is an emphasis on intellectual brilliance and cleverness at the expense of sensitivity, philosophical depth, and moral courage. As somebody who studies literature, I can testify that such an emphasis has led to a lot of very intelligent, clever analyses of great books, often with very little deep understanding.
The fact is that intellectual brilliance can help you write a clever piece, and it can also help you get tenure, but it alone will never allow you to penetrate the mysteries of Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Tolstoy. These writers had deeply responsive souls whose tremendous artistic visions transcended the purely intellectual. And they were morally courageous. They spoke the truth as they saw it. In the context of Russian society, this courage was all the more impressive, given the potentially very severe consequences of such honest self-expression.
In the mid 20th century, literary scholars felt it their duty to sensitize their students to the beauty, the philosophical depth, and the universal significance of great literature. Literary study even became a theological quest. Scholars and writers alike spoke of literature with an almost religious reverence. In the 1960’s, as academia became more politicized, this approach to literature was considered to be passé and was replaced by an emphasis on the political and the ideological aspects of literature.
The result was that professors who still spoke about beauty and truth and the spiritual significance of great books were often ostracized, and if they didn’t already have tenure, they were often eliminated from the academic guild altogether. So what we’re left with today is the “new generation” of so-called “progressive” academic thinkers, many of whom lack the depth, the empathy, and the moral courage of their intellectual forefathers. When a professor comes along today, who speaks about truth and beauty in literature, and wants to use great books to inspire students to get in touch with their nobler impulses, that professor is such an anomaly that it appears he is speaking a foreign language. And he probably won’t last long in today’s academic environment.
It is an unfortunate state of affairs, but I still believe that students hunger for a more inspired form of education. College students are searching to find themselves, to make difficult decisions about who they want to become. What better place to help them discover different possibilities than in the great books. The books won’t give them the answers, but they will help them on their quest, in part by showing the consequences of various life decisions made by the characters in the books. And by studying great books, students also discover that some of the world’s greatest minds and spirits struggled with the very same issues that confront them. This can be an empowering realization.
I am certain that many students want something more than facts without feeling, information without inspiration. Great literature can give it to them.
I see it as my duty to teach from this perspective, and so far, the students have responded incredibly positively. In pursuing this approach, I am also taking a professional risk. I am a threat to well-entrenched orthodoxies within secular education. But I really see no other way for myself. I believe, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, that “a truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”
Andy Kaufman, Ph.D. teaches in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia.