As readers of my blog know, one of the dead horses I tend to beat is the line that “more than anything else, what defines American Jews is that we go to college.” Depending on which survey you believe somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of American Jews go to college—a larger number than celebrate Passover seders or light candles on Shabbat or go to shul on Yom Kippur, and a figure that blows away any other demographic group. I continue to believe that going to college—particularly to secular colleges and universities—is one of the great unexamined parts of the American Jewish story.
That belief has motivated my own academic work, and it is propelled by my professional life as a campus rabbi. My reading is colored by it: I tend to look for the university as a site or even an actor in many of the issues and debates of American Jewish life today. When Danny Gordis wrote his recent piece about the response to Israeli Ambassador Daniel Oren’s commencement address at Brandeis, my interest honed in on the question of what it meant for Brandeis to be a Jewish university (a notoriously complicated question). What seemed at play, in my reading, were competing imaginaries: the imaginaries (in the Benedict Anderson or Arjun Appadurai sense) of the Jewish community, on the one hand, and those of the liberal, secular university on the other (though I would also argue that the two are braided and overlapping—Jews have been deeply involved in constructing our imaginaries of universities).
Or take Peter Beinart’s recent essay, which has generated much discussion and some gnashing of teeth. Note that in the very first line—the very first line!—of his essay, Beinart invokes the imaginary of the Jewish college student: “In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel.” He goes on to say that “Most of [them]… were liberals, broadly defined. They had imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. And in their innocence, they did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel.”
Those values—particularly that one about open debate—are associated for many of us with a key element of the college imaginary: the development of “critical thinking.” In the words of the former dean of Harvard College: The adults colleges produce should “rejoice in discovery and in critical thought.” They should “advance knowledge, promote understanding, and serve society.” The education provided by the college “should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead.” These adults should be free agents, independent and inner-directed subjects who can make up their own minds, and who will be able to do so throughout their lives: “The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built.”
This is what we aim for in higher education, in the words of the nation’s oldest institution in the business. It is what we imagine about ourselves as college-educated people. And since Jews are college-educated people, it is also what we imagine of ourselves as Jews. To close the loop, we could put it this way: to be Jewish is to be a critical thinker.
But that’s wrong. (more…)