A friend, familiar with my interests in higher education, religion, secularism, and Jews, sent me this piece by Yoram Hazony this morning. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, mostly because Hazony is elaborating some points that I have made on this blog and in my other writing and speaking over the last several years. His central thesis and mine are the same: Jews need to think much more critically about the university as a whole, because it is the institution of the university–the modern, secular, elite research university that we send most of our kids to–that shapes the identity of so many Jews.

Hazony puts it very well: universities determine what is acceptable, what is respectable, what are the bounds of knowledge and opinion. They may not make everyone share the same ideology, but they create the parameters of what we like to tell ourselves is “critical thinking.” But what Hazony and I both ask is: Is that really true? Given that the modern secular university writes off whole areas of knowledge–particularly knowledge that comes from religious traditions, and certainly knowledge that claims to be revealed–how wide are the goal posts of critical thinking? (See this article in Newsweek for an example.)

At this point, Hazony’s project and mine diverge slightly. At least as it’s presented in his piece, his primary interest in raising these questions is on behalf of the Jewish people. The central question, in Hazony’s mind, is this: “Whether the universities, which are modern society’s engines for the discovery of truth, can be changed so as to accommodate the ideas and texts of Judaism as a legitimate source for potentially true ‘ideas and principles.'” I definitely share this question and concern. But my question–perhaps because I’m sitting in America and not in Israel–is whether our universities can be changed so as to accommodate and promote knowledge in all the dimensions of human life–including the religio-spiritual, as well as the ethical-moral, and not only the empirical-historicist that we seem to dwell in right now.

I ask this question on behalf of my people, the Jews, but also on behalf of American society and the world, because I think that the hegemony of rigid secularism on university campuses has contributed to the erosion of our public life, the fragmentation of our commons, and the lack of resilience that it takes for good people to stay in the game. (See this morning’s NYT article about Evan Bayh for a good example of how hard it is for good people to stick it out.) One of the driving forces behind our starting askbigquestions.com was the belief that our mission in Hillel will only be successful if we can change the nature of the university itself, and make it a more hospitable place for people of all backgrounds to engage the most profound questions of human life in dialogue with all of the world’s sources of knowledge and wisdom.

A final note: On Tuesday night I facilitated a conversation at Hillel on these topics with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL. In preparing for the session, I recalled a talk I gave a couple of years ago (print version here, audio here) contextualizing Jews and the university. A lot of Hazony’s points are made in that talk. And while I doubt very much that Yoram Hazony and Brad Hirschfield are mentioned all that frequently in the same sentence, on this score I think we are all in agreement: We think it is both highly desirable, and eminently possible, for our universities to recover their souls, and to do so in a way that not only preserves, but expands the meaning of “critical thinking.”

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