Rabbi Bernard Dov Revel, PhD, first president of Yeshiva University.

I’m preparing for my last round of qualifying exams for my PhD program. One of the wonderful challenges in this process is preparing a reading list and writing the questions. As a recent column by a graduate student in the Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the point of qualifying exams is to have a collegial conversation with your future colleagues, the faculty. And that means doing original thinking, bringing together previous knowledge and ideas into new formulations and new theories. That’s both thrilling and daunting.

My general area of interest is the intersection of American Jewish life and American higher education, and particularly in the story of Modern Orthodoxy. My academic work has taken me well into the literatures of both these areas, and there aren’t too many other folks who have done the same thing. A number of Jewish historians have done work that touches on the academy, but few seem to have done so from the perspective of the literature on the history and philosophy of American colleges and universities. And some of those who work in the latter area have touched on Jewish life, but generally their treatments focus on the exclusion of Jews from elite academic life and their eventual inclusion as part of the expansion of American higher education after the Second World War. And virtually no one I’ve come across, with the exception of Zev Eleff, has taken up these two areas with an additional eye on Modern Orthodoxy (if you’re out there, we want to know!).

In the department of the general relationship between American Jews and American higher ed, Harold Wechsler and David Ritterband’s book on Jews in the Academy is the place to start. David Hollinger’s intellectual biography of Morris Raphael Cohen remains a formidable piece of scholarship, and his book Jews, Science, and Secular Culture is also a wonderful collection of thoughtful essays on the ways in which Jews and academe have worked together in mutually reinforcing ways. Lila Corwin Berman’s book Speaking of Jews is also very helpful, though its focus is not on universities per se.

But trying to find folks who are as conversant in Lawrence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University (the classic starting point for most scholars of modern American higher education) and Julie Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University (a more recent classic), on the one hand, and Jeffrey Gurock’s The Men and Women of Yeshiva or Samuel Belkin’s In His Image on the other, is a real challenge. Alan Brill, whose contributions to understanding Modern Orthodoxy in the context of wider trends in thought and intellectual history are enormous (and whose expertise and intellectual generosity have greatly assisted me), is essential. Among the handful of people who think about Jewish life from the standpoint of historical scholarship on higher education, most have focused on non-Orthodox figures like Cohen, Jewish social scientists (Horace Kallen, Oscar Handlin, Nathan Glazer, Marshall Sklare, etc.), Jewish historians or Semiticists (Salo Baron, Harry Wolfson, Felix Adler, Morris Jastrow), or Jewish literary figures (e.g. Lionel Trilling). While many of these men grew up in Orthodox families, none remained so. Thus virtually all of the studies I have read that have a foot in the world of scholarship on American higher education don’t deal with the Orthodox world, at least not as anything more than the background to a nostalgic or hated childhood in the lives of formerly Orthodox academics.

On the other hand, the literature within Modern Orthodoxy that deals with what the university is or should be tends to be rather limited. The writings of Belkin or Revel generally come at the question from a Jewish lens, seeing the issues as dealing with marrying Western and Jewish knowledges–not from the perspective of American higher education. Aharon Lichtenstein is certainly conversant in the works of Cardinal Newman (and there are some very interesting comparisons to be made between Catholic higher education and the issues for a Jewish institution like YU—see, for instance, Phillip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity; but the fact that Catholic higher ed is so much larger than Yeshiva makes the comparison of limited use), and he invokes Matthew Arnold and a late-19th century vision of college as one that Orthodoxy might aspire to. And a few thinkers, like Emmanuel Rackman, Walter Wurzburger, and Eliezer Berkovitz, see the possibilities for Modern Orthodoxy within Western philosophy and American life, which would have implications for a university. (And Rackman, who became president of Bar-Ilan University, clearly had more developed thoughts–but not necessarily in the American context. Had he been elected president of YU in 1976, things would likely have been different.) None of these thinkers is having a dialogue with Clark Kerr or Robert Maynard Hutchins; which is to say that they’re not having a self-conscious conversation about the aims and purposes of liberal education within the literature on liberal education, even though they clearly value such an education. (Just what is meant by a liberal education is something vigorously debated; see Bruce Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers for the standard work unpacking the term.)

So this is where I am aiming to come in. There are a few histories of Yeshiva University (Klaperman’s hagiographic piece from the 60s, Gurock’s work, Rakeffet’s biography of Revel), but none of them deal with Yeshiva from the broader perspective of American higher education. There are some sociological notes about the fact that higher education is a sine qua non of Modern Orthodoxy in comparison to Haredi Orthodoxy. But there isn’t a full-fledged examination of how the idea of the university influenced he development of Modern Orthodoxy, much less how that same idea functioned for the larger American Jewish community.

As I gear up for my exams, I’m hoping to write several blog posts by way of unpacking some of my ideas and trying out possible arguments. (I’m aware that my examiners may be reading too; I’d welcome your responses.) Though some of this may sound technical because of the reading involved, my aim will be to keep it simple and understandable. The issues here are not simply fascinating to me; I think they bear on some of the fundamental questions for higher education, which Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith articulated over 50 years ago in their anthology on the history of American colleges and universities:

How was one to adjust the competing claims of quantity and quality, of democracy and excellence, of the professional or vocational and the liberal? How would one reconcile the practical and the theoretical, the development of means and the formulation of ends, the criteria of the graduate school and the ideals of the liberal arts college? How many subjects can be effectively taught in an age of specialized knowledge? Is there any longer a common body of knowledge to which it is desirable to expose all college men and women? What kind of a liberal arts curriculum is meaningful in an age of specialization? How much common organization and how much individual choice should such a curriculum provide?

These questions have as much to do with American Jewish life and Modern Orthodoxy as they do with colleges and universities. What is it to be a good, educated human being, and a good and educated Jew? What should an educational institution look like based on that vision? How are Torah and ‘secular’ studies to be defined, learned, and understood? How does an institution’s approach shape the values of both the individuals under its roof and the larger communities of which they are a part?

Those are the questions I aim to explore.