This article was the most-emailed yesterday on the Times website, and essentially asks the question: what has MBA education wrought, and is it time to rethink how it’s done? Specifically, has the focus on bottom-line and profits at many business schools undermined a sense of social responsibility? Put more bluntly: what responsibility do our business schools have for the problems in corporate culture that led to the financial mess?

Now I don’t think it’s fair to blame business schools for the whole financial mess. But at the same time, they were eager to take credit for the success of the economy in good times, and should be willing to shoulder some of the load during the bad.

For me, the question extends further. Ask undergraduates at Northwestern, and they’ll tell you that the Kellogg School of Management–located on prime real estate in the dead center of the Evanston campus–radiates an aura that permeates much of undergraduate life. One in eight NU undergraduates is an economics major, and those students walk the halls of Kellogg for their classes. The sense communicated to undergrads seems to reinforce the notion that college education is meant to be pre-professional, that success involves making money and entering the culture of Wall Street and finance. (One NU staffer I know keeps a collection of letters from students who had been involved in global do-gooding, and who ultimately took jobs in the financial industry.)

One more layer: My employer, Hillel, has emphasized MBAs as the model for Hillel directors. Business principles, including a focus on measurement (how do you quantify a ‘meaningful Jewish experience?’) and an emphasis on the financial bottom-line, have definitely influenced the culture, just as they have at the university.

The questions in all of this are many. But the biggest one is this: Will the university–and by that I mean academe in general–have the courage to seriously evaluate its values, goals, and culture?

In the last couple of weeks, more than one student has emailed me a link to this New York Times article about how the humanities are struggling to prove their worth in this recession. Over Shabbat I read two articles in the current issue of The New Republic that address the question, by the two Big Leons:

As usual, Leon Wieseltier is both pugnacious and stirring. Unsurprisingly, for the Literary Editor of TNR, he writes “In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying.” Of course not. Yet evidently they do, at least according to the NYT. And here Wieseltier does surprise, not so much for the eloquence of his defense, as for the inspiring spirit that animates it:

The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one’s existence will therefore be significantly determined by one’s attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves. I do not mean to be too sentimental about the humanities as they are conducted in the American academy: just yesterday there arrived from the press of a distinguished university the galleys of a book called Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, written by the director of a humanities center at another university. That is not what Erich Auerbach had in mind. Still, what ails the humanities is not as egregious as the assault on them. Regression analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can teach. These are the hours when the old Penguin paperbacks must stand us in good stead. It was for now that we read them then.

This is a powerful argument, because Wieseltier sidesteps the question of financial efficacy, and instead reminds us of the other kinds of resources necessary to get through a depression. This is precisely the moment when the humanities are most valuable, because we are reminded of other frames of determining value besides money.

In the same issue, Leon Botstein–president of Bard College, educational theorist, orchestra conductor–writes about the commencement exercises for a degree-granting program Bard runs in an eastern New York prison. Sixteen students studied traditional liberal arts, including literature, philosophy, history, and mathematics. In a similar vein to Wieseltier, Botstein draws out the implications of his program for the rest of us:

What really moved me and my Bard colleagues to tears as we listened to the words of the four representatives of the Class of 2009 was the recognition of how weak the love of learning is among those for whom the privilege of moving seamlessly from high school into college is taken for granted. Why can we not engender the same motivation and attachment to a life of the mind when there are few real constraints on our students? In these times of economic distress, there is ever more skepticism about the utility of fields of study in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences, which appear to have no immediate practical benefits. But, in the prisoners in Bard’s program, we saw something we rarely see on our own campuses: recognition of the deep value of the pursuit of inquiry for its own sake.

As we approach Passover on the Jewish calendar, and our thoughts turn to freedom, I am reminded in reading both of these pieces of the importance of the link between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. While many many Jews celebrate Passover and the freedom it commemorates, far fewer observe Shavuot and the giving of the Torah that it commemorates. The freedom of Passover is incomplete without the commitment to a way of life of goodness and meaning. Somehow, seemingly in the absence of freedom, the prisoners educated by Botstein discovered meaning and the deeper freedom that many of us on the outside–who have the chance to participate in politics and society and the economy–fail to grasp. At Passover we praise God as the One who “took us out from servitude to freedom, from mourning to great joy.” Both the economy and the prisoners of Botstein’s story remind us that true freedom and true joy come from sources within.

In a very smart column in this morning’s Daily Northwestern, Jake Wertz calls into question the phenomenon of “Engagement” at Northwestern and other college campuses. In recent years, the word engagement has been used to underpin everything from study abroad to community service to Hillel. In a sense it has become a placeholder and shorthand mission statement for the extra-curriculum. Thus Jake’s argument:

I have no beef with community. But the Northwestern community is in no need of redefinition. We have for more than 150 years been a community united solely in a common pursuit of knowledge. We are not, as oNe Northwestern has it, a community united in reminiscing about the stir fry in Hinman or kvetching about Henry Bienen not showing up to your improv show. Nor are we, as NUEC has it, a community defined by our service to others. Community service is certainly honorable, but the purpose of college it is not.

Before I comment on Jake’s point, I first want to emphasize how thrilling it is to see the words “the purpose of college” printed on the pages of the campus paper. It’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough, and so first and foremost I’m thankful that Jake, a thoughtful student and excellent writer, has raised the issue.

I agree with Jake, but I also agree with the “engagement people” (and many on this campus would probably count me as one of them). And I don’t think these are mutually exclusive views. In The Emergence of the American University, an outstanding piece of intellectual scholarship, Lawrence Veysey contends that the post-Civil War era saw three major models of universities promulgated in the United States. One was the “traditional” liberal arts college (i.e. Yale); one was the research university (Johns Hopkins); and one was a college to train public servants (Cornell). Each of these models had some overlap, but in the late nineteenth century they were able to maintain relatively distinct identities. Within a generation, of course, the models often collapsed on each other–thus Yale maintained (and maintains) both an undergraduate liberal arts college, and the apparatus of a major research university. Johns Hopkins, which had been focused on graduate students and “pure research”, opened an undergraduate program. Columbia, which had once been on the bucolic outskirts of the island of Manhattan, gradually became an urban university, enabling the kind of “engagement” or “public service” mentality that Jake takes to task to blossom in what was once–and in many senses still is–a liberal arts college.

Northwestern, like all of these examples, contains all three elements: a huge research piece, a liberal arts college, and a public service orientation. There are convergences and divergences, and the tensions between the various missions are what make life at the university both interesting and frustrating.

That’s all well and good, and Jake would likely say, “Very useful, RJ. But my point still stands.” Indeed, Jake is asking an important question: What place should each of these various agendas hold at the university? Is one of them primary? Does everyone need to be engaged in community work, and have a research experience, and study all the classics of the Western tradition? And if not, are there particular elements of these various agendas we would insist are minimally required? Should there be a community service requirement? A research project requirement? A core curriculum?

I don’t yet want to advocate a particular agenda, because I think this conversation is so rich. So I’ll give it a few days, maybe a week, and see what responses come along. But in the meantime, many thanks to Jake for starting an essential conversation.

Today was one of the great days in my work life. There was nothing particularly profound about it, but when I think about the reasons I felt called to do the work that I do, today pretty much hit all of them.

This morning I did a Q&A via webcam with a class at Duke University, taught by a recently-acquired friend, Prof. Alma Blount. The class is part of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke, and the 25 students are critically and self-reflectively examining the topic of “boundary crossing”. For this week they read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s To Heal a Fractured World, and Alma asked if I would talk with the class about the book and the ideas in it. I was totally in my element, talking about everything from Gaza to theology to religion and secularism in higher education in society. Great teaching moments involve a great text and speaking from the heart, and here I experienced both. And that was all before 10:30.

I then met with our Director of Engagement, Andrea Jacobs, for our weekly Torah study session. We have been closely reading Genesis 1 with Rashi’s commentary. As we sat in Linz & Vail coffee shop and talked about the tiny but powerful grammatical issues that Rashi spins into profound ideas about humanity and our place in the universe, I again felt an alignment between what the world–and Andrea–needed from me, and what I felt most powerful doing.

I next met with a professor, Elie Rekhess, to talk about how to improve Israel education on campus–from both a curricular and co-curricular perspective. Elie is a mature scholar and a doer, someone who understands that the education at a university does not end, or perhaps even primarily happen, inside the classroom. We agreed to start a little think tank to do some strategic planning.

Next I met with Samantha Rollins, a student who went on Birthright this winter and wrote about it in the student magazine North by Northwestern. This might have been my best first meeting with a student. It lasted 25 minutes. I got her details and then, possessed by something, I wasted no time getting to the Big Questions: “Samantha, what good do you do in the world?” and then “Where do you feel at home?” And finally, after those two, I ended by asking her “Samantha, what are you going to do right now to do good?” She decided to call her sister and say hello.

Finally, right after that meeting, I met with a student leader going through a crisis of confidence and direction. She had just bombed an Econ midterm, and she knew it. She also knew that she wasn’t making enough time for herself, to find quiet spaces, to nurture her soul. So I asked questions to help her identify the choices she had before her and what she might have to say no to in order to say yes to herself. And, most important, I recognized her. I said something like, “At the end of your life, no one is going to remember your Econ midterm. But they will remember the fact that you are a tremendous ba’alat chesed, a loving and kind person, who always has as hug and a smile and says hello. They will remember that you helped transform Hillel into a welcoming and caring place. And they will remember that when they think of the beautiful people in their life, they think of you.”

I entered the rabbinate because I wanted to be able to help people find meaning in their lives through commitment to Torah study and observance. I wanted to do good in the world. And I was called to work on a campus because I could help young adults find the language and concepts to do good in the world by living their lives in dialogue with the story of the Jewish people. Today was not unique–I have many days like this, days where I combine formal teaching with coaching and mentoring. But today was one where I profoundly sensed that I was doing God’s work. I feel blessed for the opportunity, and grateful for the people for whom I can make a difference.

Everyone should have a day like this.