Think Again: Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

Put in terms of a choice between a no-nonsense course of study and what – the study of nonsense? – perhaps we should rejoice in the declining number of humanities students.

University 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
University 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Jerusalem Post’s November 1 editorial “In praise of liberal arts” lamented the everdwindling percentage of Israeli students opting for bachelor’s degrees in the humanities.
In 1999, the article notes, 18.5 percent of students were registered for courses in the humanities. Today that figure is 7.5%.
Part of the reason, argues the editorial, is that after three years in the army, Israeli students are far more likely than their American or European peers to prefer a “no-nonsense” course of study leading directly to employment after graduation. Put in terms of a choice between a no-nonsense course of study and what – the study of nonsense? – perhaps we should rejoice in the declining number of humanities students.
One of the prime complaints of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their various imitators around the United States is that they have been robbed: They have gone deeply into debt for their college educations – about $28,000 for the average private school graduate – and have little to show for it in terms of marketable skills. That claim, at least, is largely correct. Listening to the OWS protesters (or for that matter those on Rothschild Boulevard) define what they mean by “social justice” or defend that concept provides an idea of how badly they have been served by their undergraduate educations.
A study of 2,300 American university graduates of two dozen universities, by New York University’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, found that more than one-third of seniors leave campus, after four years, having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning or written communication. And the worst of all are those in so-called practical majors, like business, communications and education.
The expense of an American college education has risen nearly four and a half times over the last 25 years, and it is beginning to look like as big a bubble as the American housing market prior to 2008.
“Students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right,” says Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
At least they are right insofar as students not pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) curriculum go. STEM graduates earn roughly 50% more than their non-STEM counterparts, and the worldwide demand for their services is continually growing, despite the downturn in employment.
STEM graduates, unlike their non-STEM contemporaries, can be assumed to have actually mastered a concrete body of knowledge in subjects that have right and wrong answers.
So if Israeli students are pursuing a rigorous STEM curriculum, rather than studies in the humanities, I would not view that as a matter of grave national concern. (The continuing dismal scores on international math exams of Israeli teenagers casts some doubt on this, however.) Rosenblum’s Rule posits that the future health and dynamism of a society can largely be predicted by the ratio of engineers to lawyers. When too many of society’s best minds are attracted to largely non-productive occupations like law or legalized gambling with billions of dollars of other people’s money on Wall Street, decline is sure to follow.
Apparently President Barack Obama agrees: He has called on America’s universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 more teachers with strong competencies in STEM subjects.
LET ME be clear, I write this as the beneficiary of an outstanding liberal arts education. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Chicago, gave birth to the original Great Books curriculum, and it was one of the few elite colleges in my day to still take a Common Core of required courses seriously.
Without the education I received there – in particular my freshman humanities professor, who once told me that there were only two students in our class who wrote well and I wasn’t one of them – my life would be much poorer.
I still believe in the value of a traditional liberal arts education; I just don’t think that too many non-STEM majors receive such an education today. The non- STEM courses have too frequently been taken over by ideologues, using the classroom for political indoctrination, or by theoreticians whose jargon-infested manifestos drain all the joy out of the greatest literature.
Walter Russell Mead, an undergraduate English major, who today teaches at Bard College, and whose American Interest blog demonstrates his ability to write insightfully many times each day about international relations, political science, sociology and even religion, makes the case for both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of a first-rate liberal arts education.
As both longevity and leisure time increase, those who don’t gain a love of learning and the ability to enjoy the greatest products of the human spirit will find themselves doomed to the hell of endless reality TV. Fortunately, the books worth reading (and returning to again and again) far exceed the available time of even the most long-lived and voracious reader.
Mead points out that today’s incoming college students will confront a much more fast-changing world than any that has preceded it – one for which their mentors have no more familiarity than they. The shock may be largest for children of successful whitecollar professionals, as the familiar paths to career success disappear. Even acceptance to one of the named law schools will no longer constitute a guarantee of a modicum of financial security. Competition will no longer come primarily from students in the next library carrel, but from ambitious, hard-working Chinese and Indians. And those whose academic schedules are based on the rule of no classes before noon to accommodate late-night partying will lose out.
In the fast-changing world of the future, success will depend on the ability to learn new skills. And for that, Mead argues, a classic liberal arts education, including literacy and math and at least one science, familiarity with the broad strands of the cultural tradition into which one was born, and mastery of at least one foreign language, is the best preparation.
“In times of rapid change it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics that to try to keep up with the latest developments and trends,” Mead urges the incoming freshmen, for the latter will surely be obsolete in a few years. Better to use the college years for grounding in the great books and key ideas and values that have endured.
In a more competitive, less secure world, nothing will be more valuable than one’s reputation for integrity and honesty. Character will count. And as career shifts become more common and life has more ups and downs, so will the need for spiritual grounding to keep one’s life on keel become even more important. A familiarity with how great minds have wrestled with the ultimate questions of life and defined the good life is no guarantee of a moral core to one’s own life, but it at least puts the issue on the radar screen.
IF ONE key test of a liberal education is the ability to learn new skills, then talmudic learning could be an important component. True, talmudic learning will not teach one math, unless one studies the rabbis’ complex calculations of the lunar cycle; nor will it provide grounding in a specific science. But it is not irrelevant to any of these pursuits. And the combination of intellectual rigor, discipline and concentration required is unsurpassed.
The great Harvard medievalist Harry Austryn Wolfson described talmudic study as “the application of the scientific method to the study of texts.” Hypotheses are continually being formulated and either successfully defended or rejected. The Talmud says that one who studies alone grows stupid, and the battles between study partners are nothing less than the “wars of Torah.” Even when one studies alone, he must act as his own study partner, constantly asking: Does my theory fit all the facts? Is there another way to explain all the relevant data? Students must learn to follow complex arguments that proceed over pages of text, and to hold firm at each step as to whether the argument is being advanced or questioned. Ten-year-olds learn to apply, without being aware of it, the tables taught in mathematical logic to actual cases.
At every level, the student is exposed to conflict and competing views. The Tannaim of the Talmud argue with one another; the Amoraim argue with one another and over the proper understanding of the Tannaim. The Rishonim (early commentators on the Talmud) differ from one another over the principles that emerge from the debates of the Talmud, and sometimes over the text itself. Each Rishon must be understood on his own terms, and in terms of why he argues with another Rishon.
But while a single right answer can never be given in talmudic debate, it is often possible to demonstrate that a particular solution is wrong. Thus Talmud study is the antithesis of much of contemporary academia, which, in Mead’s words, “encourages mushy thinking about mushy disciplines.” One cannot just offer opinions; one must argue propositions. That itself is a healthy antidote for the young for whom the height of wisdom is: Everything, including morality, is a matter of opinion, and all opinions are equally valid – a view, incidentally, held by no great thinker of the past, no matter how greatly they differed with one another.
Though the study will not teach elegant prose style, it demands clarity of expression and the ability to structure a logical argument. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, the great 19th- and early 20th-century talmudic genius, whose style of analysis dominates much of contemporary talmudic study, emphasized that there is no such thing as a concept that cannot be expressed.
Finally, the study of Talmud places one in a dialogue with many of the greatest minds in Jewish history, and grounds a Jewish student in his own culture – one in which the legal and moral realms are seamlessly intertwined.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.