From Morningside Heights to Kiryat Moriah

Can we, in the holiest of cities, produce the awe and sanctity surrounding books and ideas?

Jerusalem 520 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem 520
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

A DOSE OF NUANCE I never imagined, as a Columbia College student in the late ’70s, that some 35 years hence I’d return to campus to sit in core curriculum classes again. Even as an undergraduate, I understood that the Columbia core was changing me, imbuing me with a lifelong passion for classic texts and profound thinkers; but not in my wildest dreams did I think that one day I’d chair a similar curriculum at Israel’s first liberal arts college, now about to open its doors.

Yet there we were a few weeks ago, back on campus: 10 faculty from Shalem College, visiting two of America’s most venerable liberal arts colleges. For a very few jammed days, the people who would set the tone for our first cohort of exceptional students would watch the people who do it best in action.
St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, has had a great books curriculum since 1939 – and a clear sense of what its curriculum is meant to do. Reflecting on the college’s lofty goals for its graduates, a former president (using dated gender-laden language) wrote: “[The graduate] will be able to think clearly and imaginatively, to read even difficult material with understanding and delight, to write well and to the purpose. For four years, he will have consorted with great minds and shared their problems with growing understanding.
He will be able to distinguish sharply between what he knows and what is merely his opinion. From his constant association with the first-rate, he will have acquired a distaste for the second-rate, the intellectually cheap and tawdry....
He will be concerned to exercise a responsible citizenship, and he will be as much concerned with his political duties as with his political rights. He will cherish freedom, for himself and others... [together with] freedom from ignorance and passion and prejudice as well. For, in a quite genuine sense, he will himself be a free man… He should make a better friend, a better [spouse], a better [parent]; free men do. He will, in short, be better prepared to live; and when his hour comes, whether through illness or civil disaster or in an army trench, he will know better how to die; free men do.”
One evening at St. John’s, I walked about the campus, which was dark and deserted. Every single student in the college, freshman through senior, was in seminar – a group of students of no more than 20, discussing a great text.
The Iliad. The Book of Samuel. Hegel.
Through the windows I could see students and two faculty around tables, and in front of each, just one great book. There was – and I don’t use this word lightly – an aura of holiness.
And then it was on to New York, and to Columbia College, back to the lawn where I first read Plato’s Republic, past the library where I first toiled over Kant.
Listen to Columbia faculty today explain the ongoing centrality of the core, and you’ll hear phrases like “the insistent problems of the present,” “ideas that have persisted” and “an inner life of sufficient riches.” Different pedagogies from St. John’s, and a somewhat different set of great books. But again, small classes with real conversations.
The reverence for texts. A deep respectfulness towards each other.
Those campuses exemplified, in large measure, what Shalem College hopes to bring to Jerusalem. Except that we’re interested in the Jewish – no less than the Western. Our students need to know the Federalist Papers, but the debates internal to Zionist thinking as well. Given where they live, they must study Islam.
They surely must read John Locke and J.S. Mill, but they should also be able to reflect on what Jewish civilization has had to say about government and society, fairness and justice, the life deeply examined and the life well lived.
Can we, in the holiest of cities, reproduce that awe and that sanctity surrounding books and ideas? Can we show each other, and our students, what happens when academe is infused with a deep sense of modesty, when respect hangs liberatingly in the air? We think we can. We know that we must.
Here is the sad irony about education in the Jewish state: We, the People of the Book, have produced a country where, if one wants to have a multi-year experience that is essentially an ongoing conversation – because all of one’s peers are reading the same great books, encountering the same great ideas, wrestling with the same great thinkers – they need to leave the country. To seek out Columbia. Or the University of Chicago. Or Yale’s directed studies. Or St. John’s.
No more. The People of the Book now has a place where college is essentially about having that conversation, in the company of those great ideas.
Who’s coming? It’s a group very different from my freshman class that assembled in Columbia’s Low Library in the fall of 1977. In July, we invited the students who had already been admitted to Shalem to come to campus for an informal evening. Shortly after we left them alone in the student lounge, they chose to go outside. I found them there, half an hour later, sitting in a circle on the grass. Young men in shorts with their heads uncovered, and men with kippot. Women in pants and women in skirts. Most single, a few married. Lots of IDF officers, and volunteers in dozens of wonderful organizations. A couple of haredim. People who live over the Green Line, and people who don’t cross the Green Line.
Yet, what do they have in common? They want to read deeply and carefully.
They want to learn to write excellently.
They want to think with each other, and learn from each other. They want to address the “insistent problems of the present,” and they chose Shalem as the place to do it.
I was too far away to hear their conversation on the lawn that day, but as I looked on from the side, I heard, periodically, a ripple of laughter across the circle – in the midst of all the difference, a sense of shared enterprise. It struck me as the perfect picture of what the Jewish state needs.
Starting next Sunday, Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem will be home to what’s thrived on Columbia College’s Morningside Heights campus for a century.
Columbia imbued many of us with a sense that ideas matter, that profound thinkers ought to be one’s lifelong companions; we hope that at Kiryat Moriah, Shalem’s students will emerge with similar commitments. If Columbia hopes great ideas will help shape great nations, we would like Shalem to become the place where Jewish meets West, where different conceptions of nationhood and peoplehood, justice and fairness, commitment and openness compete for the hearts and loyalties of some of Israel’s most talented young people.
They will work very hard. They will buttress arguments with ideas, intuitions with knowledge, innovation with commitment, visions of the future with an understanding of the past. They will argue, but they will listen. They will learn, but they will also teach.
They will do all that because it will make them better citizens, better friends, better partners. They will do that because Israel desperately needs them to. They will do that because we came here to be an am hofshi b’artzeinu, a free people in our land, and because, at the end of the day, that is what truly free women and men do.

The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His forthcoming biography, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, will be published by Nextbook in March.