The surprise bestseller in the spring semester of my freshman year at Yeshiva College was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The title alone, equal parts subversive and spiritual-sounding, lured my eighteen-year old self; I remember reading Bloom’s bombshell in the labyrinthine stacks of the Gottesman Library as if it were samizdat for souls lost in a sea of stifling pre-professionalism.
Blessedly, my personal situation seemed very different from that of students at most other American colleges. Bloom’s main nemesis, “German Nihilism,” hardly affected us at Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish institution of higher learning. Our daily curriculum consisted of traditional Jewish text study, mainly Talmud, through mid-afternoon, and a full serving of arts and sciences in the remainder of the day.
Still, The Closing of the American Mind was exactly what I needed at the time—a vigorous defense of the nobility of the Socratic enterprise, Eros and Dialectic, in an environment otherwise largely oriented to future careers in law, medicine, business, or even the rabbinate. But Bloom also had his limitations, at least where men and women of faith were concerned. Those limitations loom increasingly large as the restive teenager within me recedes from the horizon. Bypassing questions of truth and tradition, Bloom was better at diagnosing what was lost than at prescribing what might yet be regained—and things have only gotten worse since he wrote. As Jon D. Levenson sums up in a recent retrospective:
Given the social and cultural divisions characteristic of modern pluralistic societies, it is hard to imagine how an educational vision of the comprehensive premodern sort could ever be restored on most campuses. The Closing of the American Mind helped to clarify the problem, but it provides less help in pointing a way forward.
The Coddling of the American Mind
I was reminded of this moment in my educational formation by the appearance, just over thirty years later, of a kind of companion piece to Bloom: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Self-consciously playing off their predecessor’s title, Lukianoff, a First Amendment specialist, and Haidt, a professor of social psychology at NYU, offer a more practical, social-science-driven—and less apocalyptic—take on the shortcomings of higher education than did Bloom the political philosopher and classicist.
And the two authors have also put their ideas into action, teaming up to found Heterodox Academy, an educational platform devoted to enhancing “diversity of viewpoints, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement,” all based on the conviction that healthy and successful learning environments benefit from a multiplicity of ideas, worldviews, and political perspectives.
Lukianoff and Haidt look at the growing intimidation and even violence—not to mention the dramatic reduction in ideological diversity—on the modern American campus. Studies cited in the book show that in the humanities and social sciences, the ratio of liberal-to-conservative professors is more than ten to one, with even more dramatic discrepancies in elite Northeastern schools. The only exceptions are departments of economics, where things are more balanced.
In their chapter “The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People,” the authors draw a distinction between common-humanity identity politics and common-enemy identity politics. The former, employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, humanizes opponents and appeals to their common human interests while also applying political pressure in other ways. The latter aims to form a coalition, built on more local or “tribal” interests and affinities, against an opposing group. Today this latter strategy is deployed with equal vigor by both the left and the right; for each, persons or groups dissenting from the chosen cause or interest are not merely disagreed with but demonized.
As the authors conclude, the consequences of today’s us-versus-them culture have become abundantly clear: this way of thinking is “incompatible with the educational and research missions of universities, which require free inquiry, dissent, evidence-based argument, and intellectual honesty” (emphasis added).
Talmudic Education vs. Identity Politics
Which brings me back to Yeshiva. While Bloom’s Closing spoke powerfully to the fault lines in my college humanities curriculum, Lukianoff and Haidt’s Coddling serves to underscore one of the great virtues of the traditional Talmudic education I received every morning and early afternoon. Although the American Jewish community is hardly free of common-enemy identity politics and its corollary proposition that “Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People,” the Jewish intellectual tradition possesses powerful resources to counter this reductive and unhealthy way of thinking. Just look at any traditional Jewish study hall, or Beit Midrash, and you’ll see students and scholars, young and old (and, in the modern Orthodox world, male and female), engaging in what the Talmud suggestively calls “the War of Torah.” But, unlike the Hobbesian “war of all against all” and its modern academic equivalents, this robust exchange of differing viewpoints promotes creative problem-solving and a broader, more textured approach to truth.
Written in a mix of Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew, the Talmud, the ancient repository of Jewish oral law and lore, is a notoriously difficult text to navigate—which is why most students in traditional yeshivot will already have started studying Talmud at the age of ten or eleven. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest talmudic scholars alive today, conveys some of this difficulty:
The Talmud is a very hard book to define. From content to style, every definition is incomplete or contradictory. The Talmud is completely unique—a book that has no parallel anywhere. By way of an oxymoron and paradox, the Talmud may be called a book of holy intellectualism.
The heart and soul of this “holy intellectualism” resides in the spirit of discussion, debate, and disagreement that animates the give-and-take on each folio of the Talmud and in the classrooms and study halls where these ancient texts are being interrogated and explained. And that is why, from one’s earliest (sometimes baffled) encounter with these ancient texts to the intensely learned investigations of the most seasoned students, the Talmud and its commentaries are generally studied in pairs, havrutot, who argue, dissect, and strive to plumb the depths of the text. These study partners, often but not always, go on to become lifelong friends and confidants—sweet fruit from the “War of Torah”!
In the Beit Midrash, the form of talmudic dialectic that cultivates an appreciation for robust debate—the stuff of every traditional Jewish education—is backed by theory. Consider the Talmudic ruling requiring of a judge the ability to “purify the unclean thing in forty-nine ways,” an expression meant to convey the critical capacity to see an issue from all competing sides as, paradoxically, the way to arrive at a more refined sense of the truth. Similarly, Jewish jurisprudence invalidates a capital court case in which the judges return a unanimous verdict of guilty—an endorsement of both the utility and the moral superiority of “viewpoint diversity” if ever there was one.
The Symphony of Truth
Talmudic pedagogy also reflects more profound intellectual and theological commitments concerning the nature of the human person and of our creation in the image of G-d. In a well-known coda to the Tractate of Berakhot (64a), we learn the following: “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” This counterintuitive judgment seems to fly in the face of experienced reality. Scholars immersed in the “war of the Torah” argue boldly, aggressively even, maybe to the point of discomfort. In what sense, then, do they “increase peace”?
In this sense: true peace, according to the great 20th-century mystic and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, is not merely the absence of struggle or strife. It is more like an orchestral ensemble that requires multiple sounds and voices in order to create a greater sense of fullness, depth, and nuance. To put the point another way, the Talmud is teaching us that “truth is symphonic.” Only through engaging with one another in debate and even disagreement can we arrive at the highest truths.
What Lukianoff and Haidt call viewpoint diversity, conjuring up the image of a robustly noisy or even rancorous town hall, the rabbis thus counterintuitively call harmony or peace. And since peace is one of the names of G-d, it shouldn’t surprise us that, in a frequently cited affirmation of the value of multiple viewpoints—an affirmation attributed to a heavenly voice, no less—differing talmudic opinions are characterized in the Talmud itself as follows: “these and those are the words of the living G-d” (Eiruvin 13b).
Typically, the rabbis take this line of thought a step further. The two most prominent rival schools of jurisprudence in the Talmud are known as the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. As a general rule, the law follows the House of Hillel. Why? Because, it is explained, the rabbis of the House of Hillel would teach the opinion of the House of Shammai before their own. Whether this reflected mere etiquette or sincere commitment to a more deliberative and inclusive approach, it’s clear that, in taking seriously the arguments of its opponents, the House of Hillel did something fundamentally praiseworthy.
What better way to disabuse oneself of the contemporary untruth that “life is a battle between good people and evil people” than to heed the heavenly voice proclaiming reassuringly that in a high-stakes debate concerning the most vital issues of existence, “these and those” are equally the words of the living G-d? An intellectual culture founded on the logic and language of “these and those” is likelier to promote healthy disagreement and debate than is the politicized and reductionist worldview so dominant on campuses today, and so deftly analyzed by Lukianoff and Haidt.
Talmud study may not be for everyone, but internalizing the pedagogy of that ancient and eternally new discipline would go a long way toward opening American minds again.