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The Blessings and Pitfalls of Liberal Education

February 19, 2010 3:33 pm 0 comments

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Open-minded. Photo: Zviki Lipshitz.


Much has been written about the apparent absence in contemporary society of passion directed toward any ideal beyond our personal needs and pleasures. Nothing in the contemporary secular conversation calls on us to give up anything truly valuable for anybody or anything else. Even marriage and the family unit, once considered sacred institutions worth sacrificing for, are easily discarded when they conflict with one’s personal comforts.

The original cause of this condition, it seems, is the gift of liberty that our generation has been blessed with. Our open education has endowed us with an openness to a sundry of cultures, races, ethnic groups, and belief systems, liberating us from many a phobia caused by single-minded tribalism and religious or social dogma. This in itself is healthy: Open-mindedness diminishes bigotry and advocates tolerance and respect for groups and people different than we.

Yet like all blessings, this one, too, does not come without an enormous challenge.

Liberal education is not a goal in and of itself; it is a means to an end. Emancipated from dogma and indoctrination, you are empowered to choose a path with inner conviction and zest. You can embrace a vision that is truly yours. Relationships, morality, faith, goodness, sacrifice and love can now emerge from the depth of your soul, rather than from social conventions and external pressures. But for this to occur, children and students need parents, mentors and educators who can show them how to utilize the blessings of open mindedness to build character, to develop an idealistic personality and achieve moral greatness.

To our dismay, the opposite has occurred. We live arguably in the most sophisticated age, free to question all absolutes with the objectivity of reason. Here in the United States, we have been redeemed, to a significant degree, from the maladies of bigotry, intolerance and prejudice that have plagued humanity for millennia. But instead of seeing our liberty as an opportunity to promote powerful moral commitments stemming from authentic and un-coerced desire, we utilized our zest to de-legitimize and trivialize any commitment that runs too deep. Many have retreated into self-centered solitariness, expending much energy in defending the principle that no choice is worthwhile to be taken too seriously. Is it possible that 5,000 years of the human search for truth were meant to culminate with no ideal larger than the quest for self preservation and gratification?

Our extreme and endless open mindedness has often diminished, rather than built, the character of the youth. It has deprived many of the millennia-long awareness that there are truths worth fighting for, ideals worth aspiring towards, relationships worth sacrificing for. Timidity and reservation became the staple of our generation. With all of our technological progress, the tragic fact remains that millions of Americans find it impossible to maintain stable marriages, to raise happy children and to find true meaning in their existence. Fifty percent of first marriages are likely to end in divorce, and one million new children are added each year to the “list” of broken families. Alas, we have come to know, in Oscar Wild’s words, the price of everything but the value of nothing. We understand our bodies like never before, but have become distant from our souls. When you have nothing to fight for, are you really alive?

Victor Davis Hanson, a Classicist by training, a former commercial farmer by trade, serves now as  professor at the University of California. In his book “Who Killed Homer?” he speaks about the demise of classical education in this country and how it has led to moral feebleness, philosophical haziness, and even a weakened will to survive.

The Russian Novelists

I raised this issue with Russian literature Professor Dr. Andrew D. Kaufman Ph.D., co-author of the renowned Russian for Dummies. He wrote to me: “I have found that people whose lives are infused with clear injustices are less wishy washy on moral questions. That’s what has fascinated me about the great Russian writers, whom I have studied for many years. They had no problem taking clear moral stands on issues, because they had stark evidence in front of them of the differences between justice and injustice, freedom and slavery, morality and corruption. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky among others, had no difficulty taking a clear moral stand on issues. These issues weren’t intellectual abstractions to them. They were painfully real.

“The American universities, on the other hand, have done my generation a real disservice. They’ve skewed students’ perspectives, and only enhanced their naturally sheltered state. This generation of students has to it an internal softness. The newly enlightened young Americans have lost their moral nerve. They don’t believe in absolute truths and higher ideals, because they are told in the universities that to do so would be ‘insensitive,’ or ‘undemocratic.’ It’s a real problem, because when we cannot define evil as evil, we make sure it continues to exist and grow.”

The Uniqueness of the Menorah

There is an intriguing element in the construction of the Tabernacle, discussed in this week’s Torah portion (Terumah). Of all the furniture to be built for the Tabernacle, only a few were required to be made of a single piece of gold. One of them was the menorah, the five-foot-tall seven-branched golden candelabra, kindled every evening in the Sanctuary, casting its sacred glow on the surroundings. (The eight-branched Hannukah menorah is a commemoration of this nightly ritual in the Temple.)

“You shall make a menorah of pure gold,” the Torah instructs, “the menorah should be made of a single piece of beaten gold.” The menorah was an elaborate structure, comprised of many shapes, forms and nuanced designs, yet it needed to be hammered out from a single ingot of gold; no part of it could be made separately and attached later.

Rashi, the 11th century French biblical commentator, explains this instruction clearly: “He should not make it [the menorah] of sections, nor should he make its branches and lamps of separate pieces and connect them afterward in the style of metal-workers which they call “soulder” in Old French. Rather, it should all come from a single piece. He (the craftsman) beats it with a mallet and cuts it with craftsman tools, separating the branches to either side… The craftsman draws the parts of the menorah out of the solid block of gold.”

Why the Headache?

Now, you need not be a skilled craftsman to appreciate how difficult a task this was. The menorah was an extremely complex and intricately designed article. Why does the Torah demand it be hammered out from a single lump of gold? Why not construct the menorah from separate pieces of metal, and then weld them together?

What is even more intriguing is that the menorah was the one of two articles in the Tabernacle that the Torah required to be built in this fashion! Most other articles, like the table with the show bread, the altars, the washing basin, even the holiest article — the ark, could all be built from separate pieces. Yet the menorah, perhaps the most intricate article in the Temple, needed to be fleshed out of a single lump of gold. What is the message behind this?

The Torah, it has been suggested, is attempting to convey a profound insight into the human condition and the objective of education. If you ever wish to become a menorah, a source of light to others, you must ensure that you are made of “one piece.” To be a leader, a pillar of conviction and a wellspring of inspiration, you cannot afford to be dichotomized. You need to know who you are and what you stand for. You must be holistic.

Ambivalence and ambiguity make for good conversation at campus cafes, or on op-ed pages. Yet in all of their glamorous sophistication, they lack the capacity to inspire youth. Passion and conviction are the fruits of a deep and integrated sense of self. Children do not respond well to ambivalence, because it leaves them with a sense of uncertainty and with a hole in their hearts. Judaism always understood that if you wish to live a self-contained life, you can be made of many pieces, dichotomized and fragmented. But if you wish to become a menorah, if you wish to inspire your children and students, if you wish to cast a light on a dark world and to kindle sparks and brighten lives you must be made of “one piece.” You may still struggle and wonder, yet you must know who you are, what you believe in, and why you are alive.

Why Were You Created?

For fourteen years I was privileged to attend the weekly addresses of a brilliant teacher, a man well educated in the sciences, arts and philosophies, who professed encyclopedic knowledge in the fields of physics, science (in the broadest sense of the term), history and literature, and mastery over the enormous body of Biblical, Talmudic, Halachik and Kabbalistic texts. He was also a profoundly open-minded individual, with a keen understanding of the complexities of the human mind. Yet in almost every one of his speeches and addresses, he would quote this apparently simplistic Talmudic statement: “I was created in order to serve G-d.”

I often wondered why this extraordinary thinker felt compelled to quote this dictum again and again. Why the need to repeat something we have all heard hundreds of times from his mouth? In retrospect I have come to understand that by reiterating this message continuously, sincerely and wholeheartedly, our Rebbe (teacher) wished to communicate to his disciples a powerful message: Appreciate diversity, tolerate otherness, and open yourself up to the colorfulness of the world. But never allow yourself to become emotionally and mentally torn in the process. Remember who you are and what you were created for. You were created to serve G-d, to fulfill His will and to build a world saturated with goodness and G-dliness. Do not allow life to become so complicated that you are not sure any longer who you are and what you represent.

The wise and open minded King Solomon knew a thing or two about the compelling force of cynicism. Just read through the book of Ecclesiastes. Yet he also understood that skepticism is a means, not an end. The final verse of this deeply disturbing biblical book is what is missing from today’s educational curriculum:

“The final word after all that is known is this: Fear G-d and Observe His commandments, for this is the whole purpose of man.”

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