Monthly Archives: February 2006

The Old System Forces Out a Reformer

Lawrence Summers’s resignation from Harvard shows how precarious a position President Bollinger was in last year as the MEALAC controversy ravaged Columbia–and why the old University system simply does not work.
As Martin Peretz writes in the New Republic, the system of faculty governance has broken down: “This is not democracy; it is chaos, the politicization of an academic office.” Why has it broken down? Because scholars no longer envision themselves as fulfilling the same role as in the past. In previous generations, scholars attempted to build an Iron Wall between their studies and the world; history wasn’t history unless it happened fifty years before the semester begun, and everything else was too recent to be discussed. As the brilliant documentary Arguing the World shows, political activism was left to the students–and, as a result, some of the most innovative political thinkers developed their ideologies by debating with their peers, instead of being turned off by rhetorical overdose in the classroom.
The exact date this Iron Wall was breached is unclear to me, and I’m sure better informed pundits will have their theories, but what has developed is clear enough: scholars see their role at present to be activists. Knowledge has little worth of its own. Instead, knowledge has become a tool for power and political play, and those who are on the wrong side of the ideological line are seen as enemies instead of peers or partners in the human enterprise to advance knowledge. And, since peer review and faculty governance structures the system such that what should be a free-market of ideas is no more than a cartel-like oligarchy where a small sect controls the means of production, the Academy becomes more and more politicized with every appointment. Thus develops a balkanization of ideas, thus develops the disengagement of the youth from the field of politics, and thus develops a downward spiral of wisdom whereby professors are more interested in the ends of the minds they mold than in letting minds think for themselves and develop their own ideas.
So it’s not only that, as Peter Beinart writes, “Harvard’s, has just made an ass of itself,” but that the system as a whole needs to be rethought. Hopefully those people who will do the thinking won’t be on the Harvard (or Columbia) faculty.


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The North American Jewish Community

[Below is an excerpt from the final version of an essay I recently submitted to the Wexner/Davidson Fellowship program–thanks for all of your comments on the previously posted essay.]
As an undergraduate at Columbia, I saw the best minds of my generation tune out from general Jewish involvement on campus, dragging themselves off into isolation, either to the backrooms of the Columbia University Hillel, or to meetings of often hysterical partisan organizations, or to mini-rallies where a speaker would preach to the choir. I’ve noticed this tendency towards fractiousness amongst other segments of the North American Jewish community as well. Benefiting from an outside perspective as the son of Israeli immigrants who raised me in New York yet outside of the Jewish community, I’ve been astounded to see that no matter how many Jewish options exist in so few square miles, many Jews know little about the avenues for Jewish expression outside the bounds of their denomination. It is this problem of fractionalization that concerns me most, since I believe it stands in the way of our ability as a People to realize our individual and collective potential.
I think one of the major factors contributing to the splintering of the Jewish community and the resultant self-isolation of the denominationally affiliated youth is the focus many Jewish organizations put on ‘continuity’ instead of on enrichment. By focusing on continuity, Jewish organizations invest the majority of their time and capital reaching out to the unaffiliated through attractively packaged programming, working on the assumption that those already committed in one way or another to Judaism have already been won over. In doing so, the Jewish world paradoxically provides incentives for non-affiliation with specific communities—hence the ever-growing amount of “hipster” projects funded by institutional organizations—leaving those affiliated youths without the resources they need to further develop their communities.
I believe a different approach is possible. Organizations such as Makor in New York have shown that the affiliated and the unaffiliated alike are searching for content and meaning, and not just aesthetic appeal. In this vein, I have formed and joined a number of projects providing forums for young Jews from various backgrounds to engage the issues that define our communities and to chart a course for our future. The magazine I founded, Present Tense: Generation X Jewish Life (the first issue is due out this April) brings together nearly two dozen writers and editors from across the Jewish spectrum to explore issues gripping the Jewish community in news, feature, literary and critical pieces. A film I am co-producing and directing, Tradition! Tradition, asks Jews from various backgrounds to explain why they feel connected to their roots, in the hope of finding a common vocabulary of experience among the denominations., a website I founded and co-edit, brings together Zionist thinkers from various ideological perspectives, in order to encourage engagement and discourage party-line analyses. Teaching students at the Ivry Prozdor Hebrew High School over the past year has reinforced my opinion that thoughtful content made accessible is better than the bells and whistles of flashy marketing. While packaging is important, content is critical.
Ten years from today I hope to have played a part in a flowering of Jewish culture and consciousness in North America. I would like to direct an institute for Jewish thought and action, where creative individuals from various fields come together to learn from one another and cross-fertilize projects and initiatives. Until I reach that far off date, I hope to continue to dedicated myself to developing the idea of Jewish peoplehood by drawing out the greatest minds of my generation to meet one another and exchange their insights in the Jewish public sphere.

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