Educating for Human Wholeness

Posted on Feb 11, 2014

“As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” reported the New York Times a few months back. “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s major undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities—but only 15 percent of the students.” A principal cause of that disparity, of course, is Stanford University’s reputation in the so-called STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Another, however, is the economy. It costs a great deal of money to attend a private college or university, and for many parents the outcome upon graduation must be commensurate with the investment, particularly when good jobs are scarce. I can recall many poignant conversations over the course of my 20 years at Stanford with students who wanted to major in Religious Studies or Philosophy, but were forbidden by their parents from doing so. At Harvard too, reported the New York Times, “most students who say they intend to major in humanities end up in other fields.”

In one sense there is no problem with this change, except the underemployment of humanities faculty and dimming job prospects for newly minted PhDs in these fields. One might argue, with some merit, that the point of a college education is to sharpen the mind, unleash powers of creativity and thought, and give students the experience of going deep into a single area of intellectual endeavor—goals that can be accomplished just as well in a biology or math major as in classics or comparative literature. And yet one can’t help worrying that the decline of interest in the humanities does not bode well for the quality of our graduates or our country. I want to explain why I share that judgment, and why I believe that the unique value of humanities education is directly connected to how and why The Jewish Theological Seminary is attempting to educate a new kind of Jewish activist and Jewish leader. The point at JTS, as in higher education generally, is wholeness. We aim at integration of the various faculties of the self in a manner that shapes integrity.

Stanford President John Hennessy, addressing the matter in a recent column in the Stanford alumni’s magazine (“Preparation That Lasts a Lifetime,” January/February 2014), cites the assertion over a century ago by Senator Leland Stanford that “The intelligent development of the human faculties is necessary to man’s happiness,” enabling a person “to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others.” That is true, I believe. The advancement of human happiness seem a far better reason for liberal arts education that includes significant work in humanities than the (no less true) explanation that the humanities inculcate skills needed “to innovate and lead in a rapidly changing world,” or, worse still, that they “provide a broad range of skills highly valued by employers in every economic sector.” Does one really need an entire humanities major to develop these abilities? Wouldn’t a required course or two on the way to a major in STEM subjects suffice? Most schools and students have apparently come to that conclusion—which is why, as at Stanford, there are general education requirements in humanities but very few majors.

I think the case for humanities has to be made differently, building on Leland Stanford’s wisdom and Hennessy’s point that humanities “enrich our personal lives . . . teach us how to build on the past and construct things never before imagined.” Among the purposes of higher education, I believe, is to help a person think intelligently about what it means to be a human being (in JTS’s case, a Jewish human being). The sciencesare indispensable to that task. They explain our part in the natural world, the place of our planet in the galaxy, the way our bodies work, the way we fit into the food chain, how it is that I can write this sentence and you can read it. The social sciences are no less essential. They teach us what it means to be a user of language, tools, and machines; the patterns and dysfunctions of societies and states; the distribution of wealth and resources; the uses and abuses of money, power, and influence.

Humanities disciplines have two major roles in this scheme of things. They teach us, via close encounter with and discussion of texts and historical documents, to pay close attention to arguments and insights, weigh values as well as facts, and learn from voices and experiences far different than our own. The humanities also teach us to reflect on the facts about our universe, world, society, and selves revealed by the sciences and social sciences. They give citizens the ability to weigh competing goods and obligations, and individuals the ability to think about the moral significance of sickness and disease, the religious significance of our place in the cosmos, and the meaning for love and friendship of the fact that we are bodies that respond like all other life forms to chemical and physical stimuli.

JTS has, from the outset, aimed at educating Jewish leaders——who understand the complex web of interactions linking Jewish communities and traditions to the cultures and societies of which we are a part. We do not want Jews to keep science and faith in separate pockets, carefully insulated from the challenges each poses to the other. We want to further a kind of Judaism that respects and learns from other religions, values the insights of the arts and social sciences, insists that Jewish wisdom be brought to bear on every aspect of contemporary society—and that it be enriched and corrected by other sources of knowledge and truth.

That is why the undergraduate students in JTS’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies are encouraged in a new senior seminar to integrate what they have learned in their dual-degree studies at Barnard College or Columbia University with what they have learned at JTS: linking political science with Talmud, say, or chemistry with Bible. For the same reason, students in the List College Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship are taught to bring classroom learning to bear on the knowledge gained in field placements and vice versa, putting “academia and activism in conversation with one another,” as one student put it. Our cantorial students study Jewish education—not only to improve job prospects, but to bring arts and social sciences into dialogue. Our rabbinical students learn about other faiths and faith communities along with Jewish texts and Jewish history.

“The day is short and the work great.” Our Sages knew this long before the explosion and instant accessibility of knowledge made it utterly impossible for any of us to know what we should in order to achieve the wholeness for which we yearn. The quest remains as it has always been: one wants to love God and God’s creatures with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.” Higher education that integrates study in sciences and humanities can make a major contribution to the integrity of our persons.