Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Against Graduation


The highlight of university graduations is the commencement address, where a prominent personality offers the students words of wisdom about entering the real world. Oftentimes the speaker, a celebrity or politician, is a mismatch for this dramatic speech; and as a result, the advice given is banal earnestness interspersed with second rate humor. The actor Will Ferrell, described this problem in his own commencement speech when he said: “I would also like to apologize to all the parents who are sitting there, saying, ‘Will Ferrell? Why Will Ferrell?.”

This year, when reading reports of the most recent batch of commencement addresses, I allowed myself to imagine what I would say. Then it hit me: the best advice to give graduates is that they should never graduate. The word “graduate” implies a conclusion; but learning must never stop, and intellectual curiosity must be lifelong. There is no graduation from learning.

Sadly, most university graduates leave learning once they leave the university. Critics of contemporary universities such as William Deresiewicz have noted that even the best universities have taken on a commercial ethos, and are an assembly line for career advancement. As a result the humanities suffer, and students are left with materialistic ambitions and intellectual apathy.

This decline in intellectual curiosity has lead to a coarsening of the public discourse. “High minded” discussion now revolves around politics and business, while too much conversation focuses on gossip, celebrities and TV shows. This is not surprising: serious, nuanced ideas can't compete in a world of social media. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”; sadly today too many lives are lived on the superficial plane, unexplored and unexamined. Our collective intellectual decline is a worrisome trend, one which could eventually impact on the health of Western democracies. Leon Wieseltier, in his Brandeis Commencement address in 2013 put it this way: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

For the Jewish community this loss of intellectual interest is a calamity. Judaism sees Torah study as an all encompassing activity. One is obligated to study in every free moment, and learning is meant to be a passion, vocation, and the ultimate aspiration. Life without learning is unthinkable, and if the unexamined life is not worth living, then the Jewishly unexamined life is not worth pursuing. That is why Jews have always cherished learning. Jerome, the Church father, remarked that in the fourth century that the average Jew knew the Tanakh by heart. In Eastern Europe, even the less educated, such as bakers and coachmen, would hurry at night to study the weekly Parsha.

That has come to a halt. Mirroring the general intellectual malaise, too much of Jewish discourse has become superficial. To be Jewish now means to visit Israel, to make Jewish jokes, and to eat gefilte fish; all wonderful things of course, (except perhaps for gefilte fish), but lacking in substance. Study, if done at all, is pursued as a leisure activity. But our tradition takes the view that Torah, and wisdom in general, are not hobbies; they are existential needs, and life is unimaginable without learning.

My Yeshiva training exposed me to great personalities who saw learning as all important. In my years as a student I heard many a time about Rav Soloveitchik’s famous “Thanksgiving lecture of 1976”. That morning, he spent 5 hours in class trying to resolve a difficult question. Even though everyone (including Rav Soloveitchik himself) had to travel home for Thanksgiving dinner, he exclaimed that "no one can leave here until we understand what that Tosafot is saying!”.

This is learning that is a passion and not a hobby. And when learning is a passion, there are no graduations, and all of life is an intellectual journey.

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