Donna Swarthout
Donna Swarthout

Jewish Values in Higher Education, Or the Lack Thereof


Higher education is an attractive field for people like me who are born with the propensity to debate, argue, persuade and exchange ideas with just about anyone. Making money never motivated me as much as the chance to become part of a community that valued the pursuit of knowledge.

But the academy does not always live up to its ideals. It’s not uncommon to read about threats to freedom of expression on college campuses, where speech codes may infringe on the rights of students to voice their opinions. But there are also speech issues at the root of university institutions themselves. The prevalent business model in higher education can suppress open debate and discussion among teaching and professional staff, especially when they raise questions about how resources are allocated.

At the private German university where I most recently worked, there were so few permanent, full-time professors that they were constantly overwhelmed by the demands of teaching and departmental administration. These demands precluded time spent on office hours, academic advising, mentoring of junior faculty, and recruiting of qualified lecturers. Though the university offered funds to support research, most professors were unable to find time to pursue a research agenda. Few spoke up about the need to devote more resources to academics and those who did were met with polite replies and little to no action.

While full-time professors are stretched too thin, universities heavily rely on low-paid contract lecturers to teach ever greater numbers of courses. Referred to as “an army of temps” in the latest report by the American Federation of Teachers, many adjunct and contingent faculty live in a state of poverty or are unable to cover basic living expenses. Legions of articles have been written on this topic and the dismal state of affairs for the American adjunct. The situation for contract lecturers in Germany is no different.

How is it that higher education institutions fail to adequately nurture a culture of learning? It doesn’t have to be this way. According to the American Association of University Professors, “The turn towards cheaper contingent labor is largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity.” Low pay is matched by low levels of support, training, and inclusion in academic decision making for non-tenure track faculty. Meanwhile, universities often prioritize investments in marketing and new facilities to attract more students. The learning community as a whole suffers when students enter such a weak academic environment.

Jewish educational practices, among those of many other cultures, can help us move away from short-sighted approaches to teaching and learning that undermine the ideals of higher education. As a group of Jewish medical scholars emphasized in a 2017 article for the Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, “Jewish tradition is but one example of a culture that glorifies scholarship….and the ideal of life-long learning.”

The practices that cultivate life-long learning habits are basic and well known. Creating a space for discussion and debate is as important for teachers and staff as it is for students. Bringing people together to ask questions, talk about problems and share ideas for solutions contributes to a more supportive learning environment. Everyone working in higher education should be treated with respect and no one should feel they have to remain silent.

Addressing the injustices and resource issues that plague higher education will remain an uphill battle. But learning communities can be nurtured from the bottom up. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” Despite the low pay and poor working conditions faced by so many of us in higher education, we can draw on our own cultural traditions to create a stronger learning environment for everyone in the campus community.

For more on this topic, see my companion essay Why I’m Leaving Higher Education.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany, published by Berlinica in January 2019.
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