What’s the point of learning? Most people would probably answer that it helps us know what to do and how to make a living. That’s a reasonable answer, but an incomplete one. Learning is surely more than just a utilitarian activity – it speaks to the deepest aspirations of the human mind and spirit.
This issue has long preoccupied Jewish thought; it has also exercised the minds of many societies.
The recent decision by our government to double fees for most humanities courses and create more “job- ready graduates” in areas like teaching and engineering addresses this very issue. It’s answer to the question though is both shortsighted and worrying.
On one level, the decision and policy articulated by the education minister is pragmatic and understandable. Our universities are in financial trouble and in a Covid age we need to be especially prudent and practical. We need to help young people find jobs where they are needed. On the other hand a decision like this is shortsighted if not Philistine. It fails to recognise that learning and education are not just financial products that can be monetised. It also fails to understand that someone educated in the arts can contribute to society in so many rich and variegated ways.
This brings us to the heart of the question: what’s the point of an education; what’s the point of learning?
Put differently, why do we need universities?
Long before the first university was established (in 1538) Jews had set up higher places of learning called yeshivot. We had established compulsory learning and schooling long before it was conceived of in western civilisation. The Temple priests were educated and educators. Benjamin Disraeli was well aware of this: 1835 Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Roman Catholic leader, attacked Disraeli in the House of Commons. In the course of his unrestrained invective, he referred to Disraeli’s Jewish ancestry. Disraeli replied, ‘Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.’
It’s well known that Judaism is fanatical about education. At the very beginning of our daily morning prayers we acknowledge the primacy of learning Torah: ”These are the things without measure…acts of kindness and the study of Torah… These are the things whose fruit we eat in this world but whose full reward awaits us in the world to come: honouring parents… hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick,… But the study of Torah is equal to them all” (Mishna Shabbat and Peah).
What is less well known is the concept of Torah Lishmah or learning Torah for its own sake – not in order to become someone that others admire (like a brilliant teacher or smart person) but to become someone you are proud of yourself. Strive to become a human being who is fully rounded, one who possesses a highly developed IQ and EQ, one who has what the Torah calls an informed or educated heart, chacham lev.
Learning Torah does also have a utilitarian purpose in that it should lead to purposeful actions or to becoming a better practising or observant Jew. But you shouldn’t only focus on the practical dimensions. Rather, we are called on to traverse the wild and difficult, as well as the settled and cultivated, areas of the Talmudic terrain. The serious study of Torah is not easy. The Rambam wrote: “The Torah does not grow in those who are casual with it, and not in those who learn and indulge in food and drink, rather only in one who kills himself over it and causes pain to his body, and he doesn’t give a rest his eyelids.”
Torah study is not a purely intellectual pursuit. Rather, it is an encounter with God – it can be daunting and challenging but also exhilarating, enriching and enlarging of one’s spirit. It stimulates curiosity, it engages questions. There is nothing quite like the Talmudic process – there are virtually no questions that cannot be asked, no issues that cannot be broached, no difficulties too hard to handle. More than this, studying for its own sake allows the mind to meander, to discover, to create, to uncover new and unexpected areas. It’s been called doodle time which allows our minds to travel unhindered by expectation or billable quotients.
This was the original purpose of the university as well. The university was meant to be a place, not just to meet marketing criteria and customer satisfaction, but the “promotion of the powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women engaged in the search for truth“ ( UK Robbins Report 1963). In line with this we should as a society defend, not defund, the humanities.To quote my son Yoni, a humanities scholar: ”This is a period of great uncertainty for everyone, but also the humanities itself, when funding is increasingly hard to secure. Times like this highlight the value of the humanities: when people have time to reflect on what matters, and where our basic assumptions relating to work, the economy, politics and social life demand a rethink. Philosophy and the humanities deal with these issues with a rigor and breadth that is vital, and has much to contribute.”
This is of course what universities originally set out to do. Like the ideal yeshivot, they were meant to be places that nurtured public debate, respectful argument, and allowed space for dissenting voices. Unfortunately many universities, like many yeshivot today are places that prevent public debate, exclude those of differing opinions (on gender and Israel for example).They call it no-platforming and safe spaces but it’s more like parochialism and stifling spaces.
And this is even the more reason to provide for the humanities and to support those yeshivot and faculties that are committed to the freedom of the mind, the liberation of the human spirit, the unshackling of the soul. These are (to echo Bilam in our parasha) the tents of learning and sanctuaries of the soul deserving of our support and worthy of our praise!