Why Scholarship Must Be Defended from the Temptations of Politics

Today, thanks to postmodern assaults on objectivity on the one hand, and woke radicalism on the other, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have become increasingly willing to make declarations about public life that go beyond the strict confines of their disciplines. Jonathan Sarna, a leading historian of American Jewry, argues that those who do so dangerously abuse their expertise—even when they are acting for a good cause. To illustrate his point, he cites a controversy that ensued in 2019 when a study claimed that “Jews of color represent at least 12-15 percent of American Jews.”

Two highly esteemed Jewish demographers, Professors Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, challenged these claims on scientific grounds, . . . arguing that “the percentage of Jews of color is almost certainly closer to 6 percent nationally.” . . . To their—and observers’—surprise and horror, their well-argued, dispassionate scholarly critique met with a torrent of politically motivated abuse, first in dozens of anguished and angry comments [online] and then more substantially when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote an op-ed accusing the scholars of racism.

To activists, the admirable political goals of combating racism and embracing Jews of color may justify distorting the empirical truth in favor of sentiment.

Unsurprisingly, subsequent data bore out the more modest estimates. Sarna draws a contrast to the attitude of the scholars of the middle of the last century:

Politics above all was anathema to the pioneers [of Jewish studies in America], for its values were seen to be antithetical to those of the scholar. Scholars pursued truth; politicians pursued power. Scholars might discuss politics and even express political judgments; several did over my parents’ Shabbat table. But in their research, they abjured politics lest it taint and distort the timeless scholarship that they yearned to produce.

I watch with a mixture of incredulity and horror as colleagues and friends cast aside the scholarly values on which we were raised and replace them with ideologically tainted political ones. A growing list of books and people may no longer be published, cited, or even mentioned, never mind met with, even for scholarly purposes academic departments and learned societies debate political resolutions.

Read more at Sapir

More about: Academia, Jewish studies

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus