If A Bee Can Spell…

October 18, 2008

I am prone to declaring to my friends (particularly one who wants to go into education policy) that before we rethink how we educate, we need to rethink and understand why we educate. And for me, liberal arts snob that I am at a pre-professional university, the purpose of higher education is where I get particularly opinionated.

And late last night, I found myself debating across a room about whether one who cannot spell, cannot cook–who seems sometimes to be incapable of day-to-day tasks which are generally thought of as simple–can be rightly considered intelligent if all of (or the overwhleming majority of) his education consists of Talmudic study. The argument was, “You’re not intelligent if you cannot spell, even if you have engaged with the Talmud,” vs, “Engagement with Talmud requires a different–and higher–level of intelligence than learning how to spell.”

Talmud works well for this discussion because it is a massive–in scope, breadth, and extent–work of critical thought focused on the Bible, which, think of it what you will, is (when viewed from a critical perspective) complex and undeniably influential in the history of human affairs. This, of course, entails that Talmudic criticism is inherently of serious nature. There is much at stake for the writers in understanding how to apply Torah to post-biblical life. The seriousness is why it preserves disputing and minority opinions throughout–to look at a page of Talmud is not merely to read the critical examination of a text by a particular mind, but to watch and listen as very different minds engage with the text in their respective manners, and respond to one another.

So it is, in a sense, the example of critical examination. And to spend decades of one’s life in an ongoing engagement with this text is to spend decades of one’s life in an ongoing critical examination. Ignoring what one may think of its contents, to truly engage–or even to read, follow, and understand a single page–requires a capcity for critical examination; and ongoing engagement with it will teach one that skill.

It’s not all-encompassing, of course–but nothing is–and there is no guarantee that the ability of critical examination will be applied to the rest of one’s life–but there never is in an institution of learning. The reason one does not go to college to learn how to spell is that higher education–of which Talmud is a sort–should not endeavor to teach rote skills. The purpose of higher education, in large part, is to teach the students how to engage critically with the world in which they exist; to learn this, they must engage critically with texts, data, theory, etc. Whether they are wise enough to use this skill is not the fault of the institution; that to gain this skill, one must have a degree of intelligence greater than that required to spell consistently and accurately is inherent.

To conclude, I’m going to fall back on paraphrasing Prof. Gary Morson (who, I discovered the other day, has a new book out–I haven’t read it, but since every year I’ve had a conflict with his course on Anna, I probably will) from a discussion he held on “purpose” the other night.

We read great novels, he said, because they make us sympathize with characters whose values differ–sometimes dramatically–from our own. And this makes you question, challenge, and examine your own beliefs and assumptions. One should not read a novel for answers, but for questions; “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and the purpose of studying literature is to equip ourselves with the tools to lead an examined life.

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