During Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of light over darkness, of the triumph of our values over the hegemonizing ideals and practices of the oppressor.
A crucial part of Jewish tradition is applying the wisdom of the past to the challenges of today. And the world is full of challenges today. One of those closest to home for some of us is the culture and climate at universities. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed growing anti-Israel activity and antisemitism on campus.
Concurrently, a new orthodoxy has emerged, which is viewed by many as an overdue reckoning and by some as ideological overreach. This shift is typified by an intolerance or rejection of ideas that are deemed intolerant or worse. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ideological extremism have been targeted by growing numbers of students and faculty, which, on its face, is progress. Even so, issues with this evolution include who is doing the judging, as well as where intolerance of intolerance intrudes on academic growth and ideological diversity, which is the lifeblood of the institutions.
A confounding aspect of campus culture today is that, in an ideal world, anti-Jewish sentiments would be included in the panoply of censured ideas. Instead, too often, the people who are denouncing racism are carving out exceptions in this one instance, as many voices have observed. (David Baddiel’s book Jews Don’t Count was reviewed in these pages recently.)
In a curious development, it has recently been announced that a group of academics, activists and entrepreneurs are set to open a whole new university. The University of Austin, to be soft-launched in Texas next year, intends to be a petri dish for unfettered “academic freedom.”
The historian Niall Ferguson, who is one of the proponents of the new school, has written of the problem they intend to address, using some of the reductive shorthand now deployed in this larger “culture war”: “Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. Microaggressions. Antiracism. All these terms are routinely deployed on campuses throughout the English-speaking world as part of a sustained campaign to impose ideological conformity in the name of diversity. As a result, it often feels as if there is less free speech and free thought in the American university today than in almost any other institution in the U.S.”
The University of Austin appears to be a product of frustration. The state of campus discourse today is problematic in many ways. But there is a larger principle at stake. If there is a problem in the academy at large, is the solution to pack up one’s books and ghettoize into a whole new school? Around the globe, liberal values are under threat by totalitarianism on both extremes of the political spectrum from left to right. The campus environment reflects and is a contributor to the trends in society, how we relate to one another and ourselves, as well as organize our politics and affiliations. We do not have the ability (yet) to decamp to another planet because of rampant illiberalism on this one. Similarly, while we do have the capacity to segregate ourselves into alternative institutions, is that in any way going to improve the broader issue?
Ironically, the purpose of the University of Austin appears to be to create a space for uncomfortable ideas. But isn’t that precisely what they are running away from? As in so many things in life, we have a choice: flee or stay and fight.
Academia is one of the places where we address, however awkwardly and inconclusively, concerns like power, class, race, gender, legacies of colonialism and many, many more. If the voices of intellectual homogeneity on campus are determined to shelter students from disturbing topics, or to instil in them a uniform, facile response, is it the proper reaction to give them what they want?
It is understandable and tempting to abandon the institutions that betray our values or challenge our identities. It is also understandable and tempting to want to have a whole institution that reflects back our values and reinforces our identities. Neither scenario sits well within Judaism’s long tradition of debate and critical thinking. And neither scenario makes for a healthy society.
Our only reasonable response in life – and especially at supposed institutions of higher learning – is to continue engaging in the battle of ideas, however daunting and hopeless the fight might appear.
Chanukah is but one of the Jewish holidays that teach us miracles can happen – but that they don’t happen on their own. We have an active role to play in this world, and should always be looking for ways to bring light into it.