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Does Harvard honor its crest: VERITAS/TRUTH?

“Knowledge can easily blur true and falsehood. Accuracy lies in the subtleties of wisdom” (Sefat Emmet, Chanukah).

Throughout Mishlei, Shlomo Hamelech explores the relationship between knowledge and morality. Much of the sefer presumes that knowledge and wisdom expand moral reasoning.

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Ideally, education does expose us to larger universal truths, extending our horizons beyond our personal and narrow experiences. Any encounter with broader truths decentralizes self-interest and should enhance ethical sensitivity. Additionally, education highlights the complexity of the human condition, hopefully sensitizing us to the experiences and needs of others.

Shlomo Hamelech wasn’t the only thinker to assume that expanded knowledge heightens moral conscience. Socrates asserted that “virtue is knowledge,” assuming that immoral behavior was purely a result of ignorance. Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries such as Locke and Rousseau were optimistic that widespread education would yield a more civil and humane society. Knowledge, many asserted, was a portal to moral behavior and reasoning.

The shocking events of the past two months have debunked these assumptions. Our just war to defeat pure evil and to defend the world against moral collapse has elicited a vicious wave of enraged antisemitism. Astonishingly, college campuses across the United States have become podiums for hatred and for the support of rape, murder, torture, and dismemberment of human beings. They have also become launching pads for violence against Jews.

University administrations sat by idly, as their students, presumably exposed to the best and finest of Western education, rioted for murder and, in some instances, expressed their verbal hatred through acts of physical violence.

To make matters worse, several Ivy League college presidents were summoned by the U.S. Congress to explain their inaction and their implicit support for demonstrations of hate. Their moral hedging and their embarrassing attempts to “contextualize” violence and bigotry was shameful. It provided a wake-up call for those who had previously revered these colleges as “prestigious” institutions of higher learning. Though several of these administrators walked back their heinous comments, their retractions seemed little more than lame apologies meant to save their cozy appointments rather than heartfelt admissions of moral dysfunction.

Some of the moral confusion on campuses is just simple, old-fashioned, Jew hatred. Opportunistic antisemites always wait in the wings, eagerly joining whatever group or movement preaches antisemitism. The particular narrative of antisemitism makes no difference, as long as Jews are vilified for fabricated crimes, and hatred is provoked. Hitler built his initial base of support by rallying student groups across Germany to loathsome antisemitism. History repeats itself.

Furthermore, some of the Israel-bashing and Jew-threatening is feeble herd mentality. Social media favors the most vocal shouters and the most aggressive posters. Many protesters against Israel are pitiable stooges, completely ignorant of even the basic details of this war, and are blindly parroting irrelevant slogans, completely unrelated to the complex war we are carefully navigating. Beware of the herd.

However, there are much deeper roots to this appalling academic moral freefall. This intellectual tragedy occurring within these “beacons of enlightened thinking” exposes serious shortfalls within Western culture and showcases implicit dangers of higher education. If knowledgeable professors and cultured students are being duped into morally humiliating and venomous opinions, there is something structurally flawed about our culture. Evidently, some people are too smart for their own good.

 

Over-Sophistication

Our world is complex and human experience is multi-layered. Education trains us to be analytical – to evaluate information, consider multiple perspectives, and make informed decisions. Through analysis we probe beyond surface-level understanding, challenge preconceived notions, and embrace complexity. When we look at the world through a periscope, we miss much of its sweep and texture. Education and analysis enable us to see the world large and whole, rather than narrow and simplistically.

However, the methodology of analysis also blurs moral clarity. As we delve into the intricacies of intellectual analysis, we inadvertently lose sight of simple truths which anchor moral behavior. Though many moral issues do contain complexity, there are many black and white moral situations which demand clear-cut and unqualified moral certainty.

For this reason, common or uneducated people often possess stronger moral conviction than those who are educated. Ordinary people are often more attuned to inner and untainted moral instincts than sophisticates, who ignore intuitive moral reasoning in their endless search for convoluted moral formulas.

The Torah introduces Yaakov as a simple man who dwelled within tents, while tending to his sheep. Though Yaakov’s life would soon turn complicated, he enjoyed a simple youth, insulated from the duplicity of this world and its complex moral predicaments. Similar to Yaakov, many of our greatest leaders, from Moshe Rabeinu to Dovid Hamelech, to many nevi’im such as Amos, began their moral journeys as simple shepherds, far removed from cosmopolitan sophistication. Their pure and noble upbringing provided an ingrained and indissoluble moral backbone.

Moshe the shepherd flees Egypt as a fugitive from the law. Though it is in his best interest to remain incognito, he cannot ignore the young girls he witnesses being harassed at the watering hole. Ignoring any “context” of this harassment, and despite his desire for confidentiality, he rallies to their defense.

My revered rebbe, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, modeled an uncanny combination of intellectual sophistication and steadfast moral clarity. His lectures were both intellectually scintillating and panoramic. He would discuss a single issue for hours, carefully and delicately unfolding concealed layers of meaning. He taught us to see the world as nuanced rather than binary. Yet, he also displayed clear moral thinking and frequently expressed moral outrage against injustice. His analytic talents didn’t obfuscate his moral courage.

This past month has taught us a harsh lesson: knowledge doesn’t automatically translate into moral integrity. Perhaps we should examine who we admire and which institutions we consider prestigious. Sharp-witted professors may impress us with their brilliance, but may miserably fail the morality litmus test. Maybe we should pay more respect to those who display moral courage and clear-headed moral principles. Maybe they are more prestigious.

 

Intellectual Arrogance

There may be a more sinister factor causing this despicable moral dysfunction. Acquisition of knowledge can often cause intellectual snobbery. People who amass knowledge often feel superior to those who are less educated. Education provides cultural and social opportunities, including better jobs and social networks. These socio-economic privileges often create a superiority complex. Though intellectual elitism has always existed, in the past it was partially justified given a world of mass illiteracy, when the non-educated had absolutely no access to knowledge. In the modern era of widespread literacy information is accessible to most of the population, who are more than capable of ethical reasoning without benefitting from enlightened moral theories of superior intellects.

In the United States Ivy League colleges have become a cultural icon. As they are vital for professional advancement, they have become objects of prestige and even cultural idolization. Parents are willing to pay sizable fees to facilitate their children’s acceptance, and there have been numerous high-profile scandals in which illegal bribes opened the doors to otherwise unsuitable students. Given the absence of an actual aristocracy in the United States, Ivy League professors and students are sometimes viewed as pseudo-aristocracy which often breeds smug arrogance within their inner circles.

It is fair to wonder whether their repulsive moral equivocation stems from a false superiority complex. Why is our moral reality so obvious to everyone but not to them? Could it be that they perceive themselves as possessing a higher and more sophisticated moral logic and better tools for moral calculations? Is their moral confusion a byproduct of their intellectual arrogance?

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Rabbi Moshe Taragin teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.