Higher Education Needs to Be Both Personal and Moral


The tumultuous first year of this decade has brought not only the unprecedented chaos of a global pandemic, but a wave of righteous protest and anger at the horrific racial injustice that has plagued our country since its beginning.

Our need for moral leadership during these times is profound — and we must maintain the academic conditions that will nurture it among the next generation.

Covid-19 has forced us to reconsider nearly every aspect of our future. For those of us leading academic institutions, one of the central questions of our recovery from the crisis is how to reinvent in-person education in a way that ensures safety without sacrificing the personal connection that is the foundation for meaningful learning.

Of course, no one person or institution has all the answers. This is an unprecedented challenge that demands creative thinking and innovative solutions.

However, as I take leadership of The Jewish Theological Seminary, I do know one thing: In this difficult moment for our country, one of deep social unrest and pervasive uncertainty, it is essential that we recreate the environment for a morally centered education, for learning that is grounded in the human perspective fostered through shared living and learning.

The future of higher education is first a matter of public health — but, for us, as an institution whose student experience is based on engagement within a living Jewish community, it is also a question of values and ethical obligation.

Our religious commitments compel us to forge human connections where possible. The rhythm of our school year is based around Jewish holidays, and many Jewish rituals require community; critical, reflective learning emerges through give-and-take with at least one other person.

Since March we adapted quickly to recreate connectivity among our students, not only in the classroom but also through daily virtual afternoon prayer services, special Torah learning sessions led by senior cantorial and rabbinical students and a Zoom celebration of Lag b’Omer.

We know that close engagement with peers, professors and class work is paramount to cultivating the next generation of scholars and leaders who will guide us in addressing the moral and ethical questions of our time.

When we learn together, we are always seeing at least one other perspective. This sense of personal community builds skills in not only reading texts closely but listening and valuing viewpoints other than our own; it also complements the texts, artifacts, ideas and communities that we study, which themselves cultivate empathy and moral reasoning.

Similarly, when we pray communally, we are enriched by the multiple voices that amplify our prayers to the Divine. And the prayers themselves emphasize our obligations to perform acts of lovingkindness and to improve the world.

So yes, we must advance science to develop a vaccine. But just as important is a learning experience driven by humanistic values that teaches us what to do in the interim — that helps us answer how we can help each other and the most vulnerable among our communities during this protracted crisis for our society. Many liberal arts schools teach the Greek classics; at JTS close readings of ancient Jewish texts play a similar role in providing a deeper perspective on contemporary issues.

And the only way we can foster this sort of learning is by creating innovative programs for a post-Covid-19 future.

This spring, I guided our relatively quick and seamless pivot to virtual learning. In doing so, we have been careful to avoid the term “remote” learning as it implies a distance that is the antithesis of the academic experience we — and, I suspect, our peers in colleges and universities across the country — envision.

This summer is a key transitional moment — one in which we must move from a triaged version of virtual learning to a more thoughtful and fully planned program. For many institutions like us, that is going to mean a hybrid academic experience, with a combination of virtual and in-person learning options.

We must use the tools available to us — virtual and otherwise — to foster an immersive learning environment centered  on a profound sense of connection among students and faculty, enhance our students’ and institutions’ moral voice in this world.

Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.