March 7th, 2012
UD’s Review of Andrew Delbanco’s book about college…

… is now up at Inside Higher Education.

February 27th, 2012
“[I]nstitutions of higher education generally value reason more than faith; they value intellectual achievement more than moral achievement…”

A writer for The Atlantic applauds Santorum’s attack on universities as secular, amoral indoctrination machines.

What can UD say to this? Her love for the liberal arts college dare not speak its name! For who would listen to UD?

UD! The very incarnation of the enemy! A denizen of the darkness – Washington DC. A woman who works outside the home. A woman who thinks state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds are a bad idea…

Well but okay, let’s perform a transcranial ultrasound on UD – right here, right now. Let’s ask UD‘s head to respond to the claim that professors value reason more than faith, and intellectual achievement more than moral achievement.

Moving the wand around… Hold on… Left brain, right brain…

Here’s the deal. Liberal arts universities are founded on reason and intellectuality. Reason and the exercise of the intellect are constitutive of the university.

Morality? These constituents are seen to be profound goods. The capacity to appraise your world in an informed, flexible, dispassionate way tends to give you greater depth, sympathy, and agency in your dealings with various aspects of that world.

So universities don’t value intellectuality more than morality; they are intellectual institutions whose foundational commitment – a moral one – is to free thought, and thus they will study every idea and belief of significance, including ideas having to do with morality and faith. While they are studying these things, they will bracket – to the extent possible – the personal contingencies of the people in the room. This one’s a Christian Scientist; that one idolizes Christopher Hitchens. Fine. For the purposes of understanding together a worthwhile object of study, we will put those differences and affiliations aside.

Professors will not indoctrinate you into trashing your convictions, but we will engage you in exercises that ask you to step outside of them for a little while.


Let’s get more personal. Do I, Madame Professor, value intellectual achievement more than moral achievement, reason more than faith?


You know what? None of your business. When I’m in the university classroom, I value the life of the mind, I value modeling for my students “learning for the sheer joy of it, with the aim of deepening their understanding of culture, nature, and, ultimately, themselves.” (That’s Andrew Delbanco, in an otherwise tepid recent defense of liberal education.) The Atlantic writer’s job is not to follow me out of the classroom onto the subway and into my church, synagogue, coven, brothel, gutter, sleazy pickup bar or monastery so as to determine the relative value for me of faith and reason and intellect and morality. His job is to judge me, and my university, in terms of what our peculiar institution is.

A university is – among other things – a hideout from people who don’t understand what it means to make an effort to be intellectually dispassionate.

December 12th, 2011
What becomes a backwater most?

Required classes in Personal Wellness — known to the miserable students at the University of Northern Iowa as Personal Hellness — are a classic way to maintain the backwater label.

UNI students have a choice – they can sit in a 200-person auditorium and sleep through guest lecturers reading PowerPoints about STDs, or they can take Hellness online.

Student advice via Rate My Professors: Definitely take it online.

My favorite comment:

Can go through the power points just as you would in class, but without someone talking in the background.

Someone talking in the background. That would be the professor. If you take the course online you remove the static.


It’s weird to think of your high school health class as part of a university’s liberal arts core. What was Cardinal Newman thinking when he left it off his list of the forms of knowledge a human being must have?

A couple of years ago the student body president described his own personal hellness and called for the end of the requirement.

Apparently his and other voices are beginning to be heard, because Northern Iowa’s liberal arts steering committee has recommended that the required personal wellness class be dropped. This has

provoked displeasure from current Personal Wellness instructors as well as faculty and staff in the UNI Department of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services.

The personal wellness team has pulled out all the stops, jargon-wise, to defend the intellectual centrality of personal wellness:

“We feel very strongly about providing our students with health and wellness information, which we feel is imperative for lifelong good health… Including individual teaching days in some classes regarding health issues is a disservice to our students and would not provide adequate information for them to make appropriate healthy life decisions… College is the time for students to form lifestyle behavior patterns that strongly influence the rest of their life….

Just as the college years may usher in life-long risk behaviors in some students, these years also provide an opportunity for students to begin patterns that lead to life-long health improvement… A college health course addressing the current needs of college students, while also looking to their future health, can have an impact… Education has been shown to be the best strategy to empower college students to improve their health behaviors and decision-making skills.”

UD looks forward to more of this sort of writing as the personal wellness wars heat up.

October 17th, 2011
“While even kindergarten classrooms now feature interactive white boards and Wi-Fi connected iPads, not one laptop or cellphone was visible; the only evidence of contemporary life was the occasional plastic foam coffee cup.”

St. John’s, Mon Amour.


The bench which UD gave St. John’s
in memory of her mother.

(Click on the photo for a larger image.)

October 3rd, 2011
Culture Perceived

In an opinion piece, New York Times editor Bill Keller worries about what UD calls Click-Thru U. He cites a distance-friendly but cautious Stanford professor:

… [Sebastian] Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling…?

UD has noted the personal identity/cheating problem mucho times on this blog. She would add to Thrun’s comment a related problem: How do you keep an invisible professor from cheating? The same business of handing the course over to someone else pertains for the instructor. Who is actually running discussions, grading assignments, presenting material?

If the course is merely the professor being filmed teaching, with all interactivity handed to teaching assistants, why shouldn’t the professor merely re-run her performance, with occasional updates and tweaks?

Stanford’s president also has some questions.

… [John] Hennessy is a passionate advocate for an actual campus, especially in undergraduate education. There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills, he says. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.

Right. Click-Thru U. presents one private, discrete, online experience after another. You learn these skills (how to speak Italian, say) with this software; you learn those skills with that. Or you sit silent and alone in a room and watch some dude talk about the Civil War. You get absolutely no sense of the coherence, ongoing contentiousness, and value of a liberal arts education. Because you’ve perceived no model for higher education, no comprehensive structure for the disciplined inquiring life, you don’t learn why or how to keep learning.

In fact that abstraction – liberal arts education – means absolutely nothing to you. This is what Hennessey’s getting at with his how to keep learning worry. You haven’t claimed your education, as it were; you haven’t been able to grow the acquisition of this or that particular skill into a larger narrative – a narrative shared in real time with others on a real campus – having to do with the life-changing business of gradually coming to know what truly educated people know. What they sound like. What sorts of people they are. How they argue. Why they argue. How serious knowledge shapes personality, morality, politics. Why certain people passionately value intense thought about important things. All you miss with online eduction is the entire deep structure, the entire drama, of culture as it’s carried, struggled with, and articulated, by compelling embodiments of it at universities.

Keller concludes:

Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.

August 8th, 2011
UD in the Wall Street Journal

For those collecting UD‘s press clippings, here she is back in 2009 (I hadn’t seen it; UD thanks Shane for telling her about it) playing a condescending liberal in the Wall Street Journal.

What’s funny about the UD excerpt the author cites as evidence of liberal snobbery is that it’s an extremely close paraphrase of something his hero, Allan Bloom, wrote in the chapter Students, from The Closing of the American Mind. In fact, all over that book Bloom writes exactly what UD wrote – that a liberal arts education is high culture’s one big chance to catch you and save you from narrow provincialism.

Like UD, Bloom was attacking there not “an American upbringing,” as the author of the Wall Street Journal article claims, but any upbringing hampered by provinciality… which is to say almost any upbringing anywhere in the world at any time. Education is an obvious good, Bloom and I are claiming, because it offers to lead you out, into a larger world, from where you rather arbitrarily began.

In no way does education want to make you reject your roots or feel contempt for the smaller world in which you inevitably grew up. It wants to introduce you to a larger one.


I mean, look at old UD, reviler of American roots. Look closely. Do you live three doors down from the house you grew up in? UD does.

Now look at Sarah Palin, the WSJ writer’s home and hearth American roots heroine, preparing to move to … Scottsdale? What the fuck is she doing buying a house in go-go new-town Scottsdale? (Her daughter’s also bought a place in Arizona.) Doesn’t she share UD‘s love of her own deep American roots?

It’s just as stupid for the WSJ writer to conflate cultural broadening with anti-American snobbery as it is for UD to conflate buying a second home a great distance from your “rooted” home with a betrayal of your roots.

In fact Bloom’s famous book is largely about questioning roots. It’s about asking whether everything about the “American upbringing” the WSJ writer uncritically invokes is an obvious good. Bloom’s autobiographical essay in Closing, in which he recalls his amazement and excitement at seeing the University of Chicago for the first time, is moving precisely because, like so many writers of autobiographies on the verge of university, he is recording the moment when he glimpsed in himself the possibility of profound self-transformation – aesthetic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual broadening – through a serious liberal arts education.

Bloom is absolutely right that although life may provide other broadening experiences – travel, etc. – nothing is like the (to varying degrees at different schools) coherent four-year curricular discipline of the liberal arts degree. Nothing is like encountering professors who … well, remember, for instance, what Tony Judt wrote in his autobiography about the professor who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

Judt’s provincialism was Marxism; the university introduced him to a person able and willing to go back and forth and back and forth on the subject with seriousness and with respect for Judt in order to transform him. Liberal education takes a certain setting; it takes a certain patience; it takes a lot of seriousness. It has nothing at all to do with snobbery or condescension. In fact it is the opposite of those.

May 29th, 2011
Who says there’s nothing you can do with an English degree?

General Dempsey, 59, earned a master’s degree from Duke University – in English

December 3rd, 2010
So if you’ll just let her keep doing it for another year, she’ll be able to do it with a BA.

[Amanda Busch is] accused of stealing more than $70,000 in jewelry and currency from a [Cincinnati] home

… Busch, 27, also confessed to breaking into two other homes – one on Nov. 7 and the other on Nov. 12 – though police suspect she is involved in more area burglaries.

… Busch’s attorney Rich Vande Ryt said his client has just one more year to go before getting her college degree at University of Cincinnati.

December 3rd, 2010
As we follow the super-sordid for-profit online …

universities, we should remind ourselves that there’s a whole other world of legitimate education out there, one which students are more and more ably defending.

Here, in an opinion piece titled Fordham Rightly Resists Offering Online Classes, a Fordham student gets it said. His writing’s a bit awkward, but he gets it said. Excerpts:

… The foundations on which Jesuit universities, particularly Fordham, have been built upon are not in accordance with online courses. Though it may be convenient for students, it does not provide the degree of education we are paying for. The realm of learning and studying is completely altered under these conditions, with a less hands on approach.

If Fordham were to offer online courses, its credibility in teaching would be strongly questioned. Even if a student was able to get beyond the idea of no personal interaction with professors and no thought-provoking ideas of classmates, there is still no guarantee that the quality of education in the online classes will be up to par with that which Fordham instills.

… Sure, online classes can reach a larger amount [should be number] of people, especially those looking to attend part time. This, however, compromises the integrity of the order devoted to education by lacking a creation of relationships and the true development of the whole person that cura personalis stands on…

Serious, legitimate education isn’t just for Jesuits.

October 18th, 2010
“A terrible absence of mind…”

In the Guardian, a philosophy professor distinguishes between training and higher education.

Instruction leaves a person trained and better informed – but otherwise unaltered. To stand at the threshold of an education, by contrast, is to stand poised before the possibility of an achieved formation and temper of mind which widens perspectives and matures the power of critical judgment. It is this that we commend when we commend education for itself. To be educated is to stand in a critical and creative relationship to ideas, crucially through contact with teachers, who exemplify in their words and demeanour the life of the mind.

If a university has a soul it is to be found here, in the engagement of teachers with their students, in the critical transmission of ideas, including ideas about human nature, that their students have to struggle with and grasp, a struggle that shapes their souls. But this education is becoming more fugitive and teachers less available through a terrible absence of mind, as the ideas that inform the policy and practice of universities slowly eat into their soul.

Nicely written, and an echo of everything etched on UD‘s template lo these many years… Yet these arguments are difficult to make, vocational training being a straightforward thing, and soulful alteration elusive.

I mean, here’s the deal on soulful alteration:

Not everyone wants it. It sounds weird, intrusive, unpleasant. Plenty of people want to go to football games and learn accounting, and professors aren’t proselytizers. If you don’t want UD to muss your soul, fine.

And don’t tell me that because you teach geology you’re not about the soul. Geology is full of ideas having to do with environmentalism, religious history, evolution, aesthetics, and is an important part of the widened perspectives about which the Guardian columnist writes …

2.) Not everyone has enough soul for me to work with. Soul here suggests a reasonably rich internal life capable of being made richer. If you’re a total product of visual culture, if you don’t even have your own masturbatory fantasies in your own head —

The answer for this cross-species difference, I’m convinced, lies in our uniquely evolved mental representational abilities—we alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads … internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities. One early sex researcher, Wilhelm Stekel, described masturbation fantasies as a kind of trance or altered state of consciousness, “a sort of intoxication or ecstasy, during which the current moment disappears and the forbidden fantasy alone reigns supreme.”

— if you can’t even do that much by way of readying yourself for a seminar in the short story, I’m not sure we can work with you.

[I]n a world where sexual fantasy in the form of mental representation has become obsolete, where hallucinatory images of dancing genitalia, lusty lesbians and sadomasochistic strangers have been replaced by a veritable online smorgasbord of real people doing things our grandparents couldn’t have dreamt up even in their wettest of dreams, where randy teenagers no longer close their eyes and lose themselves to the oblivion and bliss but instead crack open their thousand-dollar laptops and conjure up a real live porn actress, what, in a general sense, are the consequences of liquidating our erotic mental representational skills for our species’ sexuality? Is the next generation going to be so intellectually lazy in their sexual fantasies that their creativity in other domains is also affected?

Teaching basic erotic mental representational skills? Not my job, man.

And oh, 3.): Do you think teaching people desouled by image-life is best done via PowerPoint? Huh? Yes, throw more images at them! That’s the ticket! And smile when they bring their laptops to class…

When even professors can’t form, or convey, mental representations, the theater-like head has gone dark.

June 8th, 2010
Thanks to Three Generous UD Readers…

… who regularly link me to items of interest, I’ve got three things — a poem, and two opinion pieces — rattling around my headlet this morning. They all seem to have to do with the humanities, defense of. Let us see if we can organize them in order to make a point or two.

First, here are the items:

1.) A David Brooks column in today’s New York Times.

2.) A Stanley Fish column in the same newspaper.

A poem by Delmore Schwartz called The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.


Brooks wants to “stand up for the history, English and art classes,” even though few students are interested in taking them. (Students only get excited about econ and related fields that will make them rich.) The Brooks defense of the humanities rests on this:

… Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.

… Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

… If you’re dumb about The Big Shaggy, you’ll probably get eaten by it.

Here we get the humanities as cautionary tale. Know thyself. If you don’t, you’ll make terrible mistakes in life.

Brooks cites a couple of recent, representative mistake-makers: “[A] governor of South Carolina [who] suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or …a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana [who] risks everything for an in-office affair.”

Who says these were mistakes? Maybe they were true love for all Brooks knows. Was the Tipper/Al marriage a mistake? It failed. Did it fail because they failed to understand the big shaggy?

UD doubts this. She proposes that the Gores understand the big shaggy pretty well.


We all know people with very highly educated emotional knowledge who are fuckups.

We’re all fuckups of one sort or another, no?

So what if he has led a stupid life? Anyone with any brains knows that he is leading a stupid life even while he is leading it. Anyone with any brains understands that he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind.

Go ahead and disagree with this statement from Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth. I’ll press on.

Here is a comment from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst: “There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. …[T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.”

I mean, this is your emotional knowledge, no? Part of it? Not that you won’t get eaten by the big shaggy, but that you won’t be entirely assimilated into it when it starts chomping? That you might get a little leverage over it, eventually?

In his defense of the humanities, Fish cites Martha Nussbaum.

[Nussbaum writes that] “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”

Here we shift to a humanities defense based not on mental health, but on civic health.

Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.

Nussbaum, like Brooks, defends the humanities as a force toward the creation of an organized and critical mind. I’m with them on this, although I think that some science and social science courses do the same thing. But as with the humanities as a pipeline to better mental health, I’m less convinced by the argument that a deep knowledge of Henry James will make you anything as grand as an intelligent world citizen. I think it’s liable to make you more tolerant and less provincial, because it will make you feel the vulnerability, variety, and complexity of human beings. But I also think that a true immersion into the humanities will make you very cautious about making big claims about outcomes. Many of the meanings we derive from deep humanistic study, after all, are quite disturbing, and even demoralizing.

Remember what William Arrowsmith wrote (I’ve already quoted him on this blog):

[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship… [The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

Note that Arrowsmith’s understanding of the humanities is far more modest than that of Brooks or Nussbaum. For him, a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos (this chaos is what Roth calls stupidity, and Phillips recalcitrance). The form and order of a great poem or a beautiful argument, we come to understand, suffer into being, emerge from the chaos of another consciousness. Which is to say that these accomplished objects, these solid touchstones, are not touchstones at all, but fragile occasional formal gatherings… The form and the order of literature and philosophy, in other words, can be thought of as a thin crust lying atop a deep fault line. We value many literary works precisely to the extent that they manifest the fault, the underlying chaos.

I’ll turn to the Schwartz poem in a moment. Time to post this.

May 6th, 2010

A Princeton student reckons with the absence of intellectual exchange on campus.

… [O]ur biggest barrier to having these conversations is an unnecessarily compelling desire to be politically correct. We place a great deal of emphasis on being open to other cultural experiences, religious practices, ideals, opinions and principles. This is, of course, a good thing — but in moderation.

Let me explain what I mean by an intellectual conversation. It is not simply the transfer of interesting or unusual pieces of information between two or more people. It is the exchanging of ideas; then, the exchanging of opinions on those ideas; then, suggestions for how those ideas could be edited and improved upon; and finally, either a resultant conclusion, or a respectful decision to disagree that comes after having considered the other’s side thoroughly.

I recently participated in an event called “Speed Faithing” organized by the Religious Life Council, designed to provide a five-minute introduction to different faiths. Zoroastrian funeral rites are one of the more contentious aspects of my faith. Our bodies are disposed of in what we call “Towers of Silence” to either be eaten by carrion or to decay naturally. A friend later approached me and asked, quite succinctly, “I mean, aren’t you scared? Don’t you find it a little — weird?” It doesn’t matter that this could have been interpreted as offensive. If he hadn’t asked, I would not have been able to explain that it comes from a desire to perform “a last act of charity” and to avoid polluting the elements. He would have continued to regard me as mildly eccentric at best (and, dare I say it, barbaric at worst). There would have been no intellectual exchange.

If we are too politically correct in our interactions with each other, we will not push each other hard enough, and we will not ask the right questions, for fear of offending. Listening to a Muslim friend tell you that she wears a burqa at home is not an intellectual conversation, even if the narration itself is interesting. Asking her what she thinks of France’s ban on the garment; asking her whether she wears it because of a personal preference or because of pressure from her family; asking her what her take is on the sexist connotation that some attach to the wearing of it — these would be…

June 9th, 2009
Information delivery systems vs. making sense of reality

… The Nuffield Review report is the biggest independent analysis of education for those aged 14 to 19 in fifty years, taking six years to complete. It was led by Professor Richard Pring and Dr Geoff Hayward, from Oxford, and professors from the Institute of Education and Cardiff University.

… The report says: “The increased central control of education brings with it the need for a management perspective, and language of performance management — for example, levers and drivers of change, and public service agreements as a basis of funding. The consumer or client replaces the learner. The curriculum is delivered. Stakeholders shape the aims. Aims are spelt out in terms of targets. Audits measure success defined in terms of hitting targets. Cuts in resources are euphemistically called ‘efficiency gains’. Education becomes that package of activities (or inputs) largely determined by government.”

It adds: “As the language of performance and management has advanced, so we have lost a language of education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of questions, of trying to make sense of reality, of seeking understanding, of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human.”

Professor Pring told The Times that policy language was “leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and impoverishment of learning”. He added: “We are losing the tradition of teachers being curriculum directors and developers — instead they’re curriculum deliverers. It’s almost as though they have little robots in front of them and they have to fill their minds, rather than engage with them.” …

The Times of London

June 8th, 2009
James Frey was…

… only the beginning for Oprah. Misleading millions of people with patent bullshit is what she does for a living.

[Oprah] Winfrey allowed a physician called Christiane Northrup to claim – in contradiction to almost all scientific evidence – that “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region [after] a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say”.

May 5th, 2009
“Your father…”

… said my aunt, “became more and more preoccupied with Big Bang-type questions as he got older.  Why is there something?  What is nothing?  A colleague of his at NIH was a religious Jew, and your father respected this man, and they had long conversations about belief…”

For most of his life, I guess my father had, along with his faith in science, what Richard Rorty means by a religion of art.  My father’s two cultures were empirical clarity and aesthetic mystery.

Friedrich von Schelling calls beauty “infinity represented in a finite way.”  I suppose my father’s yearnings toward the infinite were no different from anyone else’s.  They might have been more intense than other people’s.  After all, if he were here he’d probably remind me that the realm of science contains its own soul-enthralling depths.

Given his family background, though, science would always be the great liberation for him, making it impossible for him to invest his yearnings in any creed.


Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton’s book about religion, and he quotes Eagleton:

What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women? … [Religion’s] subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.

Like Christopher Lasch toward the end of his life, Eagleton represents a man of the left for whom one particular symbolic form — progress, liberal enlightenment — has failed in its promise to encompass human yearnings. What Fish calls “the tragedy and pain of the human condition,” and humanity’s yearning for “a transfigured future” (the phrase is Eagleton’s), is far more compelling to Eagleton at this point than political, as well as scientific, efforts to relieve our pain.


Update, correction:

A blog is a beautiful thing. I just received an email from a reader in response to my tale of the Czech Torah. The email’s titled They Weren’t Unburied Torahs, and it includes an attachment titled Memorial Scrolls Trust, Westminster Synagogue, Kent House, Rutland Gardens, London.

… Fearful that the deserted synagogues and community buildings would be at the mercy of looters and plunderers, a group of Jews at the Jewish Museum in occupied Prague submitted a plan to the Nazis to save the Jewish ritual and cultural treasures in the vulnerable buildings by bringing them to the museum in Prague so that they could be catalogued and preserved. Why their Nazi overseers accepted the plan is not known. The result was that the Nazi controlled Prague Jewish Community sent out the orders that implemented the plan and permitted the transport companies to carry Jewish goods. With a few exceptions, the Torah Scrolls, other liturgical treasures in gold and silver and ritual textiles were sent to Prague, along with historic archives and thousands of books. The remaining Jews were deported in 1943, 1944 and 1945, and quite a number of these late deportees survived.

… [I]n 1956, the Michle Synagogue, in the suburbs of Prague, became the warehouse at which the hundreds of Torah Scrolls were consolidated from various locations. They had come from the large Prague Jewish community and from the many smaller communities that were scattered across what was left of Bohemia and Moravia, after the Sudetenland had been detached. The Scrolls in the Michle Synagogue did not include Scrolls from Slovakia, which was under a separate administration.

… Eric Estorick, an American art dealer living in London, paid many visits to Prague on business in the early 1960’s and got to know Prague artists, whose work he sold at his Grosvenor Gallery. Being a frequent visitor to Prague, he came to the attention of the authorities, and, on a visit in 1963 he expressed some interest in a catalogue of Hebraica. He was approached by officials from Artia, the state corporation responsible for trade in works of art, and asked if he would be interested in buying some Torah Scrolls.

Unknown to him, the Israelis had been approached previously with a similar offer, but the negotiations had come to nothing. Estorick was taken to the Michle Synagogue were he was faced with wooden racks holding about 1800 Scrolls, in seriously damp conditions. He was asked if he wanted to make an offer. He replied that he knew certain parties in London who might be interested.

On his return to London, he contacted a fellow American, Rabbi Harold Reinhart, of the Westminster Synagogue, one of whose congregants, Ralph Yablon, offered to put up the money to buy the Scrolls. First, Chimen Abramsky, who was to become Professor of Hebrew Studies at the University of London, was asked to go to Prague for twelve days in November 1963 to examine the Scrolls and to report on their authenticity and condition. On his return to London, it was decided that Estorick should go to Prague and negotiate a deal, which he did. Two trucks laden with 1564 Scrolls arrived at the Westminster Synagogue in February and March 1964.

After months of sorting, examining and cataloguing each Scroll, the task of distributing them began, with the aim of getting the Scrolls back into the life of Jewish congregations across the world. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established to carry out this task.

UD‘s enormously grateful to her reader for this information.

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