05/26/2011 02:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

Higher Learning, Citizenship and the Pursuit of Values

The commencement address I gave last week as the head of an institution of higher Jewish learning echoed themes of broad concern among university and college leaders across America at this time of unprecedented challenge and change.

It seems obvious to many of us that support for higher education is essential to meeting the challenges we face as a nation and to making sure that we are equipped to embrace rather than shrink from change. But governments at every level, plagued by the aftereffects of the Great Recession, are slashing budgets for university teaching and research rather than increasing them. Programs in the humanities and the arts, which some legislators apparently see as a luxury, are particularly at risk. Both the value -- and the values -- of the academy, which until recently were agreed upon by a broad societal consensus, seem once again to require vigorous defense.

Hence the attempt by leaders of higher education, myself included, to demonstrate that advanced learning brings benefits to individuals and to our country that neither can afford to forgo.

One piece of that defense seems incontrovertible, and -- despite severe budget cuts -- widely accepted: America cannot compete in the world without unceasing innovation by our finest minds in a host of fields. Our nation's workforce cannot compete unless it is adaptable and highly skilled. This means, at the very least, math and science education of high quality at every level from grade school through college to research institutes, laboratories, and post-doctoral programs. It also means that, far from skimping on teachers and classrooms, we should be pouring extra resources into the development of schools, curricula, and training. It is not difficult to prove that such investments are more than repaid many times over in tangible benefits in the form of innovation, skills, jobs, and upward mobility.

There are two other aspects of American higher education under attack these days for which a convincing argument may be less obvious, though both of them are every bit as important as science and technology. First that constellation of disciplines that make up the liberal arts or Humanities, and second, the role of higher education in debating, clarifying, articulating, and transmitting values.

America invests huge sums in liberal learning because long experience has shown that the study of texts, languages, philosophy, history, and the like is indispensable to the development of good minds and a good society. The back-and-forth of humanities classrooms, by engaging students in discussion and debate over the interpretation of texts and history, sharpens thinking, engenders creativity, imparts vital social skills, and builds respect for diversity and disagreement. Civility and civilization are learned together. Both are essential to citizenship in an ever-changing and pluralist democracy.

Character, too, is nurtured in college classrooms. Drew Faust, the president of Harvard, pointed out recently that her university seeks to "educate students who can understand the world in all its complexity ... [and] whose education is rooted in a deep sense of values." Harvard wants graduates who are "determined to make a concrete, positive difference in the lives of other people." These aims go together. Good students in all fields seek to understand the Good -- and to do it. Far from stifling dissent or smothering unconventional thinking, values of the sort that President Faust and I have in mind drive curiosity and anchor the self, thereby assisting innovation.

Richard Levin, president of Yale, put the matter this way:

... Education improves the soul. It empowers young people with the capacity to enrich their lives spiritually and materially, to educate their own children, and to become better citizens.

I'm glad that such language is no longer solely the province of religious institutions like the one I lead. We all have a vested interest in fostering a commitment to values among our learners, actuating their learning through the urge to the higher fulfillment of self that comes from making "a concrete, positive difference in the lives of other people." It takes more than cutting-edge skills and knowledge to build a good and successful citizenry that faces the opportunities and disruptions of global transformation with confidence and spirit.

My institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary, has acted in the last several years to overhaul virtually every piece of the curriculum. We have promoted new synergies among our faculty and our five schools. Interdisciplinary learning and teaching are now the rule rather than the exception. We are working hard to make use of new educational technologies as quickly as they come on line. And we work hard to bind our students together in a community of mutual responsibility and shared learning that also reaches out with care to the world.

I know we are not alone in this regard. Public service, once an extracurricular activity, is now integrated into classroom learning. "Ethics in society" and "ethics across the curriculum" programs have become staples of the curriculum. Scientists and social scientists join humanists in probing what it means to be human and helping to make the planet more hospitable to human flourishing.

Let's hope our legislators will soon realize the importance of supporting education at all levels despite the budget crunch -- and that voters will approve when they do. We need education now, more than ever, to take America higher.