Home Perspectives Opinions A Jewish guide to surviving in a scary world

A Jewish guide to surviving in a scary world

The Hillel House building at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. (Courtesy Hillel BC)

Being a humanities professor can be quite depressing these days. After endless meetings with university administrators, we are regularly informed about the dramatic, unprecedented and “worse-than-what-we-feared” decline in interest in our disciplines. Students are choosing to take commerce, computer science and statistics, while abandoning English, history and philosophy. Sixty universities in Japan have stopped offering courses in humanities and North American schools have been cutting funding, due to a lack of interest.

Only 15 per cent of University of Toronto students choose to focus on humanities. Others go into areas they perceive as more useful, such as computer science, engineering or business. I can understand the anxieties of students and their parents, who contemplate what their child might do with a degree in classics or German literature.

The artificial intelligence revolution is on everyone’s mind. Who might need the skills of close reading or analytical interpretation in the era of global digitization and automation? Will our graduate students be the last to get insights into Homer and Shakespeare?


As someone who studies the past, I know that anxieties, although powerful in decision-making, cannot serve as reliable predictors of the future concerns of humanity. In the not-so-recent past, people were anxious about equal rights for women and gays, about cars replacing horses, books replacing manuscripts and science replacing faith.  Anxieties caused delays in progress and, more importantly, hurt many people and communities in the process. Studying anxieties is fascinating, but indulging in them seems quite counter-productive.

Anxieties also did not stop fascism, totalitarianism and militarism, but many despotic leaders tried, sometimes successfully, using anxieties to suppress forces that they knew would threaten them. Often, specialists in the humanities – including writers and artists – were attacked first. Historians were asked to rewrite the past and erase events and figures from public memory. Critical thinking was labeled heretical and free artistic expression was punished by incarceration.

Political leaders were afraid of these types of people because they understood that writers, artists, philosophers, historians and, yes, literature professors, hold keys to minds and souls, and without these keys, power can easily escape from them.

Which brings me back to our crisis of humanities today. Is today’s generation less visionary than their ancestors? Or, maybe, we professors of humanities show that we are more arrogant than our predecessors by lamenting about the lack of vision of our students who choose not to think about issues that we care about, but instead care about matters that we refuse to understand.

I suggest looking to Jewish studies for answers and some comfort. Our intellectuals, whose support has always been prioritized by the community, worked out ways for a society to stay afloat, despite the challenges of assimilation, anti-Semitism, threats of violence and actual violence. Not surprisingly, their solution was investing in education. Even in crisis, our wise predecessors believed that, when their places of worship were destroyed and our people were forced to run, there needed to be some among them who would know how to set up a community somewhere else and remain Jewish under difficult circumstances. In other words, Jews survived by investing in the humanities.

The conclusions are crystal clear: all students should take at least one course in Jewish studies. The discipline will teach them the “best practices” of surviving in a rapidly changing and scary world, including the one about to be taken over by robots. And while we’re at it, we will introduce them to the importance of the rest of the humanities. You are welcome.

Anna Shternshis is the Al and Malka Green professor of Yiddish Studies and director of Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Toronto.