Seven years ago, when colleagues and I sat around a table to discuss Jewish Studies curricular requirements for undergraduates, our discussion was swift and unequivocal: Jewish Studies majors would need to have Hebrew or Yiddish. This consensus reflected my own sense that even in those areas of Jewish Studies in which languages are not absolutely essential for primary research, additional language skills only enhance the work.
Today, as the administrator responsible for running Northwestern's undergraduate program in Jewish Studies, I am not sure I have the luxury of demanding a language requirement that stands for rigor and baseline competence as a researcher. Under attack, the humanities disciplines are increasingly asked to justify their project through metrics: the number of students enrolled in courses and the number of students who major and minor in a given subject. While Jewish Studies is somewhat cushioned against the threat of departmental closure by our relatively large endowments, this shelter does not guarantee that we will be able to continue to offer lowenrollment specialty courses and that we will be able to replace departing faculty. A couple of recent email exchanges with students have made it clear to me that our language requirement can be prohibitive to some students who would otherwise be willing to commit to the number of courses required of a major.
This pragmatic questioning of the status quo causes me to reflect on the theoretical question from two different angles. First, I've come to realize the extent to which higher education in the United States has been undergoing a significant change with respect to languages. The movement away from core requirements has destroyed the notion of a classical education that supported both the study of the humanities in universities and the historical rise of Jewish Studies as a discipline. Second, the changing shape of humanities education is making the choice of a major in Jewish Studies harder than it has been. Perhaps the goal of such a major should not be the production of students capable of doing graduate-level primary research in Jewish Studies (a goal we are proudly achieving for our small cadre of majors), but of producing students who have honed critical thinking and writing skills while considering the subsection of the humanities that addresses things Jews have done?