Shalem College
December 9, 2016

Seeking Wisdom with Leon Kass

Seeking Wisdom with Leon Kass
“The teachings of the Book of Exodus were intended as a guide for a sovereign people living in their own land, and Shalem aims to turn out leaders for Israel.” Prof. Leon Kass.
Moses holding the 10 commandments.
Credit: ideacreamanuelaPps, (CC BY 2.0), Flickr.

When asked why he chose to teach a course on the Book of Exodus for his visiting professorship at Shalem College, Prof. Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and in the College at the University of Chicago, looks up in surprise. “Because it’s their book. It belongs to Israelis,” he explains. “The teachings of the Book of Exodus were intended as a guide for a sovereign people living in their own land, and Shalem aims to turn out leaders for Israel,” he continues. “I believe this text can challenge them to think in a meaningful way about not only leadership in general, but specifically, what it means to be a leader of a modern Jewish state.”

Of course, that’s ascribing most of the credit to the text—which Prof. Kass, who is by training a physician and biochemist, and served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, is all too happy to do. Yet clearly, Kass’ unique approach to teaching also has something to do with it. Honed over decades in the University of Chicago’s “Human Being and Citizen” Common Core course for undergraduates, which he co-founded with his wife, the late scholar and pioneering teacher of the humanities Amy Kass, his “wisdom-seeking” method of reading and relating to texts is designed to elicit just the sort of philosophical discussion—about “the permanent issues of life,” explains Kass, such as “law, governance, community, the relationship between human beings and each other, and between human beings and the divine—for which he believes these works are ripe.

How exactly does a classroom full of undergraduates seek wisdom in a given text? “Slowly,” Kass responds, only half-jokingly: Indeed, it is not at all uncommon for an entire session to be given over to a close reading of a few verses. When every verse is packed with potential for discussion and debate, after all, why rush through? For Prof. Kass, the process is the point. “We attempt to understand the text on its own terms, while at the same time applying this understanding to our current situation. So, for instance, if we’re learning about the ‘call of Moses,’ we’re going to notice that God moves Moses from curious wonder to humble awe, and then explore what roles wonder and awe play in the making of a leader. What are the characteristics that we want a successful leader to embody? Can we instill them, or must they be pre-existent? Just as God undertook to ‘transform’ Moses into a leader, can a state undertake to educate its leaders? How?”

Hearing Prof. Kass describe his course, one is immediately struck by the repeated use of the word “we.” One wonders, is there any distinction between students and professor in his seminars? “I have a list of questions related to the reading,” he concedes, “but not ones intended to get students to guess the answers. The idea is to work together to get to answers. That’s a model of leadership, too.”

And one he hopes more professors will adopt in their own classroom—starting at Shalem. In addition to his seminar on the Book of Exodus, Prof. Kass also teaches a faculty seminar on Meno, one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Again, the text deals organically with those questions—about liberal education, the human virtues required for leadership, and the relationship between human excellence and commitment to one’s own polity—that Prof. Kass believes are critical both to the goals of Shalem and to the art of teaching, what he calls “a mode of teaching by genuine inquiry.” By asking searching questions during the reading of a text that raise issues and generate discussion, emphasizes Prof. Kass, teachers can avoid the pitfall of “saying from the outside what the text is about,” which has the effect of discouraging students from “owning it, and engaging with it in a personal way.” Instead, his seminar models a method of teaching that “gets us all inside the text,” making it feel accessible and alive.

As for what the experience of teaching at Shalem is like for him, Prof. Kass breaks into a smile. “These students are simply incredibly serious about learning. They believe in the power of the curriculum,” Prof. Kass concludes. “That makes for a really enjoyable teaching experience. To put it mildly.”