UChicago’s Dr. Leon Kass on Genesis, Exodus, & Reading Great Books

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This week on “The Learning Curve,” guest co-host Jason Bedrick and co-host Gerard Robinson talk with Dr. Leon Kass, MD, the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. Dr. Kass describes the important pieces of wisdom and humanity people today can still learn from reading the Book of Genesis, the topic of his 2003 work, The Beginning of Wisdom. They next discuss his newest book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, and general lessons about the Israelites that leaders, teachers, and students could use in addressing the challenges of modern life. They explore the influence of the Book of Exodus and the themes of liberation from captivity on the Civil Rights Movement, and several of its major leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and what teachers and students today should learn from Exodus about deliverance from life’s hardships. Dr. Kass shares why he became interested in the Great Books, and their crucial role in helping 21st-century students receive a complete liberal arts education and lead fulfilling lives. They discuss Western education’s increasing focus on vocationally oriented and often technocratic skills at the expense of humanistic education, and why we should be concerned about it, especially in our hyper-technological era. The interview concludes with a reading from Dr. Kass’s newest book on Exodus.

Stories of the Week: Co-hosts Cara Candal and Gerard Robinson discuss New York Times story on the plight of America’s nine million students in rural school districts that are underfunded, disconnected, and face myriad challenges. Pioneer Institute and other organizations submitted an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case, Carson v. Makin, to expand access to private and religious schools for families in Maine.

The next episode will air on Wednesday, September 22nd with guest, Julie Young, Deputy Vice President of Education Outreach and Student Services for Arizona State University, and CEO of ASU Prep Digital High School.

Guest:

Dr. Leon Kass, MD, is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. He is also a Senior Fellow Emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC. Dr. Kass was the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, as well as a Member, Vice-Chairman, and Committee Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1984-91. He has been engaged for more than 40 years with ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advances and, more recently, with broader moral and cultural issues. Dr. Kass is the author of several widely acclaimed books, including The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (2017), and Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (2021).

Tweet of the Week:

News Links:

NYT: The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/magazine/rural-public-education.html

SCOTUS Amici briefs for Carson v. Makin: Pioneer Institute & Prof. Charles Glenn:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/20-1088/191979/20210910093745365_Carson%20v.%20Makin%20Glenn%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf

https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/20-1088/192035/20210910121842949_20-1088%20Amicus%20Brief%20for%20Pioneer%20Institute.pdf

https://www.supremecourt.gov/search.aspx?filename=/docket/docketfiles/html/public/20-1088.html

Gerard Robinson:

Hello listeners. This is Gerard Robinson. Welcome back to another wonderful session of the learning curve. Kara and I are with you today. We’re back from vacation. Life has settled in and the children are back at school at least. So my aunt, same with you.

Cara Candal:

Oh my gosh. Not only are the children back at school, which is amazing. My weekends have become that constant exercise in trying to figure out how to parents can be in three places at once because we’re totally outnumbered and everybody has a sport at the same time. So, you know what? I will take that over. Being locked in the house and the kids not being able to play sports, we’ll figure it out. We’ll get there eventually. So it’s good stuff.

Gerard Robinson:

Yeah. In fact, my two daughters, the youngest daughter has a pretty good social calendar. And so I dropped her off at a couple of events. The middle daughter is starting volleyball, so we’re not outnumbered. You’re actually right. Cause you have three. But that tack team part gets really, really interesting. So parents out there who have children or who had children at one point or who serve as a mentor to children, you know how this is. And I agree with you, Kara. It is at least good for us to be out for them to be active on course in a safe manner with their friends. Because this time, last year there weren’t a lot of these events going on.

Cara Candal:

No, not at all. Really. And I have to say, I even took a certain pleasure of sitting on the sidelines and watching my kid, like trying to learn how to play baseball yesterday. This is his first crack at baseball because I was like, oh, wait a minute. There’s nobody talking on my sleeve.

Gerard Robinson:

Well, before we dive into our stories, as we know, 20th anniversary of the tragedy the world trade center also what took place in Virginia and in Pennsylvania took place on the 11th. And there are a number of memorials and speeches and that commemorations, but remembrance ceremonies across the country. What’s so interesting on my end is that I was actually a graduate student at UVA at the time living in Charlottesville, 20 years later, back in Charlottesville again and somewhere packed in boxes that I have yet to unpack are pictures of different buildings around grounds and dorms and frat houses either had flags or for those who are familiar with what they call graffiti bridge or Charlottesville. The name of UV alumni who were killed either in the Pentagon world trade center or in Pennsylvania. And so just one to mention that, but also to remind us that not only were workers in those buildings killed not only airline attendance, passengers, and pilots, but also there is a victim recovery, which president Trump last year signed to push forward for a number of decades started by previous administrations naturally. But there are also students who went to school in the zoned area, near the world trade center who qualify. So teachers and parents. So as part of the learning curve piece, just know that if you were impacted or, you know, someone who was go to the nine 11 victim fund, you can find it if you Google it and make sure you are taken care of because many people involved with that include teachers and students have a number of healthcare challenges. And just want to share that point.

Cara Candal:

Yeah. In that respect your art. It was heavy weekend in some respects. It’s so hard to believe that it’s been 20 years, but we’re so directly and intimately impacted. I mean, we were all, I think in our own ways, intimately impacted by that experience. But for those who lost loved ones, family members have succumb to illness because of what happened that day. I know it’s with them every day, right? It certainly doesn’t seem like 20 years. It’s something that you’ve probably lived through constantly. But to understand that children who lost parents that day or now I haven’t watched them, but I in conversation heard a lot about some of the real interesting documentaries that have come out recently about September 11th. And I’m pretty keen to engage one of the things. And I think this is an educational point too, that we are struggling with a little bit in this family is not how to answer our kids questions about that day, but how much information to really give them at their different sort of stages of development and share that our kids don’t really have their own devices.

Cara Candal:

Meaning my oldest has her own computer because she needs it for school, but the youngest do not. But we have as so many families do today, these silly, Hey Google, Hey Alexa, things in the house. And my seven-year-old came down for breakfast the other morning. And he was asking Google to show him pictures of what happened that day off the towers. And it’s a very, I’m get a little bit concerned about how we either choose to handle it or don’t handle it in schools. Then I know that it can be a difficult topic for many parents. All of us were in one way or another effect on that day. It’s very important for children to learn about it. But the how and the when really matters because what a horrific day, what’s frightening events, right? So I’m with you, our hearts go out to those who don’t get the luxury of not thinking about this every day of their lives.

Gerard Robinson:

Absolutely. Well, in terms of articles of the week, what do you have for us?

Cara Candal:

I don’t know if you saw this article in the New York times magazine, you might hear me rustling the pages because in front of me and the title, the tragedy of America’s rural schools, Gerard and I have to tell you this piece, I just think was incredibly well done. And I can’t go through, it’s a long one. It is the New York times magazine, but some of the parts that it really hits on, and this is making me, I was reading this and I was thinking, wow, we need a John White or somebody to come on the show and really talk to us. Somebody who’s worked in rural education continues to, because in this time, when we’re constantly talking about all of this stimulus money flowing into the nation schools, to make some really important points about the fact that we don’t necessarily have dedicated ways of addressing what is quite frankly, the tragedy of America’s rural schools and issues that existed that long pre-dated.

Cara Candal:

COVID like in many school systems, but rural education is something that at least for my money has only gotten some discussion even in the past decade. And certainly not enough. Now we talked a little bit about it at the beginning of the pandemic, in the context of the digital divide, right? And some dedicated federal funds going to help in rural schools really and rural children get online and we have hotspots and all of those things, but the problems with schools in rural communities run much, much deeper. So I’m going to hit on a few things that stood out to me about this article that I really really appreciated was it talked about schools in the context of communities and it sort of follows this one kid and a superintendent in a rural district in Mississippi through their experience. But highlighted in there are things that I don’t think we think about enough in the first is that rural communities and rural schools, especially are really differentiated from those in urban and suburban centers in large part because they don’t have the civil society slash nonprofit infrastructure around them because they’re not densely populated areas.

Cara Candal:

So in many urban communities where you would have NGOs and not-for-profits stepping in and filling gaps that the schools can’t necessarily fill in because they don’t have resources or capacity or whatever the case may be. You often don’t have those organizations in rural communities. And if you don’t, they’re so few and far between because of geography that they might not be able to help all the people who need them. And then a couple of the other things, a lot of state departments, this is talking about Mississippi, for example, so sorry to call you out Mississippi. But it says even in our most rural states, a lot of departments of education don’t have dedicated departments, personnel resources to thinking about the issues that specifically face rural school districts, which I didn’t know. And I find to be fascinating, this article quotes that I think it says it’s about 40% of the students in Mississippi live in rural areas.

Cara Candal:

And the department of education doesn’t have even a department that’s committed specifically to these issues. And I would take that a step further and say with all the stimulus funding, we don’t have funds dedicated specifically to rural areas and thinking about their issues. It talks about obviously the lack of wifi infrastructure, mainly in homes. Like let’s talk about the homework divide here and supplies, something that kids across the spectrum face and teachers across the spectrum face, but also in rural communities. Boy is transportation a really big issue, right? Getting kids to, and from point a to point B and oftentimes you’ll hear policy wonks say things along the lines of, well, these rural school districts need to consolidate and they’re losing enrollment. Well, you know, consolidate when you’ve got kids living hundreds of miles, apart from each other, and they’re already doing a one hour commute to school and there aren’t enough bus drivers and there enough personnel transportation becomes just an amazingly huge issue.

Cara Candal:

And then to top it all off, whereas a lot of these districts would prefer not to consolidate, but to actually build new infrastructure. And the article does a great job of talking about how it’s not about building new schools for the sake of building new schools, but for the sake of community revival. So can schools be the nexus of the community in a way that they attract non-profits that they attract new businesses. If I’m a business owner and I want to go and be attracted into a rural community, I’m probably going to need a place to send my kids to school. And so many of our rural schools, not only are they under resourced, there’s a lack of teachers willing to teach there. They don’t have AP courses for kids. They don’t have the things that a lot of us take for granted at a very base level. If I’m a parent and I’d walk into a dilapidated school building, I certainly don’t get the sense that my kids are going to be cared for. So there’s so much more to this article. I just really highly recommend it to our listeners. And I think it was a great move by the New York times. I really appreciate the extent to which this piece got me thinking more about the challenges that our rural students, teachers and communities face.

Gerard Robinson:

No you’re spot on rural education receives a backseat. When we have national conversations, they only tend to come up every four years when you have a governor wonderful for office, or even if it’s a presidential election. And even then if they’re discussing rural education, it’s often about economics and healthcare, which of course is influenced by education. My first rule baptism and to the nuances of rural education occurred when I started my role, the secretary of education in Virginia, and I had a chance to meet with members of the rural caucus. When you think about Virginia, you think of Virginia Beach, you think of Richmond, you think of Fairfax and some of the DC bedroom communities, but you have a number of people in Virginia who live in what is called the rural horseshoe. And it literally is a horseshoe starting from the Eastern part of the state all the way down, bordering North Carolina, touching parts of West Virginia and coming up.

Gerard Robinson:

And so I would meet with a team and they would say, listen, when you decide to market all the way and things about Virginia, don’t forget about us. And they said, because Virginia is a state that has really three types of places. And so if you think about the rural horseshoe, if it were a state, it would be ranked 50th in the nation for education attainment, even though Virginia itself is ranked second in the country. If you look at a number of people in Virginia who at least have an associates degree in Virginia, writ large is 47%. And the horseshoe it’s 27%. If you look at the number of adults that fail to finish, high school was 10% in Virginia, writ large, but in the rural horseshoe is 19%. And so governor’s lawmakers have made a pitch to really chip in to see what we can do to help.

Gerard Robinson:

But one institution that’s really come up to the table is a Virginia community college system. And they have a number of community colleges, 14 to be exact who are working in the horseshoe to vide everything from GED training to access to post-baccalaureate skills, but also to economic development programs. So I’ve seen that firsthand in a state where there’s a lot of degree holders and where there’s a lot of wealth and a lot of beds concentrated in Northern Virginia, but for the rest of us in the state, this is a big issue. So thanks for bringing that to our attention. Absolutely. My article, in fact, isn’t an article as much as a commentary about the Amicus brief that the pioneer Institute submitted for the upcoming case at the Supreme court will take a look at taking a real good deep dive into private school choice in Maine, as we know, pioneers that only a supporter of this program, but for years, they’ve been involved in intellectually rigorous data-driven public policy solutions.

Gerard Robinson:

And we know that they seek to promote public policies that advance the goals to change the lives of people, not only supporting education, but freedom of speech, economic freedom and government accountability. So when they decided to create an Amicus brief with a law firm, they said, they’re doing this because they know that one of the longstanding and major roadblocks in our nation, including of course, Massachusetts is having greater access to opportunity, but in some states like Maine or even Massachusetts or Montana with Espinosa case, there were a lot of anti religious or anti-Catholic laws in place also know broadly is Blaine amendments. And so their Amicus brief is making a case as to why we need to basically undo some of this. And it’s worth noting that this is not the first time that the pioneer Institute has done this. They also submitted an Amicus brief in Espinosa case and justice Alito actually cited Pioneer’s Amicus brief in its case.

Gerard Robinson:

And so we’re hope they’re going to do it again, but there’s two things worth noting. Number one, this is not a new topic to the pioneer Institute in March, 2012, pioneer hosts an event titled no more and no, not in laws, school choice in Massachusetts. And it featured Kevin Shavas, who is a president at strive incorporated Jay green professor at university of Arkansas. And they talked about this issue March, 2012, but that wasn’t the only time in 2016, they had former ambassador to the Vatican and three time of Boston, Raymond Flynn talk about the no nothing policies and what it means to school choice. I had the pleasure of being on the panel with the ambassador and it was a great conversation, but think about 2018 when the pioneer Institute decided to put together a film, big sacrifices, big dreams to talk to a real families were involved in this.

Gerard Robinson:

But here’s the second thing that I want to know. Not only did the Amicus brief and pioneer include a number of things to site, but they also cited. Here’s a drum roll. Two reports sponsor actually written a covert. And by Kara Kendale, one of them is called modeling urban scholarship vouchers in Massachusetts, that’s from a 2015 pioneer report and also a book that she helped to. Co-Edit called a vision for hope Catholic schooling in Massachusetts. And they’re focused on her article four models of Catholic schooling in Massachusetts. So Kara, I expect that if your work of course is going to be cited by one Supreme court justice as one way or another, it would be a good thing for your work, but glad pioneers involved in this. They have great people who they’ve cited. I’m so proud that my co-host is one of those people.

Cara Candal:

Thank you, Gerard. No, that was news to me. So thanks for letting me know, but I have to say pioneer has been, it’s fascinating because here we are in Massachusetts, right? Like the state with the worst Blaine amendment ever. And here’s Pioneer just doing all of this amazing work that is helping other states across the country, quite frankly, repealed their Blaine amendments. And I think it’s going to pay off because I think that we’re going to watch this main case. We should also say that Charlie Glenn, who we’ve had on this show, who’s a friend of the show and to you, and to me had also submitted Amicus brief. But you know, in watching these states that surround Massachusetts fall and start to make the right decision in terms of opening up private school choice, it just happened in New Hampshire. I think it’s going to happen. Well, it was happening to Hampshire a little while before, too with their tax credit scholarship. I don’t know, maybe Massachusetts will finally learn something. And I know that the good folks at pioneer and Jim, Jim Stergios, Jamie are going to really be pretty celebratory. When that finally happens, I’m going to hold out hope, Gerard, but thanks for setting that. And I think it’ll be a case that we’re talking about in the months to come for sure.

Gerard Robinson:

And so the tweet of the week is from education next September 12th, 2021. And it is based upon an article written by David Osborne and the title of his article. What should our leaders do about failing schools? Here’s the tweet when a state brokers a deal with a local school district that results in an innovation zone, local leaders are more likely to feel ownership of that initiative compared to when states take over failing schools and handed over to a chart. The article is really good. It talks about some early initiatives that states are using to go in with innovative zones versus taking over a school district from the state level. My unfinished dissertation looked at three cities that were taken over by, let’s say a state or a federal agency in terms of DC, good stuff in there. It’s worth the read. I think there’s two points that would make when schools are turned over to a charter.

Gerard Robinson:

That’s not a punishment as much as what at one point the law said was an option. And it’s definitely one of the things I did not like about no child left behind was putting charters in the role of saying, if you fail, we’ll make you a charter, which made the charter seem like a punishment versus an innovative model. And number two, Osborne recommended that we have more accountability, autonomy, and independent boards and more money. Of course, that would come forward. But one thing I’d be very clear about when we look at places like Chicago, some places in New Jersey, DC and others, at some point you really do have to have a strong board with a lot of power and a lot of autonomy to weigh in on removing personnel when necessary, because in the absence of that was simply giving something, a new name, but a good article and look forward to following this issue.

Cara Candal:

Yeah. I agree. I want to emphasize that I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I wrote pretty much three chapters of a book about how detrimental it can be to the charter school movement. And also just, although charters can be very effective tools for turnaround is I think we discussed last week, right? Framing that as that in the public perception can be really damaging to say, Hey, this is an escape valve from something that’s failing, but also just to the premiere presence of this article and this discussion. I’m glad that talking about schools that are performing, that aren’t serving kids is back on the agenda because it feels like it went away for awhile. It feels like board allowed to talk about that for the past couple of years. And I think that we need to keep that conversation front and center because I don’t care what you call it.

Cara Candal:

Whether it’s school turnaround, school closure, school rebirth something innovation zones. I tend to think some innovation zones aren’t very innovative, but just saying like that, we need to be having this conversation. I hope that it continues to remain in the public consciousness. Now, Gerard, I have to apologize to you my friend, because as you know, I’m a very busy woman with all of the, having to shuttle these different kids to different places, which means that I, in fact, am not going to be able to stick around for today’s interview. We knew this, we knew this and we planned to had, and I’ve got a treat for you because our friend, Jason Bedrick is going to be with us in just a moment. He also a friend of the show, been a guest on the show and was one of the contributors to the book that you just mentioned division of hope. So he’s going to be on it. You guys have a great guest coming up this week. You’re going to be talking with Dr. Leon Kass of the university of Chicago. He’s gonna be talking about great books among other things. So I know you guys are excited for that. And my apologies, Gerard, that I can’t stand with you, but you know, I’ll be back next week.

Gerard Robinson:

I look forward to it and I know you’re very busy. So to begin tech team and have people come in and not replace, what is it not supplant with supplement? Yes.

Cara Candal:

So Jason is a great supplement to the show, but certainly supplement never supplant, not the intent here. Right? I appreciate it. And I know you’re going to have a lot of fun and looking forward to hearing the conversation.

Jason Bedrick :

It is our pleasure to have Dr. Leon Kass join us on the learning curve podcast. Dr. Kass is the Addie Clark Harding professor emeritus in the committee on social fonts and the college at the university of Chicago. He is also a senior fellow Emeritus at the American enterprise Institute of public policy think tank in Washington, DC. Dr. Cass was the chairman of the president’s council on bioethics from 2001 to 2005, as well as a member, vice chairman and committee chairman of the national endowment for the humanities from 1984 to 91, he has been engaged for more than 40 years with the ethical and philosophical issues raised by biomedical advances in more recently with broader moral and cultural issues. Dr. Cass is the author of several widely acclaimed books, including the beginning of wisdom, reading Genesis 2003, leading a worthy life finding meeting in modern times in 2017 and founding God’s nation reading Exodus in 2021. Dr. Cass, thank you so much and welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Leon Kass:

Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick :

Well, let’s start in the beginning with your book on Genesis, the beginning of wisdom, much, perhaps the most commentary on the Bible seems to fall into either one of two camps. It’s either academic source critics or most interested in figuring out the sources behind the text and the one hand and on the other. You’ve got those who read the text. Piously you, however, take a philosophical approach. So perhaps you could share with our listeners why you decided to write the book and what you mean by reading the Bible philosophically, and some of the wisdom that you gleaned by reading Genesis. That way

Dr. Leon Kass:

I was not raised on the Bible. It wasn’t didn’t have a religious education Volvo, the hitter speaking and moral education of my home I learned later on was actually parasitic on the teaching of the Bible, actually the Hebrew prophets without the law. But when I began to teach Genesis in a common core humanities class at the university of Chicago, I discovered that it could more than hold its own in its account of human life, both human nature and human good hold its own against the similar teachings or different teachings, but similar questions that were dealt with by the great philosophers and writers that I had previously been drawn to. And the stories of Genesis just got a hold of me. They became dinner table conversation for several years, and I eventually got up enough nerve to offer a course. I thought you had to either be a biblical scholar or an observant Jew to venture forth.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And I finally decided I couldn’t do the students any harm if we just read this book to try to understand what it says, what it means and what we might learn from it for our own lives. And by philosophical reading, I don’t mean anything academic, I mean, philosophical in the original sense of a pursuit done love of wisdom. And it seemed to me, the more time I spent with this book, the more it had to teach me, not just to learn about it, but to dwell with it and to learn from it. So for example, and this is the spirit of my reading of most things, you try to inhabit the book, try to specifies with its characters, try to let the experience work on you. And what I learned from reading the book of Genesis was the first 11 chapters present to the account of human life on instructed.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And it provides a kind of mirror in which we can look at our own souls and our own human nature in its human psyche and human social relations. And one can see how within the absence of instruction, all kinds of things that we take pride in like human reason and human freedom and the things that, of which we are proud, these lead to various kinds of disasters. So that by the time the text starts up, God starts up with Abraham. The reader, like I, as a reader, have a stake in seeing whether an alternative can be found to the disasters of Cain and Abel to the story of Noah leading up to the flood until the disastrous universal city of Babel. So Genesis introduces me to the need for a new way. And it also teaches me that the usual places, human beings look to find guidance for their lives, which is primarily nature.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And the world around us, these are not adequate sources. So I get an interest in what’s going to happen with this people that begins with Abraham. And by the end of Genesis, this new way has God has gotten a kind of toehold into the world for this new way, which would be a superior way for human life, through the patriarchal generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There’s not much to go on in the way of a permanent teaching, but we see that these human beings are oriented, not toward nature, but toward this divine voice, that seems to have something in mind for them. And we come to the end of Genesis with the children of Jacob now in the wrong place in Egypt, that incipient nation. And we would be going forward eager to see what happens to them and whether they can grow from family into a people.

Jason Bedrick :

And of course earlier this year, you published your long awaited book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, which picks up where your book on Genesis left off. So as you noted, Genesis is mostly the story of a family. And it does show us what the world looks like in the pre-flood world, where you have freedom and no order. And that it leads to an anarchy later at the very end of Genesis. And of course the beginning of Exodus, we see Egypt where you have ordered, but no freedom. So you have oppression, slavery and excess as the story about the beginning of a new kind of nation with ordered Liberty. So what sort of lessons can we learn from Exodus about nationhood for today?

Dr. Leon Kass:

I began the study of Exodus is used just to really, as sort of, as a sequel to find out what’s going to happen to this people. And I began really with certain kinds of questions that you could say come out of political philosophy. What makes a people, a people, what forms their communal identity holds them together, guides their lives to what do they look up for? What are they going to strive? And this also grew out of my teaching over a period of 20 years, just like the Genesis book was a 20 year project in the classroom. And here in the beginning, I thought that there were basically two parts to this teaching. The first part of Exodus is Israel in Egypt is rapidly enslaved. They are oppressed are in despair, only belatedly do they cry out. And then God remembers his promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and begins the process of getting them out of Egypt and to deliver them.

Dr. Leon Kass:

He finds a champion and Moses who plays a crucial role. There was a contest with Pharaoh, which is really not just about getting them out, but it’s a contest of worldviews in which one sees the deficiencies of the Egyptian worldview, which looks partly to nature for guidance, but mostly to human ingenuity, magic administration technology. But which issues really, as you’ve already pointed out in the rule of a strongest man has got amongst men. And he not only oppresses the strangers, but eventually is responsible for the destruction of his own people. So the first part is slavery and deliverance, and this becomes the national narrative of the people to which they repair annually in the Passover Seder, strikingly, even before they go out, they are given the first commandment as a people, namely that every year hereafter they should commemorate this, not yet event of deliverance by telling this story to their children so that you could almost say the deliverance from Egypt was for the sake of the story and the remembrance.

Dr. Leon Kass:

They should know that they were one suppressed they should know to whom they owe for their deliverance. So slavery, deliverance, gratitude story. The second part is they’re delivered into anarchy, but anarchy is the rule of Moses. As the charismatic philosophical king is insufficient. It has to be replaced by the law. And the second part of a political foundation is the giving of the law at Sinai preeminently and the principles, the 10 commandments, which contains some teachings that the world would never know of. If it were not for this particular revelation and command, especially the teaching about keeping the Sabbath, especially the teaching about honoring your father and mother, along with the famous second table of prescribing murder, adultery, theft, bearing, false witness and coveting. And also I omitted the very important injunction against idolatry, a permanent problem in the human psyche. What I didn’t know when I started working on Exodus was that I should pay equal attention to the third part of the book, which has to do with the building of the tabernacle, a sanctuary in which God says that he wants to dwell to abide amongst the people that it’s not just enough to have a national narrative.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And it’s not just enough to have a law and mores, but something has to be done to address the longing of human beings to be in touch with what is highest. And to my greatest accomplishment, God says of himself that he took up with Israel so that Israel would come to know him and that he might be known to them and abide in their midst in everyday life, not just Moses, but the ordinary human being would come to have some kind of relationship with the divine presence. So there are really three pillars on which the nation of Israel rests, narrative of slavery and deliverance, law, and morality, and a place to be in touch with, to express gratitude, to, to atone for sins before the highest principle of all. And these three things, if you read the text, not just as history, but you read it for its enduring wisdom, it makes you wonder, can a nation long endure the way is real has endured upon this teaching, despite the absence of a land for 2000 years and a nation endure, which does not have a national narrative that everybody adheres to that does not have a common morality and law.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And that does not have some kind of direction and satisfaction of the longings for something beyond our comfort and safety. I very much doubt it. And it is I think a real open question for America today, whether our concern with health safety and prosperity are sufficient. If our national narrative is contested, if our mores are frayed, and if we’ve in a way, have no common aspiration to something higher than ourselves,

Jason Bedrick :

Well, that’s a good way to segue into my final question about the civil rights movement. Of course you and your late wife, Amy were very much involved in the civil rights movements. And you’ve been speaking about the importance of a national narrative, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther king and many other civil rights leaders were heavily influenced by and drew inspiration from the narrative of the book of Exodus, but also the narrative of the American story and tied together the themes of liberation from both, and especially from Exodus themes, liberation, Moses’s leadership and God’s dominion. So perhaps you could share with us what you think that teachers and students today should learn from Exodus to better understand religious and cultural cohesiveness.

Dr. Leon Kass:

This is really a terribly important question, Jason. And then it’s been on my mind a lot, but difference between the various activities today having to do with racial issues and social justice seem to no longer call us back as Dr. King did to the Bible and to the American founding people forget that the civil rights movement of the sixties was largely in the churches, especially in the south king appealed explicitly to the principles of the declaration of independence of all men are created equal. And the appeal was to the brotherhood of man or the father who is God, and that there was a call for the unity. And the reason that that movement was so successful was that it appealed to the better angels of nature, of the dominant culture, to remember our principles, both American and biblical, and to come together to make good on the promise so long denied to African-Americans living in our midst.

Dr. Leon Kass:

The present moment makes no such appeal. The present moment attacks the regime as fundamentally flawed does not treat the founding principles as anything but hypocritical. And you cannot name today. Anybody in the movement for racial equality, that appeals on a religious basis to what we have in common. And I think that what we’re seeing is the further fragmentation of the country and a deliberate fragmentation of a country. So that whiteness becomes a disease or crime for which we have to atone. And the identity politics undermines the sense of our community, which the previous civil rights movement insisted upon fostered further and really went very far to realizing before things became unglued. So I’m very, very saddened and worried about the present time. And I think we really need to go back to the sense that look, God took up with Israel. He abandoned the effort to deal with all human kind united, not because he’d lost interest in everybody, but he thought that the way to get his way into the world, he had to work with one nation, which would then become a light on to all the nations.

Dr. Leon Kass:

He says, when he calls Abraham that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed in you. And that this way that was begun with Israel. And in fact became rather universal. Thanks to the advent of Christianity, which took some of these Judaic principles and universalize them, carry them to the world at large, that was an attempt to provide an elevated view of human possibility in relation to the divine calling for a way of completing the promise implied in man’s being the sole preacher made in God’s image. In the absence of that, it’s not clear whether there’s any way for us to live decently and harmoniously. And the teachings of Exodus were given parochially, but they have a universal significance. The 10 commandments have a universal significance, the teachings about the care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers and the poor have a universal significance.

Dr. Leon Kass:

They honor your father and mother as a way of guaranteeing the possibility of cultural transmission. So that a way of life that is well founded. Doesn’t disappear if you live in a world in which people don’t honor, father and mother, nevermind. Some of them don’t even have stable families in which they can be instructed. We are lost. So the kind of moral teachings of Exodus, the kind of orientation of the soul towards something higher toward which we should lock. Those things are indispensable for us today. And if we’re not careful, we will see further fragmentation and an erosion of the moral wealth that this country has stored up for getting close. Now into the third century,

Gerard Robinson:

Hi Dr. Kass, just to follow up on your idea of moral wealth. You’re among the few public intellectuals of our era, whose wide learning and scholarship spans medicine, philosophy science, and of course the scriptures, but you also teach about enduring ideas about wisdom, particularly those found in the great books. Would you share with our listeners what the great books are and why they’re so crucial to students and educators in the 21st century, particularly those who are interested in a liberal arts education and the importance of living in a good

Dr. Leon Kass:

I’ve spent the bulk of my life. Classic texts are great books. It’s easy to poke fun of these if you’re cynical, but everybody knows that we can argue about this book or that, but everybody knows that we are the errors of multiple traditions of great texts by great minds and teachers, literary, philosophical, religious historical, and indeed scientific tech. These are the books in which the greatest minds and teachers have articulated and examine the most basic questions of human life questions, which any thoughtful human being must seriously confront sooner or later, whether it’s Socrates, what is questions? What is man? What is God? What is justice or questions like cons questions? What can I know what ought I do? What may I hope everybody at some point or another wants to think about these things. And it is these great texts in which these great teachers have examined these questions often in competing in different ways.

Dr. Leon Kass:

So the books become both timeless and timely. They illuminate these persistent questions of human existence, but they speak to our contemporary concerns. Why? Because these books are on the one hand, the originators of our current opinions and at the same time, the most exacting critics of our opinions. So if we read them, we don’t read them as authorities, but we read them as friends who present us with the rich alternative at the highest level, and with the best material, for our reflection on who we are, what are we doing here? What should we make of our existence? How should we live individually and in community? And it’s especially true on this one to live in an age where everybody lived under a particularly common authoritative way, liberal education would be, it might be a luxury for a few people, but most people would have a way of life handed down to them.

Dr. Leon Kass:

Simply if you live in the present age where there is no authoritative answer, but we are inheritors more of questions, it’s indispensable for us. If we mean to not lie to ourselves or live faultlessly to spend some time really thinking hard about these questions of our existence and the great books are great friends in that activity. And I have to say one more thing. It’s not just enough to read them and to learn about them, but it’s important that you inhabit them and let them work on you. It’s one thing to say, what does the book say? It’s another thing to prepare yourself for what the book does to a reader who allows him or herself to inhabit the book, let the book and habit your soul and search for what it has to offer you without prejudice. Don’t read just for agreement or argumentation, but read in the expectation that this book could show you what you really need to know, which you might not otherwise learn.

Gerard Robinson:

A graduated from college 30 years ago this past summer. And I went to college as a business major and halfway through. I switched to study philosophy much to the chagrin of my Southern born working class parents who thought I was simply crazy to want to study what we would call great literature or philosophy of the Greek books. And I can attest personally and professionally to what you said about his importance of lifting up one soul, but asking deep penetrating questions that transcends space and time. So that’s just more of a personal commentary, which in fact leads to my last question about Western education at this point is pretty focused on vocationally oriented and often technocratic skills often at the expense of a humanistic education, is this a matter of concern for us and why should it be, and why are the humanities and liberal arts always in competition with hybrid technological forces that want us to go that route only?

Dr. Leon Kass:

This is a critical question for our time. I mean, I’ve talked before about the questions of decaying national narrative and afraid mores, but we live under conditions of prosperity that are of a gift really of science and technology. Most Americans live better than Dukes and duchesses 150 years ago. And our economy is tied to science and technology. Our national security is tied to this. Our way out of the current pandemic is a gift of marvelous work in immunology and so on. And we’ve come to worship of the things which are the sources of our prosperity and our power to combat the illnesses that afflict body and soul. But the important thing to remember is science teaches us how things work, but not what things mean. And technology enables us, gives us power to do all kinds of things, but it doesn’t tell us how we should use that power technology is notoriously like the science that makes it possible value neutral.

Dr. Leon Kass:

And as we accumulate more and more power to work, not just on the environment, but also on the human body and mind the question of how that power should be used, becomes ever more important. And lots of people worry about these power coming into the hands of evil people, but the deepest questions and the deepest concerns that I’ve wrestled with have to do with costs of the use of this power for humanitarian ends, in which we say use the power to manipulate the human genome, to affect the human mind and desires admittedly, to cure disease, to eliminate psychic suffering. But the great danger is that technologies will produce longer life and greater prosperity, but with stunted humanity and the book that woke me up to this, I read it 60 years ago was Aldous Huxley’s brave new world, which is the fulfillment of the humanitarian project to get rid of poverty, disease, war, and all of those things.

Dr. Leon Kass:

But the result was creatures of human shape, but stunted humanity. And it’s only in the humanities and the liberal arts that want to keep alive the question, what do we mean by a human being? What is real human flourishing is really a happy human life. Spent reading 140 characters on the screen and having a gazillion friends, a millimeter deep, where are we headed here? And it’s only really the humanities and the liberal arts that keeps the soul alive and offer the counterweight to the oldest world. That hyper technological age is I fear bringing into being so the humanities and the liberal arts always, always important, but are increasingly crucial because they alone can raise the questions about where are we going and why is it good? And also can nourish the souls of people and not just their bodies.

Gerard Robinson:

Thank you. I’d like to now turn it over to you to read a passage from a book of your choice.

Dr. Leon Kass:

Well, I’d like to read from near the end of the Exodus book. I think given the way we’ve been talking about this, let me just say something about the political implications of the book of Exodus for us more of the book had to do towards the end with the more spiritual side, but let me just read the way I end the epilogue. We 21st century Americans still have much to learn from the book of Exodus, precisely because we are not theocrats but loyal yet worried members of modern liberal democracy history shows us that inflammatory mixtures of religion and politics can have deadly consequences from the crusades, the inquisition and the 30 years war to today’s Islamic jihad against the infidels. But we also know the 20th centuries godless politics associated with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao that rejecting biblical morality slaughtered more people than all previous religious wars combined and crushed the spirit of millions more as GK Chesterton, put it when men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing.

Dr. Leon Kass:

They then become capable of believing in anything with atheism on the rise in Western societies. We may soon discover what happens should humanity return to the dehumanizing conditions that prevailed before biblical times, the techno despotic ways of the Egyptians, the earth worshiping and licentious ways of the Canaanites or the cosmopolitan and soulless dream of the Babel builders. That man will be a God to man. In these confused and dangerous times with most Western nations struggling to articulate why they should exist at all. And with the human future and the balance we can ill afford to neglect any possible sources of wisdom about human affairs. The timeless book of Exodus remains an indispensable resource for thinking about the good life and the good community, freedom and law justice and holiness and the meaning and purpose of our existence. It deserves and rewards our most serious attention.

Gerard Robinson:

Well, thank you so much for that reading. Thank you also for joining us today for this very important conversation, particularly during the season that we’re in, we look forward to future conversations and thank you for your commitment to humanity.

Dr. Leon Kass:

Thanks very much for having me, all the best.

Gerard Robinson:

And next week, we’re going to be joined by Julie Young, the leader of the Arizona state university prep digital. She has been on our show before. She is a friend, not only the pioneer Institute, but Kara and I, and look forward to talking to her about the work she’s doing and the thousands of children across the country that she’s beginning to help.

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