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“Freedom’s apprenticeship:” Hard, Essential Conversations

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While living in Lima, Peru on a Fulbright Fellowship after I graduated from college, I was reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I came across this line, which has stuck with me ever since: “It cannot be repeated too often: nothing is more fertile in marvels than the art of being free, but nothing is harder than freedom’s apprenticeship.” At the time, it probably struck me because Peruvians were taking to the streets to change their government, but after completing my third week as Swarthmore’s first full-time Jewish advisor, de Tocqueville’s words have surfaced again, this time offering me a way of understanding the promise and the challenge of this community.

In my short time here, I have been warmly welcomed again and again by staff, students, and faculty, and I received another warm welcome when I went last Thursday to speak in Dr. Sa’ed Atshan’s class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After my presentation on the past and present of anti-Semitism, I took some questions. All of the questions were thoughtful. Some of them were extremely hard. These questions challenged my deeply held beliefs, revealed to me assumptions I didn’t even know I had and grew from experiences totally foreign to my own, leaving me a little disoriented and struggling to find words. While I have an extremely relaxed disposition (courtesy of my small children) and some experience in this kind of conversation, it was clear that others in the room were getting upset and tension was rising.

At its most basic, the purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach its recipients how to be free, and what I experienced in Dr. Atshan’s class was, I believe, in de Tocqueville’s words, “freedom’s apprenticeship.” If we simply believe what we’ve always been taught is true, or ask some questions but avoid hard questions, or hear hard questions without really listening to them and really seeing the people who ask them, we are not truly free. There is a Jewish teaching that a person can’t really be free without engaging in the study of Torah (literally, divine instruction in its broadest sense, or ultimate wisdom), and the only way to truly learn Torah is to let go of one’s attachments and assumptions.

Freedom’s apprenticeship is hard—the questions are uncomfortable, and letting go of attachments and assumptions can feel risky on many levels—and inevitably brings people into conflict, so we must work hard to continue to treat each other with civility in the course of these raw, vulnerable, rich conversations, and I saw Dr. Atshan gently but firmly helping his students to learn how to do this.

The stakes of this work are high. Not only is each individual’s freedom on the line, but when anyone opts out, settling for artificially narrowed horizons, this jeopardizes the freedom of others who are not fully seen or heard or acknowledged.

My hope for the students in the class I visited and for all members of the Swarthmore community is a year of hard, healthy conversations and genuine compassion for our partners in these conversations. Nothing would be more fertile in marvels.

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