Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Michael Stanislawski grapples with the Enlightenment.
By Grace Adee
Michael Stanislawski is the Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, where he has been since 1980. His research has spanned a variety of topics, but he specializes in Jewish, European intellectual, and Russian history. Stanislawski is the former chair of Contemporary Civilization (CC) and has taught both CC and Literature Humanities (Lit Hum) for many years. He has published several books, most recently Zionism: A Very Short Introduction (2016). Investigations editor Grace Adee sat down with Professor Stanislawski in his spacious Fayerweather office for a conversation about the Core Curriculum, the importance of context, and the viability of objectivity.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: I’m sure you don’t have to keep teaching Lit Hum and CC after all these years—why do you?
Michael Stanislawski: I do it because I love it. It sounds so cliché, but I do. I don’t think there’s been a semester in the past 15 years I’ve been here that I haven’t taught it, and it’s all voluntary—nobody can really compel me to do anything at this point in terms of my teaching.
At some points, it even comes at the expense of the History department—this fall, many history department professors are teaching Core classes, more than usual. It used to be pulling teeth to get people to teach the Core. Now it’s much more popular—to tell you the truth, there are now some financial incentives, which I had been pushing for years, as it’s twice the amount of teaching. And it’s hard. Nobody controls all the material in either class. Art Hum and Music Hum are more discrete topics, so a seasoned art historian can maybe cover all of it. But in CC and Lit Hum, nobody’s an expert from antiquity to the present. We don’t pretend to be experts. I find it intellectually challenging.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
For me, it doesn’t really matter what the precise texts are, so I never really engage in the curricular battles that occur periodically. When I was chair of CC, and I was told that I had to do a curriculum review, my criteria was, how do these texts work in the classroom? The pedagogy rather than, oh no, we can’t have CC without X, or we can’t have Lit Hum without Y. For me, there are some texts that I think are crucial, but overall it’s the process, the discussion, and not so much the particular texts.
B&W: You started to get at this, but I was wondering if you could talk about what you see as the role of the Core.
MS: The medievals said that you can’t talk positively about God, you can only talk about what God is not. I do NOT see CC or even Lit Hum as “Western Civ.” It’s more problematic in terms of CC, because who says that Plato is a “Western” figure? That category was not available to him. And then we go to Aristotle, to the Hebrew Bible…are those texts Western?
B&W: So it’s anachronistic.
MS: It’s totally anachronistic. It’s not Western Civ, it’s not World Civ, it’s not the best texts in the world, it’s just an attempt to understand the world from where we are situated. If we taught this in a different part of the world, it would have different books. I’m teaching a variation of this at a law school in Israel this summer and I’m adapting it to the local circumstances. I gave a lecture to a university in Santiago that just adopted CC whole hog. But in Chile, for example, I don’t think understanding the Protestant Reformation is a crucial as understanding some other concepts. So for me, it’s the questions of the course. It’s students having to ponder these enormous questions that humanity has wrestled with from the beginning of our records—and you know what they are.
It’d be really easy to do what some of our peer institutions do and have these huge lecture classes, but that doesn’t do it for me. It’s the interaction—you cap it at 22 students, and you have ongoing discussions about these issues and texts. When it works, it’s really exciting. Most of the time, it works without being that exciting. It’s the chemistry of the class—and also the instructor—but I’ve had such varied experiences. In Lit Hum, as I joke with the class, the feeling is a little bit different, because you’re dealing with mostly first-year students. By February, you’re jaded Columbia undergraduates.
B&W: But at the beginning, there’s so much hope!
MS: Well, there’s still hope! But in CC, everybody’s already pre-jaded—some are very excited to be there, but it’s a whole different chemistry. So Lit Hum is the purest form of undergraduate pedagogy. It’s not for everybody. Not everyone enjoys the reading, the kind of analysis that we do. But I think we’re teaching students how to read literature and how to think. As you’ve seen, I depart a little bit from the normal syllabus because I always try to get a sense of the class. In this year’s class, I felt like Milton would just be a stone dragging us down, as opposed to Camus. It’s not that it’s more relevant, it’s just that different classes are interested in different things.
B&W: The Core has changed a lot in the last few decades to address the diversity of the curriculum, but many people wonder if enough has been done.
MS: The biggest problem in the Core in my mind is the Global Core. That is, frankly, a mess. It’s exactly what our peer institutions do badly. Here’s a list of courses that nobody really vets, and…pick two. And then you get into these silly debates about whether or not something is “Western.” A medieval Spanish history class counts, but a 20th century Spanish history class doesn’t count, because that’s European, it’s not global. I’m not saying I have the formula, but it seems to me that it needs rethinking. As does the regular curriculum. I’ll see how Morrison goes, I’ve never taught it before. We’re always trying, but there’s a fine line between taking the issue of diversity seriously and just adding a text because it looks good. We have to see how it works in the classroom. For me, it has become less of an issue in CC, but it’s still an issue in Lit Hum, because Lit Hum defines itself much more as a Western literature class. Again, I’m not pleased with that self-designation.
But even considering that, the Core is what has kept me at Columbia. I’ve had offers to go other places, which I took seriously sometimes. But it was a combination of staying in New York and the Core. I could teach my history classes anywhere. I could move to Dallas and teach my history classes there—I mean, we have a great history department, but that doesn’t really have that big of an effect on undergraduates. I don’t know if that sounds disloyal, but I didn’t stay here to teach my history classes, or because I have a beautiful office.
B&W: How do you think your background as a historian influences how you approach Core classes?
MS: I tend to think about texts and ideas historically, whatever that means—there’s no one way to do to it, and our consciousness of that has increased dramatically in the past three decades. I used to think I could just bring that objectivity to anything. I could teach a class on existentialism, on Chinese pottery, on slavery, on Israel-Palestine, and I would be objective, and I would just teach that as a professional historian. Now I, like everyone else, have realized that it’s much more complicated than that. There’s no possibility of objectivity, but I do my best to be as objective as I can be.
What that means for CC and Lit Hum is that I tend to think contextually. I want to have students understand the context from which these texts arise. It’s probably a better thing to do in CC than in Lit Hum, so I might spend a little too much time on context than is absolutely necessary.
But also, all my books have dealt with literature in some way or another. I’m always aware of how to use literary sources in writing and thinking about history. That’s why Lit Hum isn’t a stranger to me, because while I haven’t written directly about any of the texts—though I have written about the context of Crime and Punishment, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament—I’ve used so many literary texts as sources, from poetry to prose to autobiographies.
I’m also not a philosopher. I’m not looking for a transhistorical answer to any of these questions—I’m looking at the contextualized texts. I also don’t get intimidated by texts I don’t know. I know how I work. You give me a text, I’ll figure it out. It’s a method of reading and understanding texts that I bring with me.
B&W: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the development of your career in history.
MS: In almost forty years here, nobody has told me what I have to teach! I just announce what I’m teaching. This is part of the laissez-faire attitude of the Columbia history department—I guess you’d call it a lack of curricular planning. But it worked for me, because I could say, okay, next semester I’m teaching a course on Montesquieu and Voltaire. And nobody said, Who are you to be teaching that?
I’ve never taught something I really don’t know anything about, but I have experimented—I taught a course in ancient Jewish history at one point, even though I know very little about ancient history. But I thought I should learn it. Many professors use teaching as a way of organizing our thoughts and getting insights from students in understanding something.
In terms of my expertise, I started off with the European Enlightenment, and how it was received or opposed in different geographic and cultural contexts—so in Jewish history, Russian history, Eastern European history. So that was my subject matter, and my first few books were about the tension in Russian and Jewish society between Enlightenment ideas and what we used to call traditional society. But I was always looking at literary texts of the Enlightenment as well as ideological texts.
Then, because of the nature of the beast, I got more interested in nationalism, which seemed to replace Enlightenment Liberalism in so many places. I started studying nationalism both theoretically and in practice, in the Russian, Jewish, and German contexts. While doing that, I got interested in autobiographies. So there was no plan, absolutely no plan. I didn’t at the age of 28 set out a life speed. It’s not random or organic, it’s just kind of how my interests developed.
My research is still so connected to what we do in Lit Hum and CC, especially right now. I’m trying to understand diaries. Isaac Babel was a great Russian Jewish author in the early years of the Soviet Union. We have all these amazing stories about him. Then this diary was discovered, and I’m working my tail off trying to figure out how you use a diary as a source.
Scholars use Babel’s diary as source material for understanding him biographically. And I’m just saying that you don’t know who this guy is. He’s 25 years old. It turns out he’s going to be murdered by the Stalinist regime 15 years later. He’s a martyr to the cause of literature, to the cause of art…but he didn’t know that when he was 25. He didn’t know he’d write these world-famous stories. So how do I read this text? I’m carrying on about this because it’s the kind of question where you wonder—is it a literary question? A historical question? It’s a source question.
B&W: I did want to talk about your most recent book—Zionism: A Very Short Introduction.
MS: Yes, it’s part of this wonderful series—it’s not the cause of the wonderfulness of the series—but Oxford has this series of very short introductions to X, Y, Z. You can find very short introductions to Schopenhauer, and probably one to vegetables. The editor is an old student of mine, and she asked me to do this. I really didn’t want to. I had written a book called Zionism and the Fin de Siecle, but she said it would be a useful thing to do.
It was the hardest experience of my writing life. Because if you look at it, it’s short, it’s tiny, and I couldn’t use complicated words. You have to try to cram all this information.
B&W: And you’re assuming no prior knowledge?
MS: You’re assuming absolutely no prior knowledge, on––I don’t need to say it—a very contentious issue. What I say at the start of the book is that I strive for detachment, and it’s up to the reader to decide if I succeed.
People have had varied reactions to it. A lot of people thought, this is fantastic, and a lot of people had hesitations. You left this out, or you left that out. Or this pretense of detachment is a pretense, because you’re not saying X or Y on whatever political side. But for me, the hardest thing was not just the selection of material—that’s always hard. These Xerox cabinets behind you are filled with boxes of materials for all my books that I never got to, because you can never read everything. So it wasn’t so much the selection, but the condensation, saying what you’re thinking in a clear and concise way.
If I had to do it again, I know what I would change, but that’s true of every book I write. I have colleagues who think it’s a stupid enterprise to condense this much. It was very hard, but ultimately I enjoyed the process….well did I really? I guess ultimately I enjoyed the process. But it was really hard.
B&W: You’ve taught a bunch of different classes here over the years, but one you teach a lot is History of the State of Israel.
MS: Right, I’m teaching it again in the fall.
B&W: I would say the Israel-Palestine is perhaps the most charged issue on campus right now—I don’t know if you follow the student politics around the issue.
MS: I kind of do, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in it. What I announce in this class at the beginning of the semester is that this class is not about the Israel-Palestine Conflict. That’s covered sketchily in a class which is trying to understand a very complex society, a very complex history, and a very complex situation right now. I’m more of a cultural and intellectual historian. When we get to wars—and there are wars—I have to have the TA lecture. I remember…who won the war? I remember some dates…1967 I kinda got down. But it’s just not how my mind works.
So it’s a course which doesn’t attempt to enter into the political debate as much as it tries to understand narratives. We read Palestinian narratives, Palestinian poetry as well as Hebrew poetry, and Zionist narratives, and anti-Zionist Jewish narratives. And so it’s not just like a smorgasbord of things about Israel, it’s trying to understand this society before one makes judgments. It frustrates me in the political debate—and again, it’s not one side or the other side, because there are many sides—but in many of these cases, people don’t have a keen awareness of the history, the sociology, the culture of this crucial place. I cooperate a lot with Professor Khalidi, so I know that my teaching about Israel is contextualized in this department with other classes. I might be accused of naiveté, but for me this is not a political engagement, it’s a pre-political engagement. It’s trying to understand this society. From there, you can go on to understand the conflict.
B&W: Do you see the politics around the issue affecting how students interact with the material academically?
MS: I’m not in the discussion sections, but I can see from the paper topics that a lot of the students are naturally interested in the conflict and write papers having to do with the conflict. I don’t exclude those from our subject matter. I make it clear from the start that this is not a debating society, it’s a history class. So if somebody is going to try to make this a debating society, from any point of view, I’m not going to engage with that. It’s a stance of studied naiveté, you might say. I say, here are my rules. I’m trying to impart knowledge about this place. We spend a lot of time on literature, on poetry—in a lecture class it’s easier to teach poetry because you can’t assign a novel, really. And we spend a lot of time on the complexities of internal politics. It’s analogous to my contextualization of texts in CC and Lit Hum. It’s how I operate.
B&W: I have one more question for you. It’s about something you said in class at the beginning of the year, and I’ve been meaning to ask you about it since then.
MS: Uh oh.
B&W: You said that you don’t think students should ever double major in anything, and I was just curious about your reasoning.
MS: By the time you’re done with the Core and done with your major, then you have a very small number of open spots. In four years, maybe you’ll be sick of your major and you’ll want to be able to do some intellectual exploration. So double majoring limits your ability to engage in intellectual exploration.
And it has no purchase outside the university. A lot of students think that it looks better when you’re applying to law school or applying to Goldman or some NGO. They think it looks better if you have a double major…but no. When we’re doing admissions for graduate school, every school has a different nomenclature. So you don’t look better to me as a candidate if you have a double major, I barely look at what your major is because I don’t know what the requirements are.
We’re in a situation where students feel like they need to get another check mark on their resume when they’re 19. I’ve just seen so many unhappy seniors, because they’re taking yet another history class when they’d really like to take a literature class, or Arabic. But they can’t, because they have these ridiculous second major requirements. For me, it’s purely that. But also, at some point when I was really involved in this issue, I wanted all the deans of the law schools—back when law school was where we sent most of our student—to just issue a statement saying, “We don’t care about double majors!”
B&W: Maybe students would finally believe you then.
MS: Maybe! I don’t even think so.