The Soul of Civilization

Oct 22, 2019 10:15:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf talks about the educational aspiration of engaging with unfamiliar ideas in unfamiliar environments. He also encourages students to explore beyond what they know and reckon with their beliefs.

Disagreements for the Sake of Heaven: The Wisdom of Hillel and Shammai

I’ve been listening to this great podcast…it’s about our sacred text, the Mishnah, that dissects the Torah; these two rabbis Hillel and Shammai argue over every single principle: how many candles should we light at Channukah? Who can marry who? What foods can we eat, who is right? And they NEVER resolve it. They end these conflicts with the phrase machloket l’shem shamayim, which means: disagreements for the sake of heaven. Disagreements for the sake of heaven! What if faith, what if identity, what if truth isn’t about being one thing or another – what if it’s about both, neither, all of it? What if truth is in the tension – the tension between two seemingly conflicting spaces? identities, states of being – what if that is where truth is? [1]

“Disagreements for the sake of Heaven” is a profound proposition: argument does not need to be resolved; heaven is served by dissent. This notion is radical, challenging, and disturbing. Taking the lessons of Shammai (50 BCE – 30 CE) and Hillel the Elder (c.110 BC–10 AD), we may sustain disagreement without rancour, liberated from the obligation to agree. Respect for diverse views is not just good manners; it has spiritual, moral, and intellectual value.

The secular implication is that there may be wisdom in unresolved dispute. Quality of perception is not defined by absolutism. We live in states of ambiguity and an inability to resolve those is not failure. It is, rather, a recognition that the world in which we live is not defined by the “truth” but rather by “truths.” To be absolutely sure is usually to be beguiled by simplicity.

Orthodoxies and assumptions, the language of political correctness from right, left, or center, need to be made problematic. Challenge and disruption is an ethical obligation. However, for the sake of our sanity and the health of the places in which we live, we have to make distinctions and judgements. There are boundaries between good and evil; prejudice against minorities is not a matter of opinion. To hate without reason is degeneracy. We measure civil society by the degree to which certain behaviors are not tolerated.

I am aware of the objections from colleagues who will, with some justification, argue that my view of moral degeneracy is conditioned in all sorts of ways and, therefore, who am I to make these statements? Of course, they have a point. We all live along a spectrum of that which is clearly bad and that which is clearly good, that which is healthy and unhealthy, that which respects or hurts others. Along that spectrum between what we might tolerate and that which we should not tolerate there are, of course, contested places. Tolerance is not an absolute good.

Morality cannot be detached from what we teach students. We do not live in a neutral world. As educators, we believe that reading books is better than burning them. We know that international education is not a value-free endeavor. It contains, whether we recognize it or not, a contested political agenda. It asserts that contact across nations is of benefit, that we might learn from engagement with the unfamiliar. We also recognize that our values and beliefs are not the only possible or valid things to believe. We should not, then, deprive students of their right to make judgements different from our own as long as those judgements are based upon some consciousness of the division between reason and prejudice.

As ethical beings, we are not obliged to accept dominant narratives from wherever they come. What we and others may believe is governed, at least in part, by context and situation: combinations of history, nation, age, gender, ethnicity, faith, and any number of factors in combination. Within the limits of law, reason, and common civic custom, diversity of opinion deserves respect. Social and intellectual discourse is enriched by disagreement.

The erosion of a liberal consensus highlights the importance of dissent. In the current political environment, a polarization of belief has led to entrenched and militant orthodoxies of left and right marked by absolutist approaches to truth, impervious to doubt and deaf to the voices of others, they build walls not bridges. The ideological conflicts of the Cold War have been replaced by the collision of closed and open systems of thought.

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, with wisdom that is beyond most of us, assert that disagreements serve heaven. That proposition subverts absolutism and resonates with what, in a secular context, is an educational process. Good education is based on critical discourse rather than uncritical digestion of orthodox opinion. In our reading we engage with past and present wisdom and conduct dialogues with those voices. What the Mishnah describes as holy is, in secular terms, a principle of creative learning rather than mindless indoctrination. Repression of disagreement is an expression of an authoritarian (or unholy) environment.

Roman Ruins

The Heretics of Languedoc

Fascism of the right and Stalinism of the left offer historical examples of the consequences of ideological certainty. Although far distant in time, the Inquisition similarly demonstrates the destructiveness and cruelty of the fateful combination of certainty and power, conviction and authority. Stephen O’Shea’s history of the destruction of the Cathars in medieval Languedoc, The Perfect Heresy, resonates with our reality although it belongs to a time, people and place profoundly separated from our own. The Cathars were a 12th and 13th century Christian sect with concentrations of believers in Southern France whose beliefs challenged the orthodoxies of the medieval Church. They believed that divinity resided within the individual and could be freed by commitment to a life of self-denial. The material world was essentially corrupt. They also had views on gender equality and a tolerance for Jews and Muslims that directly challenged the dominant creed.

Their system of belief was not treated as dissent but as heresy. That was a critical and fateful distinction: “To label an idea heretical is to know exactly what it is you believe and precisely what it is you consider an unacceptable interloper into your patch of the divine” (O’Shea, 273).[2] To see dissent as heresy is to cross a line from embracing diversity to zealous conviction.

The persecution of the Cathars in the 13th century is at the opposite end of a spectrum from the injunctions of Shammai and Hillel. The Inquisition and the rabbis both function in the context of faith rather than reason but they point in radically distinct directions; one leads towards torture and flame; the other towards acceptance of diverse views.

What relevance is there, however, in these events and people who lived so long ago? O’Shea argues that “Only a disagreement over something as fathomless as the soul of a civilization could elicit a shout so loud that it was still audible over a chasm of 700 years” (O’Shea, 5). In just over 100 years, the Cathars, who believed that “all violence is loathsome” (O’Shea, 26), were hunted, burnt alive, and ultimately entirely eradicated. May 3, 1211 saw “the largest bonfire of humanity of the Middle Ages” (O’Shea, 131). 400 Cathars were burnt to death in Lavaur. The Inquisition conducted religious genocide in a manner that was to become familiar in 20th century Europe; books and bodies that represented deviance from the dominant orthodoxy were destroyed because of unshakeable conviction; the vulpine ferocity of the friars of the Inquisition and the bureaucratic indifference of the guards at Auschwitz were justified by just such a sense of conviction.

Where then does the soul of our civilization reside – in the competing conviction of zealots or in open minds who can embrace diversity of peoples and of ideas?

In International Education

An objective of international education is to demonstrate that easy or simple answers are usually simply misconceived. We learn and teach ambiguity. In that grey space, black and white answers do not easily fit. We have an obligation to be unsure. That is what it means to be a seeker after truth.

Disagreement is thus divorced from conflict. This is, for many of us, counter intuitive in so far as we carry the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model (attributed to Hegel) as a mental habit in which the outcome is resolution. There is, of course, nothing wrong in this process. It is how we make up our minds. There is also profound power in the alternative ethical proposition; wisdom (aka heaven) resides in allowing disagreement to stand. The absence of resolution is not a moral or intellectual failure; it may be a symptom of moral or intellectual health. In contrast, the zealot or fanatic is secure in the absolute validity of their beliefs.

It might be argued that the idea of unresolved disagreement is relevant in the context of humanities and social sciences but less so in the natural sciences in which the intellectual currency is certainty. We teach that facts govern scientific reality. However, it is the illusion of every society to believe that what they know represents truth. This fails to recognize that what is undoubtedly and demonstrably true may only be so at a given historical moment. By way of example, the distinguished mathematician and alchemist, John Dee (1527 – 1608/9) advised Queen Elizabeth I on the philosophical, social realities of the time. The “fact” of alchemy is not part of current scientific reality. What is true or real may only be so in specific times and places.

In short, there are few things that should not be questioned; nothing that is exempt from the rich potential of disagreement. Our confidence in the scientific truths of the 21st century may, in a longer perspective, become evidence of historical arrogance.

Those of us of a more secular orientation may, nevertheless, have difficulty with the proposition that God in her heaven is served by unresolved disagreement. However, if we see heaven as a metaphor for wisdom, the proposition takes on another level of relevance. It translates a spiritual proposition into a didactic strategy that encourages students (and all of us) to express skepticism, to question received wisdom, to consider that there is no version of truth that cannot be challenged.

This is a critical proposition in the context of education abroad where, ideally, students engage with unfamiliar ideas in unfamiliar environments. That conjunction ought to generate fields of uncertainty: contested versions of reality. The student who returns home secure in their beliefs and ideas, confident in acquired insights, has probably not learned as much as they might have. They may have confirmed their expectations or have found evidence to support what their teachers have told them, but they have not become pilgrims in search of truth.

The value of a pilgrimage (religious or secular) resides not only in arrival but in the value of the journey into unfamiliar space and, simultaneously, into the self. What is learned is essentially personal; my path is not yours, yours is not mine but our different paths are not in conflict. They coexist.

There is a resonance with the notion of disputation in early modern European universities, as historian Eileen Sweeney notes:

Raising questions or objections about anything from basic matters of Christian belief … to important contemporary controversies — the power of the papacy or secular princes, ecclesiastical corruption — was not only permitted but encouraged as part of the structure of university life. Thus, there was an important kind of intellectual and academic freedom enshrined in these practices … made less dangerous and subversive by being posed and controlled from within the university (2019) [3]

What Diversity Means

We rightly commit to diversity of representation in education abroad. However, encouraging diversity cannot simply be defined in terms of broadening the participation of underrepresented groups. It ought to extend to a study of what diversity means in different national contexts. As a principle, diversity also needs to be conceived of as encouraging differences of opinion. Were there to be a day on which we achieve universal consensus, we will have created the kind of orthodox mindlessness envisaged by George Orwell in 1984. Without disagreement, there is no learning, no heaven, no wisdom.

The statement “I disagree with you” should not be a prelude to conflict; it is not a threat but an educational aspiration. Acceptance of truth without consideration of alternative realities is precisely embedded in the axiom recorded by Plato: "An unexamined life is not worth living." We all need protection from irrational prejudice but that does not mean that we should be insulated from diverse voices or views that challenge received assumptions. We owe it to whatever God or Gods in which we may or may not believe to understand that what we hold sacred is open to dispute, an essential element in a creative learning environment. The absence of disagreement is the absence of thought. [4]

If we engage only with those ideas and those people with whom we agree, we inhabit impoverished space. Blind acceptance of others’ truth is narcoleptic unconsciousness.


[1] Isla van Tricht. “Becoming Electra: A Queer Mitzvah,” performed by Guy Woolf (dates various, 2018-20).
[2] Stephen O’Shea. The Perfect Heresy: The Life and Death of the Cathars. London: Profile Books, 2001.
[3] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  
[4] From Plato's Apology, attributed to Socrates at his trial.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education