Books by Paul Ritterband

Released: Nov. 1, 1994

An authoritative study of the emergence of Jewish studies on the American campus. Sociologists have noted that access to and achievement in higher education facilitated the entrance of American Jews into the economic and cultural mainstream. Ritterband (Jewish Studies and Sociology/City College, CUNY) and Wechsler (Education and Human Development/Univ. of Rochester) remind us that, as a widespread phenomenon, this is recent; until the 1950s and early 1960s some Ivy League schools had quotas for Jewish students and faculty. But at the turn of the century, in a small but pivotal group of American universities, there were quite a few Jewish students, and a smaller proportion of faculty members who were offering courses on Jewish subjects, often under the rubric of Semitic Studies. The authors focus on six of these schools—Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of California, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. Between 1875 and 1925 these schools offered courses in ancient Near Eastern languages, biblical archaeology, and comparative philology. As the authors note, ``The American Semitics professorate contained a goodly proportion of Jews who commanded sufficient resources to assume the subject's inclusion.'' By the mid-1920s academic anti-Semitism and a shift in the priorities of American Jews precipitated a sharp decline in both Jewish student enrollments and course offerings in Judaica. All of higher education was in the throes of change, and subjects as esoteric as biblical criticism and comparative philology were seen as irrelevant. The book, which ends with the proliferation of Jewish Studies programs in the 1970s, has wider implications than its title would indicate: regarding the value of a liberal education, the contents of the much-disputed literary canon, and the structuring of the college curriculum, which, the authors note, ``is rarely invented from a coherent rational plan.'' This analysis of an important American educational story is somewhat plodding and dry, but the end result is coherent and insightful. Read full book review >