Perspective 100: Turning Knowledge into Wisdom
a conversation with Brandeis University President Frederick Lawrence

Brandeis University students weeding at a
Waltham Public School community garden.

You’ve said: “The process of higher education is based on an incredible act of chutzpah. We are training people for a world we can’t even imagine….” What knowledge and skills should we teach students today?

We should be teaching students how to communicate, to analyze, to problem-solve, and, perhaps most importantly, to turn millions of pieces of undifferentiated information into knowledge that can help them determine the best way to understand and change our world. In short, we need to help them acquire the skills necessary to learn how to turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom.

Can students learn to think creatively at the college level, or is this something they should have been taught earlier?

I always tell parents that they have their children for 18 years; we get them for only four. That said, I think that college years do offer students the opportunity to think creatively by opening their minds and trying on entirely different ways of thinking. One of the ways we do that at Brandeis is by exposing them to different kinds of people. Our students come from 116 different countries. The average Brandeis student will meet any number of people who live in places from which he/she has never met anyone. Students will also meet people with backgrounds, ideas, and values foreign to their own, challenging them to think differently and creatively about the world and its problems.

You’ve written, “If free speech should flourish anywhere, it is within the halls of a university.” Do you think university students have the right to say whatever they want or invite any speaker on campus?

I think that free speech—which I’d define as robust discussion among those with different views—is the essence of an academic community. I tell students: Not only will we permit people to say things on campus that will sometimes make you feel uncomfortable and challenge many of your preconceived notions, we’ll actually encourage this. To exercise free speech is to invite debate—no one should expect to be able to express a view and not have it questioned in a respectful, serious, challenging way. Justice Louis Brandeis, the university’s namesake, had it right: “The answer to bad speech is more speech.”

So where are the limits? No one is allowed to threaten anyone. No one is allowed to delegitimize anyone. No one is allowed to make anyone else afraid to express an opinion. Hate-filled messages that advocate violence, racism, homophobia, or antisemitism are off-limits.

We open our university to as wide a variety of views as we can within the confines of civility and responsibility.

You’ve written that Brandeis is devoted to social justice. How is it expressed on campus?

Social justice is one of Brandeis University’s core commitments, dating back to its founding in 1948 as a community in which students would not only learn to understand the world but engage in acts of repairing the world: tikkun olam. This commitment animates us to this very day. In the greater Waltham, Massachusetts area alone, Brandeis students logged 56,000 hours of community service in the last academic year—more than 1,000 hours per week—assisting the elderly, immigrant populations, people with developmental disabilities, and many others. And if you ask most Brandeis students why they do this, they won’t say, “We have to.” They will say, “We get to.” Students also are engaged in a wide range of study abroad and summer programs, including working with disadvantaged communities in Israel. This is a place where students enter to learn and leave to serve.

The Forward described you as “the most religiously observant president Brandeis has ever had.” Who have been your most important Jewish influences?

My childhood rabbi, Martin Rosenberg of Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York (which my parents helped found), taught me essential lessons about Reform Judaism and education: to make Jewish choices based on knowledge, including the understanding of traditional Jewish texts. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was also a major influence when I served as the RAC’s very first Legislative Assistant in 1975. I learned from David the essence of tikkun olam in action. From Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf I learned the energy and passion that flows from a covenantal relationship with God. I have also been influenced by Viktor Frankl, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Franz Rosensweig. Over my life, I have belonged to Conservative and Modern Orthodox congregations. At Brandeis, I am privileged to take part in the life of each Jewish religious movement. There are different streams of Judaism, but only one kind of Jew—a person committed to finding her or his place in the eternal story of the Jewish people. We should all strive to be that kind of Jew.

Union for Reform Judaism.