One of the things that you cannot fail to notice upon arriving at a college in Cambridge is the beauty that you are surrounded by. Since beginning to go to UBC, I have always considered it a beautiful campus, but there is truly no way to compare the two settings surrounding the countries institutions of higher education without making you feel that you are talking about totally different worlds. There are many factors that contribute to this beauty that I have observed after four days here. The historical connection this part of the world has for higher education is almost unparalleled, which has a dual benefit. It inspires awe, as it did in me when I was picked up from the train station and driven by colleges that I was informed were founded in the 13th century. That fact also means that, because these spaces were originally reserved for royalty and aristocracy, they are not going to cram the students into dormitories that might be the norm in North America. I also think, though, that the beauty has something to do with a different taste in luxury than I have encountered at home. ‘Fancy’ just feels different here. Endless greenery, beautiful manicured gardens, all add to the fact that the classrooms and housing are in a castle to create an almost surreal space.
This duality leaves me with a question: is this a better space in which to learn? Ought we try to emulate such a crafted space (the question definitely crossed my mind, upon arriving, as to why this wasn’t copied when higher education began in North America)?
However, my mind did not jump to North American universities as the first contrast. Rather, the sparseness and relative poverty of Eastern European Jewish communities, and the lengths they went to ensure yeshiva education was possible, rose to my mind’s eye. The latter phenomenon is one of centuries where there was no money to spare, never mind the opulence that the higher classes of English society enjoyed during the same time. However, this did not stop Jews from having yeshivot in as many major cities as they could. Further, the Jewish canon ballooned during these centuries, as many roshei yeshivot (heads of yeshivot) had the opportunity to write their own commentaries on the Talmud and halacha, a practice that was previously reserved for only the most learned of rabbis.
So if it hasn’t lowered the level of serious academic (and/or religious) production to be confined to a more limited set of amenities, is this just another example of privilege bordering on the unethical due to the vast disparity between conditions like these and those who enjoy the least amount of resources in their education?
The fact is that, since Oxford and Cambridge were simply not involved in the same fields of study as the major Ashkenazi yeshivot, it is impossible to conclude, just because major works of Jewish exegesis were produced, that they were not inhibited by the lack of resources that further wealth might have provided. Not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from when trying to devote oneself to full-time study undoubtedly increases one’s productivity (especially if such worry leads to a need to beg in the streets). Further, being able to devote oneself to study full-time as opposed to having to work in order to support one’s study will also, in my experience, enhance one’s learning and productivity. This leaves the question of whether we should encourage in our societies the notion that full-time study is a worthy goal, but I do believe that, if it is a worthy goal, allowing the students and teachers in such institutions to exist beyond persistence levels is necessary — and everyone should get the chance to study the way lords of the British court did once in their lives.