B ill Miller, a highly successful Baltimore-based stock market investor, was recently in the news for pledging $75 million to the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University — newly renamed the William H. Miller Department of Philosophy — where he once was a graduate student. The huge donation will go toward adding faculty members, creating endowed professorships, and offering new undergraduate courses.

In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Miller was asked what impact his gift would have on the struggling city of Baltimore, to which he responded: 

I hope part of the money will be used to expose students in the Baltimore schools to philosophy, which has the potential to change their lives…. Also, this is the beginning, not the end, of my giving, and one of the items on the agenda is what can really make a difference to Baltimore. 

It’s good to hear that Mr. Miller’s giving has only just begun and he’s looking for how he can “really make a difference to Baltimore,” and I have a great idea for him to consider. As it happens, the Hopkins philosophy department is where Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb got his start in academia before moving up to teach at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.

In my profile of Reb Dovid in the Succos issue, I quoted him as saying that his position at Hopkins “has opened hundreds of doors for me, because in the outside world, they’re mechabed this.” But, he added, “I know how little it’s worth. I know that a fellow with four years of advanced yeshivah learning has the equivalent of a PhD — because I gave PhDs. No one else believes that.”

So here’s the thought: How about if Bill Miller were to donate to a local Baltimore institution of higher learning named Ner Israel a mere ten percent of the amount he just gave to Hopkins? Given Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb’s considered opinion on the value of a Ner Israel education — which, having been in both institutions, he’s uniquely suited to judge — it seems Mr. Miller would be getting a tremendous return on his charity dollar.

Miller expresses the hope that his magnanimous grant will go partly toward exposing kids in Baltimore schools to the life-changing effects of philosophical study, although truth be told, in the news reports on his gift there was no mention of putting the funds to such use. Elsewhere in the Weekly Standard piece, too, Miller reiterates his belief in philosophy’s transformative possibilities, attesting that it “has immeasurably enriched my life, made it fuller and more complete…. Had I not studied philosophy I would be a completely different, and probably worse, person than I am.” He quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as saying something to the effect of if philosophy does not change your life then it has no point.

But having had the good fortune to possess the above-mentioned doctoral-equivalent of some years of advanced yeshivah learning, I’m a close reader, and I noticed what seemed like a contradiction when, at another point in the interview, Miller says he agrees with “the literary critic Stanley Fish, who when asked what the liberal arts such as philosophy are good for, answered that they are good for nothing: They are good in and of themselves and need no further justification.” He’s referring to a New York Times opinion piece Professor Fish wrote a decade ago in which he addressed the question of whether one could justify public funding of the arts and humanities.

Fish quotes from a then-new book by former Yale Law School dean Anthony Kronman which argued passionately for the humanities’ role in helping to form character and find purpose in life. Kronman wrote that in the past it was assumed that “a college was, above all, a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together form the basis for living the best life one can,” because immersion in the great texts of literature, philosophy, and history would help to “fix in one’s mind the image and example of the author and his subject.” The central place of the humanities in the university curriculum needs to be restored, Kronman asserted, because only they can “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers.”

Although Professor Fish, too, is an advocate of studying the humanities, he nevertheless writes in response: 

Sounds great, but I have my doubts. Does it really work that way? Do the humanities ennoble? The answer… I think, is no. The premise of secular humanism… is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy, and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them….

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted, and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged. 

What then do the humanities do for those who study them? To Fish’s mind, 

They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them. To the question “of what use are the humanities?” the only honest answer is none whatsoever. 

But far from denigrating the humanities, Fish believed that his answer “brings honor” to those disciplines, seeing them as “their own good” rather than being “instrumental to some larger good.” It would be hard to formulate a more precise expression than this of, lehavdil, the notion of learning lishmah. Right idea, wrong subject.

All this brings us back to places like Ner Israel. Apart from the superior level of the studies there, their students know something important about how human beings work, of which Professor Fish seems unaware. They’ve studied the mishnah in Avos (3:22), which teaches that someone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is like a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few, which can be easily uprooted and overturned by a wind; someone whose good deeds exceed his wisdom, however, is likened to a tree with many roots but few branches, which even the strongest winds in the world won’t uproot.

The Pri Ha’aretz (Parshas Naso) notes the mishnah’s wording, which indicates that the problem in the first case isn’t just the paucity of good deeds, but also — even more so — the abundance of wisdom that outstrips those deeds. He explains that wisdom is a dynamic force that naturally motivates a person to act. The hitch, however, is that the substance of those actions will be determined not by the wisdom motivating him but by what kind of person he is.

Knowledge of what is right and good will not influence someone who has untamed desires and corrupt middos to become good; to the contrary, the wisdom he gains will backfire, leading him to act in consonance with who he already is, rather than with what he now knows. Like water, which assumes the shape of the vessel it enters, wisdom too will assume the properties of the body it enters. Only by increasing his good deeds can one ensure that acquiring wisdom will lead him to act in concert with such knowledge rather than in contradiction to it.

Stanley Fish wrote that students of the humanities “come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged,” implying that their studies are neither beneficial nor particularly detrimental to them as people, or that, as he put it, the humanities “don’t do anything.” But this profound, albeit perhaps counterintuitive, mishnah teaches otherwise.

And that’s yet another good reason why Bill Miller, who wants to use his money to “really make a difference to Baltimore,” ought to spend it on institutions where they not only study that mishnah, but act on it too.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 699. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com