I recently attended a workshop to learn how to fill out a form—to be precise, the FAR form, which is used by law school hiring committees to vet candidates. (Many thanks to the Berkeley Law professors who organized and conducted the workshop.) That decrypting a one-page form necessitates a two-hour long workshop—and several hours of conversations and email exchanges with recommenders and colleagues—should cause pause. Without someone to explain what I should write in the last, “comments” section of the FAR form, I probably would have left it blank because I had no idea what it meant. There may be a website or other forum that provides detailed, written information about the FAR form, but I imagine that most people who complete it rely on their informal networks of informants.
My experiences with the FAR form reminded me of reading a page of the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) for the first time. I recall thinking then that simply being able to read the text (in Hebrew and Aramaic) was a trivial part of the reading process. Without my Talmud teacher explaining abbreviations, clarifying phraseology, referring to the gloss, and outlining the dialectal structure of the argument, I would have only superficially understood the text, if at all. While there are books that assist readers in deciphering the Bavli, the oral tradition of learning with an experienced reader is unmatchable. Indeed, even after some years of study, when I have questions about a term or concept, I call a friend—a Talmudist trained in a yeshiva—before turning to secondary literature; his answers are consistently more thorough and instructive than any text that I read. I cannot imagine studying the Bavli without access to these oral traditions.
Reading a page of the Bavli and filling out the FAR form is an uneven comparison. Yet it is also instructive, because both processes are enhanced and facilitated by oral traditions and by collaborative learning. However, whereas “traditional” (or “religious”) scholars recognize and value the role of oral knowledge transmission, “secular” academics generally discount it. (Folklore studies is an exception to the general academic slighting of oral traditions, but it remains largely marginalized within the academy.) Consequently, there is rampant denial within the academy of the powerful influence of access to larger or to more effective networks of oral tradition transmission. Other candidates filling out the FAR form may not have had the good fortune of attending Berkeley Law’s workshop or some equivalent; did their contacts inform them that the mysterious “comments” box at the end is for listing “works-in-progress”? The FAR form is only one minor example among many of how information is orally transmitted in modern, Western academic culture—despite that culture’s professed dismissal of oral traditions. Since the value of unwritten knowledge production within the academy is largely unmeasured, the costs of not being privy to oral traditions are unknown.
Another consequence of ignoring oral learning has immediate resonance with my research: because “secular” academics overlook the function of oral traditions in their own professional lives, they minimize its historical and intellectual importance. No student of Jewish (or Islamic) studies is unfamiliar with the scholarly debates surrounding oral transmission. Generally, in the “secular” academy, the presumption is that oral traditions are defective and unreliable; in traditional, “religious” learning, the opposite supposition is common. The impasse is typically identified as being a matter of “disbelief” (in the “secular” academy) versus “belief” (in “religious” institutions). But I think the difference of opinion has more to do with the level of awareness of oral knowledge production in these centers of learning. To return to the comparison, there is more routinized and institutionalized transmission of oral knowledge in the yeshiva setting than in a typical university. I am not advocating, of course, that all oral traditions are truthful or accurate or flawless. But I am arguing that it is intellectually irresponsible to reflexively presume that oral knowledge is inferior, as if it were a purely “foreign” or “historical” phenomenon. What many scholars fail to recognize is the extent to which their own academic trajectories include oral knowledge production and transmission.
All of this leads me to wonder: Why does our academic culture operate under the assumption that “secular” education is fundamentally distinct from or superior to non-“secular” education? The stereotypical notion is that “religious” knowledge is communicated through a ritualized process that emphasizes a teacher-student relationship, whereas “secular” knowledge is conveyed through critical, open discussions and less hierarchical relationships. But how different is the Western academy, really? Just as I learn (i.e., read) the Bavli with a chavruta, I have a superb writing partner to read and to comment on composition pieces. I also regularly meet with a “job market” partner with whom I review application materials and discuss strategy. Moreover, I have primarily learned from my main dissertation adviser through his oral traditions—(entertaining) narratives about the intricacies of socio-historical research, about the academy, and about bureaucratic labyrinths!
Many of my colleagues have similar mentoring or partner arrangements that facilitate their learning and writing and that perpetuate oral knowledge exchange. The imagined boundary between “religious” and “secular” education is not as definite as commonly assumed. Perhaps we can learn from the archetype of “religious” education to value collaborative study and the oral transmission of knowledge. And then maybe that recognition will facilitate more expansive and egalitarian access to spoken knowledge.