If you’ve spent a lot of time on a college campus recently, particularly one with a storied tradition of intellectual excellence, you may have felt, at some point, some subtle metaphysical blues: your friends are cool, your professors are interesting, but the fire you’d hoped would consume you—that flaming obsession with big ideas that have big consequences—just isn’t there.
Celeste Marcus felt it, too. She entered the University of Pennsylvania last year, and was soon, she said, happy to be introduced to diverse groups of people she’d never met before and challenged by divergent ways of looking at the world. “But I also wanted to be around people who were as passionate as I am about sharing ideas that really move them,” she said, “and that was much harder to find.”
It wasn’t that other students were shallow, she said, or hurried, or more interested in Kanye than in Kant. It’s just that people deeply committed to ideas are hard to find these days, even—one is tempted to say particularly—on the campuses on elite universities. Undeterred, Marcus sat down and did what serious and dedicated men and women had done when moved by the spirit for at least six hundred years: she wrote a manifesto.
It called for the establishment of a new student-run journal of ideas called OR—the Hebrew means light, the English connotes variety of thought. “Even on college campuses,” it began, “it can be difficult to find eager interlocutors. Most people would rather just watch a ball game. So, of the endangered species of university student who truly wants to analyze, measure, assess, and eventually agree or disagree with foreign ideas, where can they look for companionship? OR seeks to create a community of thinkers, and maintains that one student repeatedly asking the same questions, a simulacrum of Sisyphus, will never find answers. He will have subjected himself to an intellectual and spiritual exile. We want this community and our minds to expand.”
If that statement strikes you as not particularly political, you haven’t visited a college campus recently. The idea of inviting a panoply of voices, rather than zealously guarding the ever-narrowing margins of what passes for acceptable speech, is hopelessly out of fashion in academia. But Marcus and her friends—she soon recruited colleagues from college campuses all over to join her in the undertaking—felt that real diversity of thought was paramount. They felt the same way about Zionism and Judaism: “We got to decide what the basic foundations of our liberal education were, and we believe that Judaism speaks to the basic questions people ask when they ask how to live life,” Marcus said. “We thought it was a tradition that was rich, and that people would benefit from what it has to say.”
Visit the recently launched OR, then, and you’ll find long and thoughtful essays about, say, the spiritual and material similarities in the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, or a defense of guilty pleasures on TV that begins with the disclaimer “I promise I’m not fangirling Pierre Bourdieu.” It’s the stuff dreams of a serious and nurturing intellectual community are made of, and it’s updated once a month online and available once per semester in print form.
Interested students, undergraduate and graduate alike, may contribute by writing to [email protected]. More ancient folks who, like me, spend much of their time fretting about the decline of our civilization can breathe a bit easier: the kids are alright.