A devout Catholic and a professional educator, James Otteson learned a lesson about Jewish culture during the second session of a class he taught at Yeshiva University this year about capitalism and morality.
Otteson, who came to YU after a decade as a philosophy professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Alabama, had assigned his new class here some philosophy readings. In the second session, one of Otteson’s students raised his hand — he had finished the assigned readings as well an unassigned book by the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and wanted to know how they compared to each other.
“All the hands went up” to discuss the classmate’s questions, says Otteson, sitting in his YU office where he serves as professor of economics and philosophy and director of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program. “It was invigorating.”
His lesson: “They don’t only read what I assign them.” His students do outside reading. And, “they follow up footnotes.”
For Otteson, 39, who grew up with a single mother in rural Illinois, who was the first person in his family to attend college, who earned degrees at Notre Dame, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Chicago, and who spent 10 years in the heavily Baptist South, the culture of the education-at-all-costs, urban Jewish community was enlightening.
At YU, Otteson finds himself among a growing number of young scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, recruited to come to the Washington Heights campus in the last few years. They represent part of President Richard Joel’s attempt to upgrade and remake the school, an Orthodox institution with a largely Jewish student body, into a nationally-ranked liberal arts university.
Otteson is one sign of the campaign’s success: he recently was named the first place winner of the 2007 Templeton Enterprise Award for his 2006 book “Actual Ethics” (Cambridge University Press), a 349-page defense of the “classical liberal” political tradition. The award from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for a book by a scholar under 40 in the field of humane economics and culture, carries a $50,000 prize.
Otteson, says Joel, is “among our most distinguished young faculty and administrators. His keen erudition, creative pedagogy, and a commitment to imparting the highest ethical values will have a profound impact on our students, as well as our institution as a whole.”
As head of the Honors Program, Otteson is guiding its expansion, a unification of its curriculum, and an increase in its course offerings. One of his plans is a “secular beit medrash,” a learning center patterned after a yeshiva study hall where honors students can learn from each other.
A Sunday-in-church, kids-in-parochial-school, Ashes-on-Ash-Wednesday Catholic, Otteson says he was reluctant to consider a job at Yeshiva University when the school approached him last year. “I had heard of it, that it existed,” he says. “I guess I knew it was in New York.”
He came up for a three-day visit. He says he was impressed by the school’s mission to re-imagine itself, and he saw a similarity with the sense of religious purpose that he had found at Notre Dame, a Catholic university.
He accepted YU’s offer. What did his Christian friends and family think?
“A lot of them thought I was crazy,” he says.
Now, Otteson says “we” when talking about YU. Now he’s a proponent of YU’s motto “Torah U’Madda” (Torah and Science). Now he tells his friends that their concern was misplaced. “I’m more than happy. I love being here.
“I can’t emphasize,” he says, “how serious these kids are about themselves and about their future. These kids are not kidding around. They take their education very seriously.”
After nearly a year here, Otteson says, he feels, in some ways, “more comfortable than I did in Alabama.”
“The Baptists in Alabama don’t have many kind things to say about Catholics,” he says.
At YU, where most of the undergraduates come from Talmud-intensive Orthodox backgrounds, where every professor’s office has a mezuzah on the doorpost, Otteson’s Catholic background presents no problem. “The students have been phenomenally accepting. Only one faculty member has voiced … comments” about the propriety of a non-Jewish teacher teaching philosophy.
Otteson says he doesn’t teach as a Catholic. His personal views don’t color his lectures, as they didn’t his book. “I want students to come out of my class not knowing what my [personal] views are.”