Almost sixty years ago, the University of Chicago became the site of what has subsequently evolved into a profoundly significant intellectual tradition, rivaling such outstanding scholarly efforts as the Journal of Irreproducible Results, the Annals of Improbable Research, and the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. This highly innovative reflection of scholarly endeavor started in November 1946 with the first University of Chicago academic debate on the relative merits of the latke versus the hamantash. This example of the highest order of intellectual dialogue has become a permanent fixture at the University of Chicago and eventually became a model for the expression of erudition at numerous other colleges and universities across the nation.
Accompanied by appropriate pompous ritual and a latke or hamantash or two, the debate takes place under conditions and rules that have clearly been described by the editor of this collection of arguments. Ruth Fredman Cernea made clear that:
all participants must hold a PhD or equivalent degree; arguments be framed according to the theoretical position and jargon of the participant's academic discipline; and each symposium must include someone who is not Jewish—in order to lend a note of "gentility."(p. xxvii)
One other ingredient has been required, according to Dr. Ted Cohen, author of the forward to the book: female as well as male academics have been encouraged to participate.
Cernea has offered her perceptions of the reasons for the establishment and importance of the debates. First, as Jewish scholars became part of a universal commitment to scholarship, their interaction with Jewish students ceased to focus on an ethnic relationship. The debates became a way of stressing the ethnic heritage in a context in which good humor, rather than conventional scholarship, became the mode of interaction between and among students and faculty members. Second, coming late in the fall semester when the burden of term papers, tests, and other methods of torturing students was especially heavy, the debates were a small "release of the tension that has been building all fall" (p. xxv). Third, given significant sociological changes in the United States, the ethnic "outsider" has become a part of the mainstream, and the debates, including both Jews and non-Jews, became a symbol of that developing integration. Finally, Cernea indicated that in the post-World War II era, there were sufficient Jewish scholars and students at the University of Chicago to "set the academic tone of the campus," and the debates were a reflection of that culture (p. xxvi). This perspective clarified the social context or climate in which the debates developed.
The numerous essays contained in the book reveal yet another aspect of academic life at the University of Chicago and elsewhere throughout the United States. As academics have become socialized into their respective disciplines by the ordeal of graduate school and other means of inflicting maximum suffering, they have come to believe that their and only their particular discipline reflects truth, virtue, and divine revelation. Hence, alternative disciplines can hardly be regarded as reflecting merit. The Journal of Irreproducible Results, the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity, the "Ig Noble Prizes," and other such examples of scholarly endeavor also illustrate this perception. Similar to these examples, the latke hamantash debates have permitted some academicians to support their own discipline at the expense of other disciplines. Thus, some of the essays contained in the Cernea book are sprinkled with the inflated views of the importance of one discipline at the expense of other disciplines. Other essays offer a critique of the author's own discipline, poking fun at or calling into question the approaches or methodology of that discipline. Finally, there are occasional comments that reflect the eternal struggle between academic faculty and administrators. Hanna Holborn Gray's fine essay makes clear that, "as president of the University of Chicago, it is my duty never to think," but she also stated her support of Socratic method as a key element in academic life:
When I want your opinion, as the great Jewish thinker Sam Goldwyn remarked, "I'll give it to you." This is known as the Socratic method. It, too, has been used successfully at this university for a hundred years, as it will be...