Footnote: A Moral Tale in Academe

Writer-director Joseph Cedar’s Academy Award-nominated film Footnote brought to mind the Swiss director Eric Rohmer’s “moral tales”: movies in which intelligent and articulate characters confront ethical dilemmas. In Footnote, Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnick are both Talmudic scholars at The Hebrew University. The son (Uriel), a far more distinguished academic than the father (Eliezer), is selected for the Israel Prize for Talmudic Studies – the highest recognition in their field. Due to an administrative error, the father is informed that he has won the prize. The adjudication committee, recognizing its mistake, consults with the son about what to do. On the basis of the son’s advice, the committee decides not to correct or admit its error, least of all to Eliezer. To avoid spoiling the movie for my readers, all I will say is that the movie presents the consequences of this decision to perpetuate a lie.

I enjoyed Footnote because it deftly mixes the comic with the tragic consequences of this lie, and I strongly recommend it, especially to academics. Two aspects of the story particularly appealed to me.

The difference between the two Professor Shkolnicks was more than generational. Eliezer Shkolnick was a rigorously scientific philologist, carefully scrutinizing minute textual inconsistencies to determine the origins and intertextual relationships of different versions of the Talmud. Uriel Shkolnick was a popularizer who interpreted Talmudic themes in a modern cultural context, a man who was quick with an opinion or a soundbite. Eliezer was a humanist-scientist; like an archeologist, he was using scientific methods to enhance our understanding of the past. Uriel was what we in North America call a “public intellectual” (a term not used in the movie, however).

One of the perpetual tensions in academe is between those who see themselves as scientists and those who see themselves as public intellectuals. Scientists are deliberate and even sometimes hesitant because they want to gather and evaluate all the data before presenting their conclusions. And the conclusions are always open to the possibility of revision on the basis of new data. Public intellectuals are good at quick pattern-recognition, and can always express themselves articulately about the latest trends in their area of expertise and its relevance to the wider society. Scientists see public intellectuals as shallow and self-aggrandizing. When I was studying economics at Harvard, one of the best-known public intellectuals in Cambridge was Lester Thurow, then dean of the Sloan School at MIT. I remember that among the scientists he was referred to as “less-than-thorough.” Public intellectuals, on the other hand, see scientists as timid, blinkered, and boring.

Footnote had two visual images that struck me as emblematic of the scientist. Eliezer Shkolnick always wore headphones when he wrote or studied, so as to shut out the outside world. His academic colleague and head of the selection committee for the Israel Prize, Yehuda Grossman, had a massive brow that was always deeply furrowed, perplexed by the puzzles he was trying to resolve.

The selection committee was where the ethical dilemma marking this moral tale began. When the committee discovered that Eliezer, rather than Uriel, had been notified, they could not decide what to do, so for some reason they consulted Uriel. As a former administrator, I think consulting Uriel was madness. Decision makers should never be in a position of conflict of interest and should recuse themselves in such situations. Consulting Uriel put him into a double conflict of interest – with respect to himself and with respect to his father. But bad administrative practice created the ethical dilemma, and hence was essential to plot development.

Uriel’s arguing that his father should nonetheless receive the prize, and the selection committee’s agreement, set in train a series of painful consequences. Without spoiling the plot, I can say that it brought conflict and sadness, rather than joy and naches, to the entire Shkolnick family and, despite the selection committee’s cover-up, the truth came out.

Mark Twain wrote that “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Footnote argues that this adage applies even to what we call white lies or diplomatic lies. If these lies concern a matter of ongoing importance, they will have consequences. Lies beget cover-ups and cover-ups beget investigations and investigations beget exposes. So, for me, Joseph Cedar’s moral tale provides additional support for the hypothesis that, in academic administration as well as in research, honesty is the best policy.

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