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Dr. Elisheva Carlebach: Knowledge and Access to It Has Always Been Political

  • Dr. Elisheva Carlebach will instruct Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Early Modern Europe this summer. The Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society in Columbia’s Department of History, Dr. Carlebach’s areas of interest include the intersection of Jewish and Christian culture and its effect on notions of tolerance, religious dissent, conversion, messianism, and communal governance.

  • The course will examine the invention of the printing press in Europe and institutions’ efforts to control the information they were quickly spreading. Students will have the opportunity to explore similar patterns in different socio-historical contexts in their own work, ranging from contemporary issues of academic freedom on campus to early 20th century Italian cinema.
  • Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Early Modern Europe will be offered during Session A of Columbia’s summer term, May 3 - June 14, 2021. Registration for Columbia University students opens March 8th on SSOL.
  • The most surprising part about the course, according to Dr. Carlebach? Just how willing people and institutions are to self-censor as a means getting society “to tolerate material it might otherwise try to ban completely.” Dr. Carlebach recently reflected on the course content, how it can apply to current issues of social media regulation, and her favorite aspects of teaching a summer course.

What do you enjoy most about teaching Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Early Modern Europe?

Believe it or not, knowledge itself – and access to it –  is quite political. When we look throughout history, there is almost always an effort to control knowledge and information – that’s what this course is all about. We focus on one of the most important technological revolutions in the history of communication, the invention of the printing press, and the widespread adoption of papermaking. We ask how new means of communicating knowledge and information spark new types of efforts to control it. 

Generally speaking, governments are starting to take a more proactive role in regulating social media. What can governments of today learn from the issues of censorship and free expression in early modern Europe?

Just as institutions such as governments and large corporations want to control the circulation of knowledge and information, people want to communicate freely. They value their privacy. They will always find a way to work around the new controls. When the government in sixteenth-century England established controls over the press to suppress sedition, opponents put printing presses on wheels and carted them around the countryside to be able to continue printing.

What would surprise students the most about your course?

The most surprising aspects of the course are what we might call the paradoxes of freedom of expression. Sometimes limited forms of censorship, or pre-emptive self-censorship, can allow for greater circulation of certain forms of expression. For example, the music or film industry’s willingness to self-censor, to apply labels to creative material, and restrict access to certain audiences, paradoxically makes it easier for society to tolerate material it might otherwise try to ban completely.

Who should take your summer course, Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Early Modern Europe? 

The intellectually curious and the motivated will enjoy this course—people who want to better understand the way large patterns in history have worked with regard to the most basic human desire: the desire to know.

How long have you been teaching summer courses at Columbia? What do you enjoy most about teaching summer courses in particular?

I’ve taught numerous times over the past years. The joy of the summer courses is the diverse student body – different backgrounds, generations, training, and outlooks. That variety enhances the learning experience so much more; the students can learn as much from one another as they can from the course.

Are you currently conducting research or publishing any new articles or books? If so, what will it be about and where can readers access it?

I am working on the culture of documentation in early modern Europe. I work primarily on Hebrew and Yiddish materials. Jews were the most prominent minority in pre-modern Europe, and were suspected of trying to undermine Christendom with their books and with magical means. I’m also conducting research on the servant class, especially female servants in Jewish households.

Is there anything else students should know or look forward to in this class this summer?

One of the features of the course is that students’ term projects can focus on the circulation and suppression of knowledge in almost any period, place or medium, using the perspectives and tools they acquire in the class. Students’ work in past years included subjects such as: early 20th century Italian cinema, aspects of academic freedom on campus, dangerous music, and as well as many other subjects. Students present their projects in class, which may just be my favorite part of the semester. It is always exhilarating to watch students pursue their own interests within the framework of the course.

More than 100 courses in 50 subject areas are available during Columbia Summer 2021. Explore Columbia Summer’s offerings, ranging from Computer Science and Music to Languages and Astronomy, at