A Challenge to Higher Education

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
by Anthony Kronman
Yale University Press, 2007, 308 pages

Socrates’ most famous line is this: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Getting young people to examine their lives used to be one of the principal endeavors of American colleges and universities. In decades gone by, the liberal arts education that most of them offered encouraged students to think about the reasons for living and the deep choices that humans face – not just matters like, “What career should I pursue?” and “Will this course be an easy A?” In particular, the humanities brought students face to face with the great questions of philosophy, aesthetics, religion, and so on.

With only a few exceptions, that is no longer the case. In his recent book Education’s End, Professor Anthony Kronman of the Yale Law School explains how that happened and why he regards it as a lamentable development. He writes, “as I have watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities where it once occupied a central and honored place, I have felt what I can only describe as a sense of personal loss on account of my belief that the question is one that can and must be taught.”

Kronman argues his case passionately. His discussion of the transformation of American higher education over the last century and a half is most illuminating and many of his observations about our current educational malaise are directly on target, especially his analysis of the mania over “diversity.” In the end, though, he overstates his argument. To hear Kronman tell it, a restoration of the humanities would work something on the order of a societal salvation from the scourge of technology.

I can’t buy that, but let’s look at what Kronman has to say. From the founding of Harvard in 1636 until the latter half of the 19th century, American colleges and universities had an overwhelmingly religious orientation and they taught their students that the purpose of living was to help bring about God’s plan for the world. (For a discussion of the schools of that era, see Russell Nieli’s essay.)

With the rise of secular humanism in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, however, the religious answer to that question was largely supplanted by the non-religious approach of the humanities, an approach that rejected the idea that there is one right answer. Kronman writes, “Once we abandon the idea that there is a single way of living and accept the notion that human beings can find different fulfilling answers to the question of what living is for, a new challenge arises. For now we must decide how wide the range of such answers can be and which ways of life it includes.”

To Kronman’s way of thinking, that was a splendid development, replacing the rigid certainties of religious doctrine with the intellectual searching of the humanities.

But then along came an import from abroad that has had at least as much of an impact on education as that botanical import known as kudzu has had on the southern landscape – the research university. The German idea that the primary objective of the university should be the search for new knowledge through research brought about dramatic changes in American higher education in the late-19th and 20th centuries. The scholarly enterprise was no longer just about the transmission of knowledge, but instead became focused on making original contributions to one’s scholarly field. That’s the idea behind our “publish or perish” imperative – you’re only qualified to be a professor if you can regularly turn out research that somehow expands knowledge of your discipline.

Kronman has no quarrel with the research ideal in the hard sciences, but contends that it has done terrible damage in the humanities. “The research ideal,” he contends, “displaced from a central and respected place in higher education the question to which both the classical program of the antebellum college and secular humanism were addressed – the question of what living is for.” With virtually every professor concentrating on doing research to add some infinitesimal quantum of new knowledge, hardly anyone can be bothered with classroom readings and discussions to get students to think about the human condition. The mania for original contributions requires that the professor concentrate on “a single, specialized point of research and abandon the childish pretense of ever attaining that entire knowledge of the world and of humanity to which all learning in the classicist tradition aspired.”

Furthermore, Kronman points out, the research ideal devalues the connection with thinkers of the past. The belief that students benefit from participating in a timeless conversation with the great voices of our civilization falls by the wayside.

That was all bad enough, but the tide of political correctness (an edgy term for someone from the heart of mainstream academia) washed over the humanities with the destructive force of a tsunami. Why? Because the insistence of the diversity/multiculturalist crowd that human beings are imprisoned by their immutable characteristics (race, gender, class) means that there is no point in trying to learn from the past. Dead, white males and their “hegemony” are what we must break free of, not learn from. In one of his most penetrating sentences, Kronman asks, “For if my most fundamental attitudes are conditioned by my race and gender, so I cannot help but see and judge the world from the vantage point they fix, how can I ever hope to escape their orbit, subject these attitudes to critical review, and set myself the goal of living in some way other than the one they prescribe?”

Whereas the physical sciences and some of the social sciences have rejected the idea that there is any pedagogical value in “diversity,” the humanities swallowed it whole and thus further degraded their intellectual standing.

Up to this point, there is little to quarrel with in the book. It’s in Kronman’s final chapter, “Spirit in an Age of Science,” that I think he goes off the rails. In that chapter, he argues that the humanities can solve our crisis of the spirit if only they can once again get people to contemplate what living is for. He writes, “At the very heart of our civilization, with its vast powers of control, there is an emptiness that science has created and cannot fill. It is an emptiness that many people feel and a cause of much anguish and yearning. It is the nursery bed of that great upwelling of religious feeling, of the surge of fundamentalist belief, that is such a striking feature of life today.”

At this point, the book starts sounding too much like a sermon.

I cannot see that the many improvements in living that science has made possible have brought about any spiritual crisis. Kronman doesn’t explain why he thinks there is this great feeling of “emptiness,” much less why the advances of science should take the blame for it. Nor does he explain why this alleged crisis would go away if large numbers of students were to take the sorts of academic programs he favors, such as Yale’s Directed Studies Program.

This isn’t to say that Yale’s program and the others Kronman lauds aren’t good, but only that the claim that they will fill a spiritual void in the students who take them seems overwrought. It’s as if a salesman for Vitamin C tablets couldn’t stop with the statement that they probably help keep you healthier, but also claimed that give you a perfect physique, radiant skin, and enable you to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Education’s End has a wealth of important insights that should not, however, be missed just because the author gets carried away with his argument.

George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.