Religion, Education, and the Meaning of Life

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing my reflections on Anthony Kronman’s 2007 book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. While I believe that his core argument is insightful, it’s marred by a few blind spots. Originally, I was going to address Kronman’s treatement of religion as one of his blind spots, but I’ve decided that his handling of religion is so problematic — and so harmful to his case — that it deserves its own post.

Book cover for Education's End

Anthony Kronman’s 2007 defense of the humanities in higher education

Here’s a brief summary of the points that I want to make in this post. Kronman deeply misunderstands religion, both historically and in its varied contemporary expressions. Out of his misunderstanding, he needlessly maligns religious believers of all stripes. As a result, he cuts himself off from a large pool of potential allies to his cause.

Kronman’s historical misunderstanding of religion

One reason for the rise of secular humanism, according to Kronman, was “the challenge posed by the weakening of religious belief as a starting point in higher education.”

Teachers in the antebellum college had an answer to the question of life’s meaning. Their confidence in the answer was anchored in a shared religious faith. By 1880, that faith could no longer be taken for granted. There were, of course, many who still believed in God, just as there were many who now doubted His existence and viewed religion with suspicion or contempt. But between these two camps, of believers and skeptics, little common ground remained. (80-81)

Kronman confuses two very different things in this brief passage. “Religion as a starting point in higher education” does not mean that “teachers…had an answer to the question of life’s meaning…anchored in a shared religious faith.” Pre-Civil War America was religiously diverse, yet Kronman lumps together all forms of belief as merely “belief in God” as opposed to “skepticism.” Perhaps some degree of “shared religious belief” at a very basic level was held by Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, and other “traditional” Christian denominations…but what about Deists, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Swedenborgians, Spiritualists, Shakers, or Latter Day Saints? Pre-Civil War America produced a remarkable number of new religious movements – Upstate New York alone became famous for the number of new religious movements born there. These various denominations, philosophies, and religious movements influenced higher education to different degrees, but it’s an error to summarize pre-1880 American intellectual and academic life as characterized by “shared religious faith.”

This historical misunderstanding also leads Kronman to overlook the influence of religion in the lives of historical figures. One of the humanities’s strength, he argues, is that they

acquaint us with the core commitment of the different patterns of life that represent the most durable forms of human striving and explore the tensions among them, drawing from the storehouse of the past diverse examples that display each in its most compelling form. There is the life of Achilles, the brilliant brief life of battlefield honor and comradeship in arms; of Socrates, who put fidelity to philosophy before all else; the life of the prudent and measured man of practical virtue whose portrait Aristotle paints in the Nichomachean Ethics; of Augustine and Paul, the convert who hears the word of God amidst the busy noise of the world; of Michelangelo, for whom the making of beautiful things was a kind of salvation; of Galileo, the scientist prepared to follow the logic of discovery wherever it leads; of Jane Austen’s Emma, searching for happiness in the tangles of domestic life. (79-80)

I agree with this basic idea; one reason I love reading novels is being able to “try on” someone else’s life for a brief time. Much could be said about Kronman’s list, such as the fact that the only woman and the only person dealing with “the tangles of domestic life” is a fictional character. This list represents something Kronman does in a few other places, though: treat religious believers as a single kind of person, without considering the role of religious belief and practice in other areas of life or in the lives of people who weren’t theologians or pastors. For example, the writings of Homer and Plato (from whom we receive the lives of Achilles and Socrates), as well Aristotle’s, are shot through with religious concerns, though of a vastly different sort than Augustine’s or Paul’s. Remember that one of the accusations against Socrates was, in his own words via Plato, “I make new gods and deny the existence of old ones” (Euthyprho). Elsewhere on the blog, Tom has written about Galileo’s complicated relationship with religion. I’m sure someone else could provide similar examples regarding Michelangelo and Jane Austen.

Overall, Kronman’s assumption that a “religious believer” is a single kind of person distorts his treatment of religion, especially when he attempts to deal with contemporary religions.

Kronman’s misunderstanding of contemporary religions

Partway through Chapter 4 (“Political Correctness”), I noticed that Kronman frequently used the term “fundamentalism” to refer to religious belief. The misuse of this word is a serious problem, especially among academics; see Terry Mattingly’s discussion of the “f-word” in journalism for some background. As Mattingly notes, the AP Style Guide offers some excellent advice about the word:

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Kronman apparently realizes that he is misusing the word and decides to offer an explanation. He first describes two aspects of religion that believes are “fundamentalist” in their character:

First, no religion can be pluralist in the deep and final sense that secular humanism is….

Second, every religion at some point demands a “sacrifice of the intellect”…Every religion insists that at some point thinking is no longer adequate to the question of life’s meaning, and that further progress can be made only by means other than thought. (198, emphasis added)

The first point depends a great deal on the definition of “pluralism.” In my literature survey courses as an undergraduate, I read brief excerpts from dozens of different writers; at the church I attended in graduate school, I listened weekly to Anglican priests from four different continents. Which experience was more pluralistic? As to the second point, it’s not only religion that views “reason alone” as insufficient.

Kronman then moves to an explicit definition of “fundamentalism” and indeed of religion in general.

Today, this word [fundamentalism] is most often used to distinguish certain religious attitudes from others…But there is a more basic sense in which every religion is fundamentalist. For every religion insists, at the end of the day, that there is only one right answer to the question of life’s meaning, however tolerant it is prepared to be of the answers others give, either for reasons of convenience or out of a moral respect that itself is anchored in its own answer to this question. Every religion must ultimately insist on a fundament of meaning and value…In these two respects, every religion, even the most tolerant, is fundamentalist. (199, emphasis added)

Well, okay then. This is a nontraditional definition for sure, but I’m glad that Kronman explains his personal definition of “fundamentalism.” Unfortunately, his definition is so broad that it becomes meaningless and useless, while retaining its pejorative connotations. Essentially, Kronman uses “fundamentalism” as an intellectual bait-and-switch:

…the most influential institutions now [addressing the question of life’s meaning] are religious ones…nearly all such instruction today starts from the fundamentalist premises on which every religion is based. (200)

The destruction of [secular humanism] has left those looking for instruction in the meaning of life nowhere to turn but the churches. It has left them with no meaningful alternative to fundamentalism… (200-201)

Without a real alternative to fundamentalism, those who want some organized help in thinking about the meaning of life but, for whatever reason, reject the authority of the churches to provide it, are left to wrestle with the question on their own as best they can. (202)

This blunt rhetoric mars the rest of the book. Later, while writing an otherwise helpful analysis of the spiritual effect of our technological society (“…the ignorance that technology encourages is an ignorance about ourselves…”), Kronman groups together “the fundamentalist Protestant churches in America, the jihadist wing of Islam, and the Pope” as religious voices opposed to the “morality of choice” (234-5). It’s a pity that Kronman doesn’t actually engage the writings of the current Pope, a lifelong academic who has explicitly staked his papacy on recovering (and re-evangelizing) the European, Western tradition that Kronman loves so much.

Loss of potential allies

I’m disappointed in Kronman’s treatment of religion, but it also seems like a tactical mistake on his part to separate himself so forcefully from religious believers who might share his concerns. He recognizes that the people and institutions most concerned with questions of meaning today are those motivated by religion, so I’m not sure why he felt the need to resort to name-calling. I can easily imagine a book similar to Education’s End which defended secular humanism and education as a quest for life’s meaning that included religious perspectives at the table. As it stands, Kronman excludes religious perspectives from his vision for the humanities, even when they are practically staring him in the face. I see two places where this happens.

In the final pages of the book, Kronman praises schools where “[t]he tradition of secular humanism….remains alive.” He cites Reed College, Yale, Columbia, and, from a small school in Minnesota:

[t[he five course sequence at St. Olaf’s [sic] known as “The Great Conversation” (251)

St. Olaf College, of course, is a Lutheran college. They describe themselves thus:

One of the nation’s leading four-year residential colleges, St. Olaf offers an academically rigorous education with a vibrant faith tradition. Founded in 1874, St. Olaf is a liberal arts college of the church in the Lutheran tradition (ELCA). Committed to the liberal arts and incorporating a global perspective, St. Olaf fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit.

Many colleges connected to liberal Protestant traditions pay only lip-service to their faith roots, but several people have told me that St. Olaf takes theirs seriously. It’s certainly not a “Bible college,” but neither has it completely rejected its religious roots like many other small liberal arts colleges.

Last week, I held up T. S. Eliot as someone who exposed the spiritual emptiness at the heart of secular humanism. Kronman himself cites Eliot as an example of the “great conversation” within the Western tradition:

Kant answers Hume, Paine condemns Burke, Eliot recalls Dante, Brunelleschi studies the Pantheon, and so on without end. (168)

This is only a brief mention, so I acknowledge I’m only guessing here. However, since “The Waste Land” is included in the Yale Directed Studies curriculum in the appendix to Education’s End, I assume that Kronman is referring to Eliot’s multiple allusions to Dante in that poem. Eliot published a version of “The Waste Land” that included footnotes to explain some of the more obscure references, though the footnotes are often just as obscure as the poem. Eliot cites Dante five times in his notes, four times to Inferno, Dante’s vision of hell, and other time to Purgatorio, which journeys through Purgatory. Eliot doesn’t mention the third book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradiso – at least, not in “The Waste Land.”

In 1925, three years after “The Waste Land,” Eliot published “The Hollow Men,” which continues the theme of despair and desolation. He returns to his conversation with Dante, but now, he is no longer in hell or Purgatory. He describes a group of beings “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

The language is confusing, even for poetry, so here’s B. C. Southam’s explication of these lines:

in the Paradiso xxx, the rose is Dante’s vision of the highest level of Heaven, in which Mary and the saints form the many petals (Italian ‘foglia’ is petal). In xxxi, the ‘single star’ is Dante’s vision of God. In xxxii and elsewhere, the ‘rose’ is Dante’s vision of Mary. Eliot is not trying to establish an exact correspondence; but the general terms of reference are clear. (A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 214-215)

In 1922, Eliot despaired over the collapse of Western civilization. By 1925, something had changed in Eliot’s poetry, and he was now meditating on Dante’s vision of God and the Virgin Mary. (He also had a deeply moving encounter with Michelangelo’s Pieta about this same time). And, in 1927, Eliot was baptized into the Church of England. His next two poems, “The Journey of the Magi” and “Ash Wednesday,” were explicitly Christian.

For St. Olaf College and T. S. Eliot, the Western humanist tradition ultimately holds together because of unifying faith in Christ. I have many thoughts along those lines that I’ll have to save for another time. However, I wish that Kronman had recognized this possibility for fulfilling this vision for the humanities. I hope that his subsequence interactions with religious believers who share his concerns for the meaning of life and the humanities have softened and nuanced his views toward religion.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on May 31, 2011 Reply

    Both of us have referred to the Comment mini-symposium on the relationship between academia and religious conviction, in the formation of today’s young adults (which includes Steve Garber, James Smith, etc). With regard to Kronman’s misunderstanding of religion, I am particularly reminded of Dr. James K. A. Smith‘s response to Why are we here? Colleges ignore life’s biggest questions, and we all pay the price. Here’s an excerpt:

    “What’s needed is for the university to recover an understanding of education as formation.

    But Kronman’s liberalism won’t let him imagine that. In order for education to be formative—in order for education to actually mold and shape students into certain kinds of people who are primed to live out a vision of the good life—such education needs to be shaped by a story, grounded by a tradition, and oriented toward a particular vision of the Good. But that would entail a violation of cherished liberal principles of the modern university—the stories it tells itself about its alleged neutrality, its supposed tolerant largesse, and its respect for human autonomy and self-determination. This is why he demonizes a “religious” education as the worst possible threat. So Kronman really just imagines a liberal, modern bastardization of a formative education: a syllabus that “raises the big questions,” but then leaves the sophomore in the place of lord and master, free to make her own decisions about the good life. (In this respect, his pedagogical memory is selective: the rich tradition of education that he points toward was not just unabashedly formative. It was, at times, positively dogmatic!)”

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