Three Blind Spots in Education’s End

Last week, I shared my appreciation for Anthony Kronman’s critique of higher education and defense of the humanities, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. This week, I’d like to examine a few of Kronman’s blind spots. Next week, I’ll take a look at how Kronman treats religion in his discussions of education and the meaning of life.

Book cover for Education's End

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

The first two blind spots, in my view, don’t necessarily undermine Kronman’s central argument, but the book could have been much stronger if he had addressed these head on. The third should have been avoided entirely.

Lack of historical context for American higher education. In some contexts, Kronman effortlessly segues across millennia of writers and thinkers. Much of the book attempts to survey the history of American higher education, but really, Kronman deals only with the status of elite education. The terms “land grant” and “community college” each appear exactly once in the text, and “G. I. Bill” is nowhere to be found. I don’t think you can write about intellectual developments in American higher education without taking into account the rapid expansions of higher education, first into the American frontier, then to accommodate the influx of immigrants, then to serve the vastly expanded pool of college-bound students. For that matter, would the antebellum system have collapsed without the economic and human disaster of the Civil War, which emptied the colleges of students and caused hundreds of small liberal arts colleges to close? I should note that Kronman does refer to some of these historical factors, but doesn’t seem to view them as deserving more than a cursory mention.

Overly confident view of secular humanism as a system. As I mentioned last week, Kronman views secular humanism as the ideal “worldview” for higher education, especially in the humanities. However, he regards higher education’s rejection of secular humanism as mainly a product of outside forces, without considering its internal weaknesses. In the appendix of Education’s End, Kronman provides a sample curriculum for Yale’s Directed Studies program, in which Kronman has taught and which he views as a model for education. One of the few 20th century works included is T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land (online text). 

The Waste Land is a complex poem which does not summarize easily, but among its central themes are the collapse of Western culture and the spiritual emptiness of the modern condition:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (Waste Land, ll. 367-376)

The five cities mentioned were all, at one point, viewed as the center of Western culture, civilization, and learning, and Eliot depicts them in chaos. Perhaps if Kronman’s curriculum had included other early-20th century works of literature, such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, or the WWI writings of Wilfred Owen or Erich Maria Remarque, he would have seen that the rejection of the Western tradition as a source of life’s meaning was influenced by factors other than the research ideal or the rise of “political correctness.” Which brings me to the next blind spot. [Eliot’s own journey out of spiritual despair points to next week’s post.]

Distracting and misguided discourse against “political correctness.” When I saw that one of Kronman’s five chapters was titled “Political Correctness,” I had to make sure that the book really was published in 2007 and not 1987. The book only has five chapters, and he spends one of those five chapters attacking “political correctness,” which he subdivides as “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and “constructivism.” I could spend a long time writing about this chapter, so I’ll just focus on one short section.

Kronman suggests that, while multiculturalism has value, it shouldn’t be taken too far without acknowledging the primacy of Western culture:

The ideas and institutions that have the greatest prestige in this new global civilization, the ones that have the greatest influence on the individuals and communities striving to join it and that determine most decisively the conditions of everyday life as its inhabitants experience them, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the farms of Hunan Province to the suburbs of Los Angeles, are all of Western origin. (172)

He then lists these ideas and institutions: human rights, tolerance for minorities, representative democracy, reliance on market economies, bureaucratic administrative practices, modern science and technology, and so on.

To be openly opposed to any of these things is to be a reactionary, a zealot, an obscurantist who refuses to recognize the moral and intellectual authority of this ensemble of modern ideas and who (fruitlessly) plants his feet against their irresistible tide. (173)

Kronman is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. I have no idea what that actually means, but I assume that it has something to do with, well, foreign relations. If he’s ever in a meeting with leaders from Hunan Province, I hope for all our sakes that he avoids asking them to “recognize the moral and intellectual authority” or “irresistible tide” of the West. I have a feeling that they might have a slightly different take on the subject.

My final critique with Kronman has to do with his treatment of religion. Originally, I was going to classify it as another blind spot, but I’ve decided that his attitude towards religious ideas is something other than simple blindness. Next week, I’ll address Kronman’s take on the role of religion in education and the meaning of life.

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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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  • Kevin commented on May 25, 2011 Reply

    Good criticisms! Let me add a few more.

    1. Secular humanism is part of the West’s claim to primacy. One of the great contributions of non-Western voices in the academy has been to reveal how historically and culturally contingent secular humanism is, and how critical a role it plays in the West’s claims to cultural/intellectual superiority.

    2. And on the West’s primacy . . . our numbers are Arabic, except for “0” which comes from South Asia, our time keeping is Babylonian and Egyptian, our languages are INDO-european, our literacy comes from a Middle Eastern tradition, our staple food species come from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean, and these are just a few things that come to mind. The European intellectual primacy is like Italian food. What it is famous for comes from elsewhere: pasta came from China, and tomatoes from the Americas. Basically, what Kronman sees as of Western origin can only be claimed to be of Western origin if one is ignorant of history. Europe is a great intellectual parasite, much of the Western intellectual and scientific tradition is based on the foundations laid by non-Europeans. The same can be said about China, as well, but the difference between China and Europe is Europe’s global influence through colonialism.

    I look forward to reading the criticisms of Kronman’s discussion of religion.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on May 25, 2011 Reply

      Thanks, Kevin! Good additions. I thought about adding something about the historical origins of “Western” ideas, as well as the fact that one can consider, say, Japanese capitalism and technology “Western” only if you decide to ignore the contributions that the Japanese have made in those areas. Elsewhere, Kronman emphasizes that the Western tradition is a continual conversation; too bad he doesn’t apply the same analogy to global culture.

      I really do think he could have benefited from a closer reading of Eliot, as well as Ezra Pound. Each of them were firmly entrenched in the Anglo-elite, secular humanist, Western canon tradition that Kronman praises – and each of them found it wanting. Eliot turned to Indian culture for inspiration, Pound to China and Japan. Then each of them converted to a new ideology to find spiritual/political meaning: Eliot to Christianity, Pound to Fascism.

    Matthew Hunter commented on May 26, 2011 Reply

    Center on Foreign Relations published Foreign Affairs and was/is made up of a fairly elite bunch of Ivy League Episcocrats (Konolige). They pretty significantly shaped foreign policy at one point but I’m not sure how much weight they carry now.

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