Have Colleges Given Up on the Meaning of Life?

I periodically dip into my ever-growing “to read” pile and select a book that I should have read several years ago. So, a few weeks ago, I started on Anthony T. Kronman’s defense of the humanities and critique of contemporary higher education, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman served for a decade as the Dean of the Yale Law School. Since 2004, he has taught in the Yale Directed Studies program, which is a one-year “Great Books”-style program for freshmen.

Book cover for Education's End

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

Though I’m not sure he would enjoy the comparison, Kronman reminds me of many InterVarsity staff: he loves the university deeply, especially the humanities, and has a great concern for students, yet he’s convinced that, somewhere along the way, the university has gone off track. Education’s End is his analysis of how education has gone wrong, as well as his prescription for what’s needed to fix it.

Kronman has a specific ideal in mind for higher education: a form of secular humanism that he considers a “middle way” between the theologically-based education of antebellum colleges and German-influenced research ideal of modern universities.

Secular humanism neither reaffirmed the religious dogmas of the old order nor embraced the most radical doubts of the new one. It refused to endorse the idea that human life has meaning only in world created by God and directed toward His ends. But it also rejected the notion that we are able to create for ourselves, as individuals, whatever structures of meaning our lives require in order to have purpose and value. Instead, it emphasized our dependence on structures of value larger and more lasting than those that any individual can create. It stressed the need for individuals to locate themselves within these structures as a condition for their leading purposeful lives. (81, emphasis added)

Overall, I found Education End’s to be an insightful critique of higher education, yet one marred by a few glaring blind spots. Let’s start with the good, and I’ll come back to the less good aspects next week.

The Good

Education as induction into a tradition. Kronman’s envisions education, especially in the humanities, as a conversation between the past and present about the deep truths of life: our mortality, the purpose of existence, how to live “the good life.” The stakes are high, and neither students nor teachers can remain neutral observers:

It is not enough for a student of philosophy to know that Plato held one view of justice and John Stuart Mill another. He must consider which, if either, to endorse himself. He must enter the conversation, join the debate, and take sides in it. He cannot put brackets around questions of value in order to preserve his objective detachment. (69)

This, I think, is the fundamental reason why we study the humanities: not, as Wendell Berry once put it, to learn about great writers and thinkers, but to learn from them.

Critique of the research ideal and its impact on the humanities. Kronman identifies the German research ideal as the root cause for the contemporary crisis in the humanities — and thus, since the humanities deal with the human condition, for the crisis in education as a whole. Kronman uses the complex term Bildung as shorthand for the whole German-influenced research tradition:

The Bildung ideal made specialization a virtue. It made the dutiful renunciation of pleasure for the sake of responsible work a spiritually compelling demand. Drawing inspiration from an older tradition of Christian belief while recasting that tradition in a secular form, it conferred a moral and spiritual legacy on the work of the academic research whose selfless and specialized labors the Bildung dignified as a calling not a job — an innerworldly path to salvation. (113, emphasis added)

“Dutiful renunciation of pleasure” – that sounds like a grad student’s life, doesn’t it? In my margins, I asked, “What happens when this self-sacrificial ideal is combined withe Christian spirituality?”

The problem with this model is that it intentionally avoids questions of ultimate meaning:

Even in his private life, the modern scholar who fits his work to the demands of the research ideal may find it harder than others to take seriously the question of life’s meaning. (130)

…much less be able to guide students to take that question seriously.

Next week, I’ll write about the blind spots that I mentioned above, but these two points seem fairly solid to me. What do you think?

Have colleges given up on the meaning of life? Is it harder for research academics to “take seriously the question of life’s meaning”? Does Kronman have the right view of the humanities?

While you’re waiting for my post, be sure to check out Comment’s online symposium about Kronman’s arguments, featuring a truly great collection of participants.

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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 18, 2011 Reply

    I’m reminded of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. Higher education seems to be on the same journey as the the Preacher of Ecclesiastes: wisdom leads to vexation; pleasure is vanity and striving after wind; all is vanity.

    But the Preacher’s journey was that of a thoughtful individual, not the journey of an institution. One should not confuse what an institution promotes and what the individuals within the institution think and feel. Within universities, there is as much resistance to institutionalized messages as blind acceptance of them. Core curricula are often a good way of knowing exactly what students resist learning and what professors feel the intellectual failings of their institutions are.

    Institutionally, universities are closer to the Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes than the Disciples. Yet, the Book of Acts provides many stories of how the knowledge cultivated by the institutions of the Temple were of great use to the Disciples even as the Temple hierarchy was hostile to the Gospel.

    I’m reminded of a silly rhyme I once learned that in a bizarre way captures how a product of a powerful system of institutionalized learning (the Pharisees) can turn against it to the glory of God:

    Roses are red, violets are bluish
    If it wasn’t for Saint Paul, we’d all be Jewish.

  • jmulholl@uchicago.edu'
    John Mulholland commented on May 20, 2011 Reply

    There are definitely problems with over-specialized research. However, there is a lot of multidisciplinary work going on. I will mention only a few cases.

    The Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago is both multidisciplinary and multiuniversity,
    of which one is on Wisdom
    and one on Virtue

    Candy Brown at Indiana University is doing major work on healing prayer.

    Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth U is a major figure in the recent work on forgiveness
    and part of a much larger group of scholars working this problem, whose work is being monitored at the following website.

    Another example is the Center for Religion and Intternational Affairs & its journal.

    There are many more which I have organized by discipline at the following public webpage.

    In short, yes there are problems, but I think that 1] Kronman has overstated the problem, though there is a problem, and 2] “the times are a’changin” as we speak. In fact, in a previous note about George Marsden’s recent talk, you have noted the demise of extreme naturalism.

    We need to be keeping track of all these amazing developments, for religious people in general and Christians in particular, who have many more opportunities for engagement than we often realize.

  • whitemochamarc@gmail.com'
    Marc commented on May 20, 2011 Reply

    This is a hugely important for all of higher education. Thanks for sharing the ideas from this book along with a helpful critique!

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