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.
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.
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.