Anthony Kronman had me by the time I got to the subtitle. I wanted to know, “why, indeed, have our colleges and universities given up on the meaning of life?” It brought to mind a conversation with a religious studies faculty about the evidence from studies of spirituality in higher education of the longing of students to talk openly about these questions in their classes. The faculty person said something to this effect, “I could never do that. What we are about is the academic study of religion and not the personal beliefs of students.”
Kronman begins the book describing a philosophy seminar on Existentialism taught by his undergraduate college department chair. The seminar met in the chair’s home. The readings were demanding, the discussions about a life well lived were passionate. Birthed in those discussions was the conviction that higher education was a place “where the question of what living is for can be pursued in an organized way” (p. 6). His book is an impassioned argument for both why higher education has largely abandoned such discussions (except in late night bull sessions!) and what is to be done.
He, like others writers about the current state of the university, traces the history of colleges and universities in our country from their beginnings as church supported institutions designed to impart classical education informed by a Christian theological perspective. He sees this being supplanted in the era after the Civil War with the rise of what he calls “secular humanism”. By this he means that with the rise of Darwinism and higher critical skepticism in theological circles, the old “dogmatic” (his language) consensus was eclipsed by a pluralistic chorus of voices beginning with the Transcendentalists in this country and the Kantians and others in Europe. In place of the fixed set of courses of classical and Christian teaching came a much larger and growingly flexible core of courses introducing students to the “Great Conversation” about life’s big questions. No longer was the idea to faithfully transmit traditional belief, but rather to expose student to the multitude of voices that would allow the student to crystallize his/her beliefs. In one form or another, this secular humanism reigned in the humanities until the late 1960s. It was this Kronman experienced and this he would argue the university needs to recover today.
Two developments in the university account for the eclipse of the secular humanistic ideal of education. The first was the rise of the research ideal, first in the physical and then the social sciences. The discovery of new knowledge rigorously elaborated through experiment and publication that resulted in economically and socially useful knowledge challenged the secular humanist ideal. The second was the rise of various critical studies that might be lumped under “post-modernism” that analyzed any discourses on meaning and truth as simply exercises in power and affirmed politically correct forms of multi-culturalism. Perhaps one of the most telling critiques in this book is his exposition of how these approaches constrain honest, passionate discourse because of the fears of falling afoul by clothing a “power agenda” in the language of truth or meaning, and fears of offending some statute of political correctness. Both the research ideal and the political correctness of the classroom ruled out honest, rigorous, passionate discussions of meaning and life well lived.
The final part of the book in many ways are the most personal as Kronman honestly faces the question most of us like to deny–the fact that we will all die and that all of us need some compelling answer to what we will live for in the face of our death and even be willing to die for. He concedes, somewhat pejoratively in my view, that religious institutions, particularly “fundamentalists” are the main ones talking about these questions. He rejects these as giving up intellectual and personal freedom and calls for the world of higher education to once again take up these perennially important matters.
This is where I find myself saying “yes, but” to Kronman. In my recent blog post “Whither, or wither, the liberal arts” I related the lifelong impact of similar courses in my own life at an urban commuter university serving working class students like myself. One way or another, young adults at this stage are exploring these questions. The disciplined, intellectually rigorous exploration of these matters to clarify one’s own deepest commitments seems far more important than simply acquiring the credentials for a job that may or may not exist in ten years.
Where I dissent from Kronman is in his dismissiveness toward religious answers as an important part of this discussion. It seems he assumes that the only two choices are mindless dogmatism or intellectually rigorous secular humanism. He fails to acknowledge the tradition of religious humanism that united serious inquiry with reasonable belief. Nor does he acknowledge the long tradition of thoughtful Catholic scholarship continuing to the present day that carries on this tradition nor the resurgence of thoughtful scholarship in fields like history and philosophy that link belief in a transcendent God and rigorous and intellectually credible scholarship. The great loss here is that Kronman tars religious sources with a broad brush that makes them adversaries to the kind of enterprise he proposes, when in fact at least some of these might be allies in the recovery of “education’s end.”