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Charting the humanities course back to meaning

The Baltimore Sun

Education's End

Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life

By Anthony T. Kronman

Yale University Press / 308 pages / $27.50

In 1965, Anthony Kronman enrolled in a seminar on existentialism at Williams College. Once a week, at the home of Nathaniel Lawrence, chair of the philosophy department, the juniors and seniors in the class discussed books by Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel Marcel. They broke for tea, devouring cookies baked by Mrs. Lawrence, and gazed out the windows at the Berkshires' fall foliage while two golden retrievers napped near the fireplace. Kronman made a discovery in the course that has remained with him ever since: "The meaning of life is a teachable topic."

Many (post)modern humanists do not agree. Defining "a good life," claims Kronman, a professor and former dean at Yale Law School, has been "pushed to the margins of professional respectability" in the fields of literature, philosophy, history, and politics. In Education's End, he examines the causes and consequences of this change - and the likelihood of a cure.

Elegant and eloquent, Education's End plays variations on themes oft-articulated by critics of higher education in the United States.

Twenty years ago, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom opined that the humanities had become "the day care center" of colleges and universities, addressing topics that "have no echo in the adult world," while scientists and economists did serious work.

Kronman does not endorse Bloom's reactionary politics or his pedagogy. But in accounting for the liberal arts' loss of prestige and authority, he, too, rounds up the usual suspects: depersonalized, "value free" research; disciplinary specialization; vocationalism; and a "politically correct" version of multiculturalism hostile to the ideas, idealsand institutions of Western Europe and the United States.

These days, Kronman insists, humanists tend to be "constructivists." They believe that reality, including the natural world, is a human contrivance, without an independent "essence." Conveniently forgetting that their philosophy "is itself a Western invention whose claim to universality reflects the very tradition it rejects," constructivists profess that all meaning making originates in a desire to control some one or some thing. For constructivists, discussions about the meaning of life are disguised power plays.

Like Bloom, Kronman declares that by denying reason a role in political and moral debates and depriving inquiries about the meaning of life of any direction, structure or rules of engagement, constructivists have denied value to freedom itself. Faith in modern technology makes matters worse. By extending life - and aspiring to cancel death - technology makes the connection between mortality and meaning less significant. "At the very heart of our civilization," Kronman sees emptiness, anguish and yearning. If humanists help name, acknowledge and address the needs of young people, he suggests, they will gain renewed respect - and fundamentalists may be less able to fill the void.

The humanities have, indeed, lost focus and much of their appeal to undergraduates. Departments of English have renamed themselves Cultural Studies. Literary critics do not construe before they deconstruct. And politics professors are social science wannabes.

Nonetheless, Kronman's assault is overheated by more than a few degrees. Until the late 19th century, he acknowledges, colleges and universities didn't ask questions about the meaning of life. They expected students to "internalize a fixed and finite set of norms inherited from the ancient world and from Christian tradition and to conform their actions and speech to them." And what Kronman (perversely) calls the age of "secular humanism" in higher education in the first half of the 20th century wasn't really all that golden. Defined to no small degree by panty raids, the gentlemen's C and racial exclusion, colleges and universities rarely cultivated "a culture of skeptical pluralism."

In the 21st century, professors and students are even less certain about how to define the elements of a life worth living. They have good reason to be perplexed. And to challenge the literary canon as the bastion of "dead, white guys." Nonetheless, they still study Kierkegaard, Sartre and Marcel - and Plato, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot. And think about "great questions." These questions now involve equality, freedom, sustainability and the survival of the human as essential components of the meaning of life.

Looking backward toward the future, Kronman ends Education's End with the syllabus of Yale's Directed Studies Program, an optional, one-year "Great Books" program for freshman. Directed Studies students take three courses - in literature, philosophy, and history and politics. They hear a lecture a week in each subject, meet twice a week for discussion and write many papers. The reading assignments are the same for all students. Directed Studies appears to be a terrific program. But does it - any more than many other well-taught courses - ignite ongoing, substantive reflections and conversations about the meaning of life? Kronman wants humanists to be "the spiritual leaders they once were." It ain't that easy.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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