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A Stirring Defense of the Conversation

book cover imageEducation’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman.
Yale University Press (New Haven),
320 pages, hardcover, $27.50; 2007

James Seaton

In the decades since The Closing of the American Mind became a bestseller, many critics have joined Allan Bloom in arguing that the changes in higher education since the sixties have been mostly for the worse. Nowhere have the changes been more sweeping or the consequences most deplorable than in the disciplines traditionally known as the humanities, including history, philosophy and—especially hard-hit—literary studies. The titles of books like Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature (1990) and John Ellis’s Literature Lost (1997), tell the story. Now Anthony Kronman has added his voice in a book whose title, Education’s End, echoes the laments of Kernan and Ellis but also intimates that Kronman will offer his own thesis about what the “end” of education should be. The book’s subtitle declares that the book will explain “Why Our Colleges and Universities have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” but the real interest of Kronman’s argument lies in his thoughtful defense of his claim that “the meaning of life is a subject that can be studied in school.”

From Harvard’s founding in 1636 through the end of the Civil War, nobody doubted that teaching about “the meaning of life” was the most important mission of any college. Almost all American colleges were founded by churches. Curricula were designed primarily to prepare students for the ministry and secondarily for other learned professions. Though the meaning of life was indeed the central subject of study in those days, Kronman thinks it neither possible nor desirable to return to an era in which classroom discussion routinely “proceeded on the basis of dogmatic assumptions that were simply taken for granted.”

Kronman does believe, however, that it is both possible and desirable to reinvigorate the disciplines of the humanities and once again raise questions about the meaning of life in college classrooms by returning to the ethos of the “era of secular humanism” that lasted from shortly after the Civil War till the nineteen-sixties, when our present troubles began. Over that near-century the natural sciences and then the social sciences (to a much lesser degree) gained great prestige by accumulating vast stores of knowledge whose practical usefulness was obvious to all. The humanities meanwhile gained new importance because they were the one part of the university still willing and able to deal with the question the natural and social sciences had declared out of bounds, the question “of how best to live, of what to care about and why, the question of the meaning of life.”

The sciences, hard and soft, ruled out questions about the meaning of life in order to establish a methodology that could distinguish theories warranted by objective research from speculations based on subjective prejudices or intuitions. The humanities, however, did not aim to explain human life through theories of any kind. The humanities instead aimed at carrying on what Michael Oakeshott calls the “great conversation” about questions that no theory could definitively answer but with which all human beings are confronted. The conversation did not become one-sided or capricious because it was carried on within, as Kronman rather wistfully explains, a “particular framework of meaning. . . . the long tradition of writing and reflection, and of artistic creation, that is still sometimes referred to as the tradition of European arts and letters.” Though this tradition allowed and even encouraged divergent views, it had a structure of its own that made it possible to study its “central texts and abiding themes” in an organized way. Though many humanities professors envied the intellectual prestige scientists achieved by producing knowledge, others carried on the great conversation in their writing and in their classrooms through the first half of the twentieth century.

The conversation, however, was interrupted by the turmoil of the sixties. The radicals were much more effective in transforming the university than they were in transforming American society. Student protesters could not prevent Richard Nixon from winning two terms as president, but they did force radical changes in the traditional humanities curriculum and, when the students became tenured professors, they undermined what remained by replacing the ideals of the humanistic tradition with the imperatives of political correctness. Kronman’s long chapter “Political Correctness” is all the more persuasive because he resists the temptation to rest his case on striking but not provably representative anecdotes, quotations from extremists, or even titles of papers from the annual convention of the Modern Languages Association such as the oft-cited “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” originally delivered at a panel on “The Muse of Masturbation.”

Kronman begins by acknowledging that each of the three ideas whose acceptance by professors in the humanities established political correctness as a scholarly norm—diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism—“has a core of good sense with intellectual and moral appeal.” Each, however, has been made into a radical slogan whose influence has diminished the intellectual authority of the humanistic tradition whose framework once enabled students to reflect seriously about the meaning of life in their literature, philosophy, or history classes. It is of course a good thing to have a class where diverse points of view are expressed and debated, Kronman observes, but when under the reign of diversity each student is regarded as a “spokesperson” for their race, class, or gender, “the result is a classroom where everyone, teachers and students alike, feels compelled to tiptoe on eggshells for fear of giving offense, an intellectually and spiritually frozen classroom.”

Similarly, if multiculturalism is taken to mean simply that “some understanding and appreciation of non-western cultures is imperative” for students in American universities, then we are all multiculturalists. On the other hand, if multiculturalism is taken to mean that one should not “privilege” Western ideals such as “the ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally,” then the multiculturalist impulse toward an enlightenment beyond liberal toleration paradoxically compels one to accept attitudes sympathetic to, and sometimes indistinguishable from, those of “a reactionary, a zealot, an obscurantist.” Insofar as constructivism “puts choice and freedom at the center of our moral and spiritual lives” it affirms the values of the humanistic tradition, but that affirmation becomes hollow when constructivism goes on to insist that reflection on the often conflicting affirmations made by great works of literature or philosophy is pointless because “disagreements about the justice or beauty or truth of some feature of the world and what value to assign it can never in reality be anything but a declaration of or display of the disputants’ interests.”

Why did professors in the humanities allow the transmogrification of their disciplines to take place? Some of course were “zealots” who felt no need to engage in the kind of reflection the humanistic tradition makes possible, but the great majority were not; presumably most had become professors of literature or philosophy or history because they wanted to spend their lives participating in a conversation about the ends of human life framed by the great works of the tradition. Why then did the zealots win out?

Kronman’s answer is that professors in the humanities who explored questions about the meaning of life were already suffering from a lack of confidence because their work had no standing when measured against the “modern research ideal” that has determined academic prestige since the leading American colleges were turned into research universities in the years after the Civil War. True scholarship, according to the “research ideal,” requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible. Student radicals often found their professors almost eager to drop the claims of the traditional curriculum in favor of the politicized norms of political correctness, because the classroom promotion of diversity and multiculturalism offered “an antidote to the emptiness produced by the humanities’ own endorsement of the research ideal.” The cure, however, turned to be worse than the disease, since “the culture of political correctness that has grown from these ideas has not restored the self-confidence of the humanities but further weakened it instead.”

Kronman argues that the conversation undertaken by the disciplines of the humanities loses its depth, breadth, and its reason for being under the regime of political correctness. The humanities are supposed to “give young people the opportunity and encouragement to put themselves—their values and commitments—into a critical perspective,” yet if the notion that class, race, and gender are absolutely determinative becomes an article of faith, then the very possibility of transcending one’s prejudices is ruled out. The humanistic tradition had room “for the soldier who values honor above equality, for the poet who believes that beauty is more important than justice, for the thinker who regards with disinterest or contempt the concerns of political life,” but would-be soldiers, poets, and thinkers find that such views are all proscribed by contemporary versions of “diversity.”

The regime of political correctness claims, not unreasonably, “that the insights and perceptions of the victims of injustice have a greater claim to respect than those of their victimizers, that they reflect the realities of the world more accurately than the judgments of their oppressors and hence are truer in some fundamental sense.” This same claim, Kronman notes, “is a deep and recurrent theme in the sacred writings of Jews and Christians alike, and one of the cornerstones of the Western literary and philosophical tradition.” So far the two outlooks are at one. The difference, however, is that the taboos imposed by political correctness make it impossible to consider another “competing and equally venerable idea . . . the idea that privilege and good fortune enable sound judgment rather than compromise it—that wealth, education, and other advantages typically help the person who has them to develop his spirit and mind more fully and freely.”

This second idea is tacitly admitted by all those who understand that what makes poverty, for example, a morally serious issue is the recognition that it is not just an inconvenience but can be spiritually and intellectually disabling, but it is proscribed by political correctness. Kronman does not ask readers to choose one or the other but instead points out that “both of these ideas are deeply embedded in the tradition of Western thought, both have had articulate champions, both retain their plausibility and appeal today, and neither can be neglected by any son or daughter of the West who hopes to comprehend the tangled and conflicting skein of beliefs that lie at the heart of the civilization to which he or she is heir.”

Both Anthony Kronman’s careful analysis of the key notions supplying the rationale for political correctness and his account of the limitations of the research ideal when applied to the humanities are persuasive, all the more so because he goes out of his way to bring out the strong points of the ideas he criticizes. His call for a revival of what he calls “secular humanism” in American colleges and universities is likewise compelling, except when his rhetoric on behalf of the adjective weakens his central argument for the noun. American academics need to reinvent “secular humanism,” he claims, because otherwise only “the fundamentalism of the churches” will be on offer as an answer to the question of life’s meaning.

The answers that religion—any religion—gives to the question of life’s meaning would be ruled out of court in the classrooms guided by Kronman’s secular humanism, since “every religion, even the most tolerant, is fundamentalist.” Kronman insists, however, that he is not one of those who look down on all religion with “bemusement and scorn” and regard any belief in God as “shallow and mindless.” He believes there is a real “spiritual crisis” brought on by the inevitable failure of “the modern technological order” to deliver on its implicit promise “to eliminate every constraint that prevents us from doing as we please.” Religion, unlike technology and science, at least responds to the reality of human mortality.

According to Kronman the classroom must nevertheless remain secular, since religion, any religion, encourages attitudes inimical to free discussion. He makes two points: all religions privilege “some attitude other than thought that has the power to carry us beyond the limits of reason” and they all insist “that there is only one right answer to the question of life’s meaning.” But the notion that “there is only one right answer” to many important questions is certainly not the monopoly of religion. Kronman doesn’t exactly say that he alone is right, but he does make explicit his own belief that the humanities “offer a better response than religion does” to the contemporary crisis of meaning—not better for himself or better for some people and not others, but simply “better.”

As for Kronman’s first point, if art and literature have the significance the humanities attribute to them, it is surely because works of the imagination, though susceptible to analysis and explication, may indeed “carry us beyond the limits of reason” making use of “some attitude other than thought.” Eloquently describing representative subjects of humanistic study, Kronman mentions “Achilles’ reflections on honor and memory and the fleeting beauty of youth . . . Kant’s struggle to put our knowledge of certain things on an unchallengeable foundation so as to place the knowledge of others forever beyond reach” and also “Caravaggio’s painting of the sacrifice of Isaac, which depicts a confusion of loves that defeats all understanding.” One wonders if it is possible to fully respond to Caravaggio’s painting if one must consider Abraham, Isaac, and Caravaggio himself in thrall to “fundamentalism”—and similar considerations apply to, for example, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and Four Quartets.

Kronman’s “secular humanism” bears a strong similarity to the “New Humanism” put forward by Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt (whom Kronman describes as “the brilliant and belligerent Harvard professor of literature”) in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Anticipating Kronman’s opposition to the domination of the “research ideal” in the humanities, Babbitt argued that “it is easier to be scientific or erudite or enthusiastic than civilized.” Babbitt, however, unlike Kronman, was willing to accept religion as an ally. In confronting a situation similar to ours today—in Babbitt’s words, a combination of “spiritual anarchy with an ever-increasing material efficiency”—Babbitt championed a curriculum that would make possible “a reaffirmation of the truths of the inner life” that could be “traditional or critical, religious or humanistic.” In an uncharacteristic passage Kronman lumps together “the fundamentalist Protestant churches in America, the jihadist wing of Islam, and the Pope” as opponents of “secular morality,” while in 1924 Babbitt contemplated the possibility that “the Catholic church may perhaps be the only institution left in the Occident that can be counted on to uphold civilized standards.”

Kronman is right to emphasize that the humanities are, among other things, “the record of our encounter with mortality,” reminders us of what technology’s success encourages us to forget, “the fateful limits that constrain our longing for control.” And it surely follows that American colleges and universities would do well to recognize the special importance of the humanities as a source of insights unavailable to either the physical or the social sciences. Whatever reservations one might have about Kronman’s view of all religions as “fundamentalisms,” his central thesis about the need to renew the humanistic conversation disrupted by the twin forces of the research ideal and political correctness remains convincing. In Education’s End Anthony Kronman, brilliant and rarely belligerent, demonstrates that he is a worthy successor not only to Alvin Kernan and John Ellis but also to Irving Babbitt as a spokesman for the humanities.

James Seaton is Professor of English at Michigan State University.

Posted: June 22, 2008

Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from obedience to norms.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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