Just In Time For Dessert

by Hans Allhoff (April 2008)

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
by Anthony Kronman 
Yale University Press, 2007

In yet another book about the decline of the humanities, and whose author is a philosopher by training and teaches the Great Books to selected Yale undergraduates, you’d expect to read, on the subject of a typical college freshman, something like this:

“He has four years of freedom to discover himself…In this short time he must learn that there is a great world beyond the little one he knows, experience the exhilaration of it and digest enough of it to sustain himself in the intellectual deserts he is destined to traverse.  He must do this, that is, if he is to have any hope of a higher life.  These are the charmed years when he can, if he so chooses, become anything he wishes and when he has the opportunity to survey his alternatives, not merely those current in his time or provided by careers, but those available to him as a human being.”

And of his professors, you’d not be surprised to read:

“Most… are specialists, concerned only with their own fields, interested in the advancement of those fields in their own terms, or in their own personal advancement in a world where all the rewards are on the side of professional distinction.  They have been entirely emancipated from the old structure of the university, which at least helped to indicate that they are incomplete, only parts of an unexamined and undiscovered whole.  So the student must navigate among a collection of carnival barkers, each trying to lure him into a particular sideshow.”

And, finally, when it comes to liberal education more generally:

“A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question [‘What is man?’] to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern.”

As he should, Anthony Kronman does say these things in Education’s End—essentially.  I excerpt the above from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, a book of immeasurable impact published over two decades ago.  I’m a big fan of Bloom’s, and through much of Education’s End I kept waiting for Kronman to call himself the Bloomian that in so many places he is.  (That never happened, but Kronman does cite The Closing of the American Mind midway through Education’s End as an example of “worried talk of a ‘crisis’ in the humanities.”  Thank goodness I’m the kind of patient reader who will keep flipping to the back of a book to read endnotes.) 

The core argument of Education’s End is that the question “What does life mean” used to be one that college students had to work through if they wanted to call themselves educated—and professors were there to help.  These days, those instructors have specialized and split—each to make an incremental contribution to his or her a narrowly-defined discipline.  As well, the hydra that is political correctness has made asking the question “What does life mean” philosophically problematic and morally distasteful.  Today we’re as thirsty for spiritual guidance as ever, and with religious fundamentalists demanding that we “give ourselves up” and modern science inviting us to “forget who we are,” Kronman has a fix (at least for the undergraduate) in the revival of secular humanism—a tour of our own nature with the humanities as our guide. 

Education’s End is a good and important book.  The problem is that we’ve heard most of it before.  Parts of the book are original, to be fair.  Although the history of the higher education in America has well been told—Kronman appropriately cites Lawrence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University, for example—Kronman nicely divides it, for our understanding, into an “age of piety” beginning with Harvard’s founding in 1636, an “age of secular humanism” following the Civil War and the importation of the German university model, and then, following the 60’s, an age of the research ideal and political correctness that he problematizes.  I also think Kronman is onto something quite serious in suggesting that if we pass on the humanities to find meaning in our lives, we risk falling, fundamentally, for God.  For all his efforts, however, Kronman summits where plenty of others (especially Bloom) have already staked a flag: with respect to the undergraduate in particular, America’s best colleges and universities have failed their highest calling.    

This makes for a quite ironic book.  (But not a useless book; for newcomers to the issues Kronman tackles I think it’s perfect, and I’d probably even recommend it before I’d recommend Bloom.)  At the heart of the secular humanist project that Education’s End is a desperate plea to resuscitate is the very idea of participating in an enduring conversation—“a communion with the great creative spirits of the past.”  “What should a college education try to do?” may not be as heavy a question as “Why am I here?”, but it’s a permanent question all the same, and it’s one with respect to which countless people in the past few decades alone have attempted an answer.  Rather than lead by example and approach this particular conversation “as a respectful but not subservient latecomer…who has much to learn but also something to add,”  Kronman has written Education’s End as though he’s in the bakery all by himself, working from scratch—even if he does bury the occasional reference in his endnotes. He does say late in the book that “[t]alk of a ‘crisis’ of purpose—a loss of direction, an absence of aims, a failure of nerve, a collapse of traditions—has been widespread in [the humanities] since the 1960s and continues unabated today,” but he does nothing to locate his own arguments in this conversation and prove them fresh. 

This is a shame.  It’d be nice to know what Kronman thinks, for example, not just of Bloom but of Josiah Bunting’s book An Education for our Time.  Bunting is the former head of both the prestigious Lawrenceville School and the Virginia Military Institute, and was a Rhodes Scholar, most impressively, before a decorated career in the Army.  An Education for Our Time is discursive fiction; it’s written from the perspective of a one John Adams—University of Chicago graduate, Rhodes Scholar, Marine Corps veteran, technology billionaire, and cancer-stricken –who in his personal letters to his lawyer lays down a blueprint for a small liberal arts college in the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming.  Central to Bunting’s plan, unlike Kronman’s, is the making of patriots.

The other central defect of Education’s End is that Kronman’s argument is rigged.  It’s one thing to want the young to ask themselves why they’re alive, how they should live, and what they should ultimately care about—questions that Kronman should be taken to task for using interchangeably when in fact they don’t ask the same thing.  It’s another to insist, as Kronman does, that the humanities are where we must go for answers.  He’s a humanist and not a sociobiologist.  Of course he’d guide us to Sophocles.  

A lot can be said of Kronman’s lucidity; wherever else Bloom may best him, Education’s End is the more readable book.  Kronman also appears the humbler of the two—if only barely.  Education’s End is an undeniably sincere book, and I hope Kronman’s students realize what a lucky lot they are.  Stylistically, it’s odd that Kronman offers little of his experiences teaching undergraduates in Yale’s Directed Studies Program or his own literary encounters that presumably inspired him to write Education’s End; Bloom told us a lot about what he experienced and felt as a teacher, making Closing a much more personal in some places nearly autobiographical book (which Bloom dedicated to his students).  

There are, to be fair, some real differences between Education’s End and Closing that would make for a spirited debate were Bloom still with us today, starting with the cause of the humanities’ decline.  For Kronman it’s academic specialization and political correctness.  For Bloom it was certainly that, but also something much more fundamental: “nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth.”

As far as remedies go, the secular humanism Kronman champions “accepts the pluralistic belief in a variety of paths to fulfillment.”  It’s in this spirit that Kronman, in stressing that the question of life’s meaning is “exquisitely personal,” begins to flirt with a kind of moral relativism and subjectivism Bloom may have found irritating.  “Here what matters most is not that the right answer be found, by someone or other, but that it be me who finds it,” Kronman writes.  And whereas for the sake of democratic citizenship Kronman very much values the open-mindedness and tolerance that a college education cultivates today, for Bloom they were phony virtues, opposed to Truth.  Sense the sarcasm here: “The danger [students] have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance…Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times…The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”  Along now comes Kronman, reacting to contemporary fundamentalisms by saying “The revival of secular humanism is needed to help us be doubtful again.” 

Maybe the most striking difference between Education’s End and The Closing of the American Mind is that Kronman comes—and I would guess still belongs to—the very Left about whom Bloom wrote with such great disdain.  When Kronman first felt meaning slipping from his life, the year was 1964 and he left Williams College as a sophomore to join Students for a Demoractice Society.  Bloom was then a teacher at Cornell, openly scornful of students probably a lot like Kronman, and would write in Closing that the 60’s were an “unmitigated disaster” for America’s universities.  Kronman is no neocon either.  To this day, he believes that the values of political liberalism are “the best—the fairest and most durable—foundation on which to build a political community.”  To Bloom, the less subtle elitist, it wasn’t so obvious.  Even as a teacher, he was known to tell students outright that they didn’t have what it took to learn from him. 

It is to Kronman’s great credit, then, that he goes after political correctness as he does, a characteristic howl of the Right (as in Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, both of which Kronman cites).  Political correctness to Kronman is the familiar fetish among the academic elite for diversity and multiculturalism.  As he sees it, our commitment to both took off once the humanities abandoned their secular humanist agenda and needed a new moral purpose and institutional role within higher education.  Along the way, and enabled at a philosophical level by the usual suspects (Kronman prefers “constructivism” to “postmodernism”), the humanities “are in danger of becoming a laughingstock, both within the academy and outside it.”

Though Kronman’s concession that diversity and multiculturalism have “a core of good sense with intellectual and moral appeal” may be kinder than Saul Bellow’s infamous question “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” he goes after each with a brutal candor that is commendable for someone in his position.  (Kronman also teaches in Yale’s law school and was for a decade its dean.)  The diversity we celebrate today is, he says, “a sham diversity, whose real goal is the promotion of a moral and spiritual uniformity instead.” (And Bloom agreed: “What poor substitutes for real diversity are the wild rainbows of died hair and other external differences that tell the observer nothing about what is inside.”) 

Kronman doesn’t stop here.  The real problem with drooling over diversity is that it cements us in our own shoes and “strengthens the cynical and despairing belief that we can never see the world from any point of view but the one permanently fixed by our racial identities or escape the gravitational pull of the interests and values these create.”  A liberal education does, after all, promise to liberate, and what kind of freedom is to be found in a classroom that “resembles a gathering of delegates speaking on behalf of the groups they represent”?  This is heavy and important stuff, and all the better to hear it coming from Kronman.  But what a horrible job I’d be doing as a reviewer were I not to highlight that this has all been said before.  “Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives,” said Bloom. 

On multiculturalism Kronman is equally as good—though no less unoriginal.  Taking issue with the version of multiculturalism that’s outright hostile to the ideas and institutions of the West—as opposed to a version that merely encourages “some understanding and appreciation of non-Western cultures”—he makes two fine points.  The first is that there’s an internal contradiction to anti-Western animus, for “even the fight against the West must be conducted on Western terms.”  To this I’d add “with characteristically Western privileges,” like the right to speak truth to power.  The second point is that, quite frankly, much of the Western tradition does have a universal moral and political appeal.  “The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity,” Kronman writes.  Again, fine and important points, but points that have largely been made—even in books a lot less serious than Kronman’s. 

The first four of Education’s End five chapters lay important groundwork.  It’s in the book’s final chapter, “Spirit in an Age of Science,” that Kronman really lays it all out, as well he must.  He may be right that the question of life’s meaning is an important one, worth taking up in college.  He may also be right that this question used to be central to what the humanities were all about, and that it isn’t so today for the reasons he sketches.  But this being so, it still remains to be shown that we need the humanities—that they remain our best hope of getting a good answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?”  Indeed, it’s not just the research ideal and political correctness that have put the humanities on the defensive; it’s also the fact that the natural sciences (and arguably the social sciences, especially economics) have in recent years told us a heck of a lot about who we are.  Kronman, until this final chapter, has just assumed that there’s more, and that only the humanities, properly engaged, can tell us who we truly are. 

In fact, Kronman telegraphs that bias early on in Education’s End.  He writes that as the physical sciences evolved, they “ceased to be concerned with, or to have much to contribute to, the search for an answer to the question of the meaning of life.”  And then: “To the extent that human beings now figured in these disciplines at all, they did so only as physical or biological units subject to the same laws of spiritless motion that govern the behavior of nonhuman bodies as well.”  Well, yes, but that may be precisely the point; it’s a real possibility that a biological unit really is all that we are.  That might not be the answer that inspires us—it obviously doesn’t inspire Kronman—but it’s an answer all the same and as such it can’t be assumed away.

Kronman does just that, which is largely why his final chapter is somewhat unsatisfying.  Beautifully written, Kronman’s bottom line is that we’re facing a spiritual crisis today (hence the fundamentalist upswell to which he believes the humanities are an appropriate antidote).  Modern science and the technology that it enables, for all the wonder they cure and simultaneously inspire (for we wonder about things and at them), distract our attention from our own mortality and by consequence our own humanity.  We all yearn to be more than we are, and while science and technology empower us to overcome whatever’s in our way, they do so on the assumption that nothing need be.  And yet, Kronman argues with great confidence, death unavoidably is.  The human condition “is characterized by our subjection to fateful limits that we can neither tolerate nor do without.”  The humanities, by contract, study our mortality and nature.  “They meditate on its meaning.  They bring it into view and concentrate our attention on it.  They invite—they compel—us to confront the truth about ourselves and help us to inhabit with greater understanding the disjointed condition of longing and defeat that defines the human condition.”

This kind of talk has all the eloquence that we ought to expect of someone like Kronman.  And yet it’s all too reminiscent of Bloom at his best, who made Kronman’s point by simple example:  “Throughout this book I have referred to Plato’s Republic, which is for me the book on education, because it really explains to me what I experience as a man and a teacher.”

But here’s the question that I’d pose to both Bloom and Kronman.  Why does life have to mean anything other than what scientific investigation reveals?  Why aren’t we comfortable with a view of ourselves as complex biological units, whose longings and contradictions beg for a purely natural explanation?  That’s why it’s so important to separate out, as Kronman does not, the questions “Who am I?” from “How ought I live?” and “What should I care about?”  For even if the answer to the first question is really uninspiring—mostly water, a good amount of carbon, and genes concerned solely with their own survival—I can still pretend that my life has meaning and do ethical, purposeful things with what time on earth I have.  Maybe it’s our need for the humanities, then, that tells us what we truly are: beings who require myths by which to live, if living is to be pleasurable.  Much of what the humanities contain, after all, are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I was told recently of a question and answer session in which one of the so-called “new atheists”—perhaps it was Richard Dawkins, though I’m not sure—was asked what he had to look forward to in life without some spiritual ends around which to orient his own.  His answer was a word: “Lunch.”  That’s the line to which a rebuttal from the humanities is badly needed, and it’s that line that Kronman—and all others—don’t provide.


Hans Allhoff lives in Portola Valley, CA. 

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