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Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On The Meaning of Life by Anthony Kronman

Mark Huston ponders Anthony Kronman’s arguments about why universities don’t teach the meaning of life.

Anthony T. Kronman is a former Dean of Law at Yale and is currently teaching in the Directed Studies Program at that University: a program in which students examine several great books of the Western tradition. Primarily, this book is his argument for a return to ‘secular humanism’ – by which he means the teaching of “the meaning of life in a deliberate and organized way” but without the trappings of religion (p.74). In addition he defends the view that the humanities are best able to provide these teachings, and the book ends up largely being a criticism of the current state of the humanities and a call to return the humanities to what they once were. To this end, Kronman provides various diagnoses to explain the role the humanities currently play in colleges and universities.

Kronman opens with an overview of how far the academy has drifted away from addressing the meaning of life. To his credit he does not shy away from the obvious point that if one is claiming that the humanities should return to teaching the meaning of life then one should have a fairly clear idea what the ‘meaning of life’ means. Kronman’s rough answer is that the meaning of an individual’s life is “a function of what (that individual) cares about at the very highest level” (p.26). And caring at the highest level amounts to recognizing that some things are more valuable than one’s own life. That is a view with which libertarians of an Ayn Randian flavor would disagree, for example, since for them, a willingness to sacrifice oneself is considered to be the product of a debased ethics.

While this view could be interpreted from a religious standpoint, Kronman instead grounds possible answers to the meaning of life in the kinds of lives, works and writings that great thinkers and artists of the Western tradition have presented. So teaching the meaning of life would amount to aiding students in entering the ‘great conversation’ with the “poets, philosophers, novelists, historians, and artists” going back to at least the ancient Greeks (p.85). Unfortunately, since the humanities have strayed far from this activity, they have given up on the most important thing they are best equipped to teach.

To explain why the humanities have moved away from the great conversation, Kronman points to two major developments, in the academy in general and in the humanities in particular. Addressing the academy in general, Kronman presents a very clear and concise history of the development of the modern university. While he looks at a fairly wide range of trends, the most important trend was the shift toward the ‘research ideal’ that started in the German universities in the early 19th century. The research ideal holds that teachers in the academies are primarily there to do research, and that real research has to do with focusing on small problems where the research tries to add something new (eg a new discovery). This is a model emphatically embraced by the sciences. The humanities came to adopt it too. However, this model derides the very notion of exploring a question as large as the meaning of life.

Addressing the humanities in particular, Kronman argues that when taken together, multiculturalism and constructivism undermine the ability of the humanities to teach anything of great and lasting value.

Kronman does not have a problem with multiculturalism when understood as the view that it is important to understand and respect other cultures. However, the version of multiculturalism which dominates at the university level, according to Kronman, is the problematic version which claims that all cultures are on equal moral footing, and that it is wrongheaded to value one culture over another (p.166). This view devolves into an extreme relativism which dismisses the notion of a ‘great conversation’ among great artists and thinkers, as no cultural product is greater than any other. Constructivism is a theoretical position which denies that there are any objective human or metaphysical truths and instead endorses the idea that all ‘meaning’ and ‘knowledge’ are merely social constructs (deconstruction and postmodernism also fall under this umbrella, particularly when related to issues of knowledge). When multiculturalism and constructivism are combined in the teaching of the humanities, the result is a complete undermining of any significance and coherency the humanities may have once presented, since, given these suppositions, pretty much ‘anything goes’ intellectually.

This book is certainly a worthwhile read for anyone who teaches at the college level or is concerned about the nature of humanities teaching – especially the criticisms of constructivism – although the prose in the last chapter is a bit purple. Kronman could certainly have benefitted from some specific examples, even if only anecdotal, to shore up some of his very general comments about teachers and students. There are also times in his arguments against constructivism when he collapses the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology, which causes him problems in consistency. Also, with his failure to closely examine the significant differences between the theoretical assumptions underlying different disciplines in the humanities (eg between English and philosophy), he fails to recognize that some disciplines have avoided many of the criticisms he levels against the humanities as a whole. Finally, in his discussions of political correctness and human nature he misses some of the more recent important work done in this area, such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. All-in-all, though, this is a book that should be read by anyone who is curious about the history of teaching the humanities, and where that teaching may lead.

© Dr Mark R Huston 2009

Mark Huston received his PhD in Philosophy from Wayne State University in 2004, and is currently Instructor of Philosophy and Sociology at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan.

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony Kronman, Yale U.P., 2007, £20, 308pp.

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