Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
By Anthony T. Kronman
Yale University Press; $17.00, paper
Anthony T. Kronman begins and ends his examination of why our colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life with the personal.
At the beginning, he is a student at Williams College when he takes a seminar entitled “Existentialism.” “At the heart of the seminar,” he writes, “was the question of how best to live, of what to care about and why, the question of the meaning of life.” In this class, he discovers that a life’s purpose could be studied in school.
At the conclusion of Education’s End, he explains the Yale Directed Studies program where he now teaches students what he has spent a lifetime learning: “At the heart of the program is the question of what living is for.”
Between these two points, Kronman argues with meticulous, if repetitive diligence that our schools and colleges have run away from this question, especially in the humanities, an area that naturally lends itself to such questioning. This has led to a decline in interest, and a belittling of the importance, of the question of life’s meaning and purpose.
Kronman learns early on in his educational life that one cannot stand on the sidelines and watch the action. “It is necessary to enter the fray and become a participant in the great contests of life,” he writes in the introduction, “or risk not having a life of any consequence at all.” So he begins his work with the thesis that questioning the meaning of life is the most important activity of a student. Kronman believes teachers should act as guides, using the curriculum of the humanities to focus the search. Therefore, Kronman believes that education is not for the purpose of finding gainful employment, or achieving a piece of paper, but for finding oneself and the meaning of life.
In the Directed Studies program at Yale, Kronman practices what he preaches. He uses the study of the great works of philosophy, history, literature and politics to help students in this search. Kronman believes we have inherited these works from the great minds of the past, and it is the teacher’s duty to pass on this body of work to the next generation of students. He includes a detailed reading list for his courses at the end of the book.
Kronman constructs his argument in a series of linked essays, the first of which is titled “What Is Living For?”
“Our lives are the most precious resource we possess,” he begins, “and the question of how to spend them is the most important question we face.” This question can only be answered by the individual. Of course, the individual needs a teacher, and those kinds of teachers are in short supply. In fact, Kronman cites only two: Jesus and Socrates, both of whom kept the question at the center of their teaching.
Although the question is a personal one, it is necessary to see the whole picture to determine our place in it. Kronman relates this inquiry to writing a biography. A biographer must know the whole of the subject’s life, the history and events of his time, the personal triumphs and tragedy, the work that the subject created at the time. It is not enough to know only when the subject was born and when he died with a few facts in between. Totality of the study is most important.
The same idea should be followed in a study of life’s purpose. Kronman says that, “When we are asked what something in our lives is for—an activity, a relationship, or a project of some sort—we generally answer by pointing out its connection to something else.” These connections run the gamut of human experience from minor events to those of epic importance, but they all come together to create the whole person. So the question of what life means is connected to other areas of life, part of the fabric of being.
In the second essay, Kronman reintroduces a concept going back to ancient Greece, a familiar refrain when talking about college courses like Great Books, Yale’s Directed Study, and Harvard’s General Education programs. Secular humanism is key to a student’s search for life’s meaning. A study of this kind should give students a look at all kinds of human thinking across the centuries, while giving them a general knowledge about their own place in this world. All of this should “prepare them to meet the personal, ethical, and social challenges of life, regardless of the career they eventually choose.”
Many colleges and universities have decreased or even eliminated such course offerings. There are few organized programs like the one Kronman teaches in at Yale, and he thinks he knows why. “Today, many of those teaching in liberal arts programs,” he writes, “feel uncomfortable asserting the competence or authority to lead their students in an organized inquiry of this sort.” He goes on to say that this has led to the view that since questions regarding life’s meaning cannot be answered concretely, they also cannot be studied in school.
I see evidence of this even on the high school level. Students show no interest, and sometimes even become hostile, when I suggest that education is to make someone a better person, or when we engage in a discussion where there is no clearly defined answer. They want to know what is on the test. If it is not on the test, why must they learn it? I argue that this is a shortsighted and intellectually crippling notion, but it is encouraged by American culture. We want to cut to the chase.
Students argue that they cannot afford the luxury of taking classes to make them well-rounded. Tuition costs are so exorbitant that they need to get the courses they need to graduate. Prolonging graduation, even for a semester, means thousands of dollars of debt. Kronman admits as much when he writes that “To have the freedom to pursue this question for a period of time in early adulthood is a great luxury.”
The research ideal upon which most educational pursuits are based today, also prohibits this education for the sake of education mentality. Professors and students are focused on narrow areas of specialization within a subject, rather than on the broad connections among areas of curriculum.
Kronman says that the history of university education can be divided up into phases. The first phase began with the founding of Harvard in 1636 and is called “the age of piety.” Colleges were founded for religious study, a focus on the “ends of human living.”
The second phase takes place after the Civil War, “the antebellum college,” as Kronman asserts, and this is considered the “age of secular humanism.” The teacher in the antebellum college is the moral and intellectual authority. They are “generalists,” teaching without divisions and departments, with a set curriculum where everyone reads the same books in the same sequence. The curriculum holds a sacred position, and is not questioned.
The third phase is the one we find ourselves in today. This is the research university model, transported here from German universities. The first duty of a research scholar is to research and write papers about specific subject areas. Teaching is secondary. In the quest for furthering the knowledge in a given subject, all knowledge becomes changeable and subject to question. There are no longer bedrock texts to draw from because everything is subject to scrutiny.
Is this a bad or good thing? Although it is good to re-examine philosophies and ideas, great books and their themes, Kronman believes the negativity rests in political correctness. He asserts that in our rush to diversity and equality, we have been forced to consider other works because they come from under-represented cultures, not necessarily because they offer quality writing and thinking. He deplores constructivism that “affirmed the artificiality of all human values and the absence of standards by which to judge them.” American colleges and universities focus on race and gender at the expense of quality and tradition. Many of the works dismissed from the canon have been studied for centuries. Teachers toss them out of the classroom door in favor of more recent, multicultural literature that lacks the history, insight, thematic depth, and exploration of the human experience found in the established canonical works. The so-called “dead white males” do not denote a power resting solely with western European culture, but offer centuries of thought and consideration packed into benchmark texts. These works have stood the test of time. Would someone like Shakespeare be so popular if his greatness did not transcend his European roots?
The research ideal violates Kronman’s metaphor of the biography. We must study the whole, he believes, not just a part, because it is in connections and relationships that we find complete understanding. He argues that some knowledge has been gained with research, but only in highly specialized areas, not on a broader level across disciplines.
In our desire for political correctness, we have diversified the power and effectiveness out of the canon and lost important themes and ideals. Therefore, our toolbox is severely limited when we search for the meaning of life. In fact, we have given up the search in favor of minutiae and specialized knowledge that cripples our ability to understand ourselves and human existence in total.
Kronman does see a glimmer of hope, first because of the “rising tide of religious fundamentalism,” which has increased spiritual awareness in our culture. Second, our culture’s preoccupation with political correctness has waned, leading to a decreased interest in diversity of texts and a return to a more traditional reading list in the academies. Third, the human need to understand life’s purpose and meaning has experienced a resurgence. In our culture of excess, Kronman believes that people are feeling less satisfaction with the material and are searching for the deeper meaning in existence.
Kronman believes that, instead of offering easy, pat answers, a return to secular humanism and a search for life’s meaning in a disciplined study should disrupt the confidence of students and deepen their doubts. It should make us rethink our convictions and ask the important questions. But the system is all wrong. “Students…come to college believing that the most important choice they face is that of a career,” he writes. “A career is only part of life.”
To actualize Kronman’s difficult thesis, to re-vitalize education by returning the focus, especially in the humanities, to the question of life’s meaning and purpose, we must have students willing to go on the journey. They must have the time, the money, the initiative and motivation to mount such a rigorous study. Most of all, they must want to know, they must desire to understand what living means, and why we are here.