A Higher Education

Can the Humanities Survive?

Reading Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, $17, 320 pp.) reminded me of some advice I once got from a colleague. We were discussing a candidate for a position in the English Department who touted his own work as “revisionist.” “Keep in mind,” my colleague said, “if it’s new, it’s probably wrong.”

Kronman, too, is skeptical of the new, and convinced of the enduring value of what many academics today would regard as the hopelessly old. A former dean of the Yale Law School, he teaches now in the “Directed Studies” (Great Books) program of Yale College. Explaining why he spends his time reading old books with young students, he spares us the usual bromides about the value of “critical thinking,” and offers instead a full-throated defense of the humanities as food for the soul. The heart of the college experience, he believes, should be “a disciplined survey of the answers the great writers and artists of the past have given” to the question of how best to live, in order to “aid...students in their own personal encounter with the question of what living is for.” It is unusual these days to hear this kind of talk from a well-credentialed professor, and in order to explain why it has become so rare, Kronman takes us on a historical tour of American higher education.

Most American colleges, he reminds us, began as denominational institutions in which “students were expected to master a common curriculum” and every member of the faculty “was expected to be able to teach the whole of it to them.” Usually the sole administrator (there really was no such thing in the modern sense until after the Civil War) was the president, whose duties included teaching the capstone course in moral philosophy to seniors. The goal of the college was to help students acquire habits of mental and moral discipline. But with the breakdown of the pre-Darwinian synthesis of religion and science, such colleges found themselves struggling to survive in the lengthening shadow of the new research universities—places where undergraduate teaching, if it occurred at all, was secondary to research and to the training of future researchers.

Well into the twentieth century, some colleges continued to consider themselves, in Kronman’s words, “residual legatees” of the older tradition of moral instruction centered in the study of theology and the Greek and Roman classics. These colleges kept alive the mission of teaching young people (at the time, almost exclusively men) what Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, called the “art of living”—an educational ideal that eventually established itself in “general education” programs at leading universities, including the Contemporary Civilization Program at Columbia (1919), the Red Book curriculum at Harvard (1945), and Yale’s own Directed Studies Program (1947).

But despite these holding actions, over the course of the twentieth century the “research ideal,” as Kronman calls it, overshadowed and undermined general education almost everywhere. He acknowledges the immense social value of the new knowledge that academic research has produced—advances in medicine and communications, rational management of economies and legal systems, development of new technologies, and so on. At its best, the research ideal is generously collaborative, entailing a devotion to an enterprise unbounded by time and self, in which each individual scientist or scholar makes a contribution based on the work of predecessors, to be extended by successors.

But, like many critics of Enlightenment rationality, Kronman believes that the driving force behind the quest for new knowledge is fundamentally a Faustian urge to exert control over nature and ultimately over death itself—the human desire, as he puts it, “to transform fate into freedom.” When this urge commands the imagination without a countervailing awareness of human fallibility and mortality, it becomes a monstrous folly, and leaves us vulnerable to the rapacious human will. It also leaves us mute before the fundamental question of the meaning of our existence.

For a great many people, it is of course religion that promises deliverance from this spiritual bewilderment. But Kronman considers the promise of “redemption through submission to a perfect power that fulfills by other means the technological fantasy of perfect control” both false and dangerous. In his view, the best alternative to religion in a pluralist society (where relatively few young people attend sectarian colleges) is what he calls “secular humanism,” by which he means the reflective consideration, aided by great writers of the past—including religious writers—of how to shape a moral life. His book is a lament that secular humanism has been marginalized in our colleges and universities too.

Alas, I think he is right. The humanities should be about helping students “stock their souls with the greatest and most lasting images of human striving and fulfillment, as guides to the choices they must face in the years ahead, and as a fund of perennial inspiration.” But, as Kronman points out, the humanities have vitiated themselves by adopting the scientific premise that knowledge is progressive—at best a half-truth, as anyone knows who has seriously studied philosophy, history, literature, or the arts. In a mercifully brief tour of the “culture wars,” Kronman goes on to show how the humanities have lately retreated from the scientific research paradigm and embraced “constructivism”—his word for postmodern relativism. That has only made matters worse, turning professors of the humanities into a “laughingstock” in the eyes of their scientific colleagues, who confirm every day that empirical and experimental inquiry can indeed yield verifiable truths.

But Kronman goes further to say (and here, I suspect, he will raise eyebrows if not hackles) that “the research ideal” brings with it a kind of spiritual disease that enervates the soul of the researcher, who tends “to see things...from the deathless perspective of the discipline to which he or she belongs” and is thereby cut off from the wholeness of life. Kronman even goes on to say that “death casts a more disturbing shadow” over such persons because they cannot evade the dispiriting knowledge that by cultivating only a tiny fragment of knowledge in a vast impersonal system, they condemn themselves to a sort of spiritual isolation.

These are, to put it mildly, contestable claims. Surely we all know scientists and research scholars who feel fulfilled and at peace with themselves. I cannot help but wonder if the person Kronman is writing about when he describes the deprivations of professionalism versus the rewards of undergraduate teaching is, in fact, himself.

I say this not by way of disparagement, but because his passionate commitment to broadly humane education is exactly what makes Kronman’s book worth reading—from the double-entendre of the title to the hortatory conclusion. Still, he is on firmer ground when he steps back from making assertions about the inner lives of researchers, and turns to the real problem-that the research ideal has come to “occupy the whole of the humanities and...dictate the exclusive terms on which the worth of everything that is done in them is measured.” Surely he is right about this too. All the skills and strategies for rising in the academic hierarchy—publishing frequently, performing at conferences, and (most important for raising one’s salary) currying offers from rival institutions—have nothing to do, and are often at odds, with a commitment to undergraduate teaching.

This disjunction, Kronman notes with regret, is increasingly evident “in our liberal-arts colleges too, and even in the country’s community and other two-year colleges.” Just how much he regrets it is clear from his fond recollection of his own touchstone experience of attending a weekly seminar more than forty years ago as a student at Williams College. It took place at the home of the chair of the philosophy department, where teacher and students met to discuss the literature of existentialism while two golden retrievers slept on either side of the fireplace, “like bookends beside the hearth” and, outside the window, the sunset lit the Berkshire hills “in scarlet and gold.”

This pastoral vision of college—an updated version of Mark Hopkins (also a Williams man) conversing with an undergraduate from the opposite end of a log-remains irresistibly appealing. Its point is not to prepare students for graduate school or the I-bank interview (over half the graduating seniors at Harvard now go on to careers in finance), but to invite them into an “ongoing conversation that gives each entrant a weighted and responsible sense of connection to the past” and thereby helps them face the imponderable future. But today even the venerable liberal arts colleges are no longer sanctuaries from “the imperial sprawl” of university culture. With the virtually universal establishment of the PhD degree as a mandatory credential for college teaching, the faculties of such colleges now “begin their [teaching] careers having already internalized the research ideal.” If they happen to encounter during their graduate years a mentor who conveys by example the kind of teaching that Kronman cherishes, it is more likely by happy accident than by design.

So what is to be done? It is certainly true that strong forces are arrayed against Kronman’s ideal of humanistic education. There is the general decline of reading in a culture saturated by digitized noise, where few people have the time or concentration to linger with a long or difficult book. There is the pernicious effect of a culture where affluence is both an accepted norm and an elusive goal. Kronman dismisses those who argue against general education on the grounds that it inhibits the specialization that is putatively necessary in our postindustrial society, and he is right that very few professions “require more than a handful of undergraduate courses as preprofessional training...medical school requires a half-dozen; law school none at all.” Still, with every passing year students feel more pressure to impress the professional school admissions committees or corporate hiring committees with a super GPA in some practical subject like economics, at the expense of pursuing learning for its own sake. In this environment, subjects that were once at the heart of a liberal education—literature, art, philosophy, music—are consigned to the dispensable category of “enrichment.”

And then, of course, there is the overweening force of globalization—a word one seems to hear in every speech from every university president every day. The word has many meanings, of which the most salient to Kronman’s book is the international competition that American educational leaders increasingly feel (or at least anticipate) from rising universities in Asia, the Middle East, and, to some extent Europe. Every major institution is expanding—or its leadership is thinking about expanding—in order to accommodate the foreign students who will become the next generation of the international elite, and whom American universities want to be able to call their alumni.

These developments have their positive aspects. A more international student body is less likely to be homogeneous in attitude and provincial in habits; the booming study of non-Western languages and cultures helps to enlarge the intellectual horizons of American students. But it is also true that small-group education of the sort Kronman treasured at Williams becomes harder and harder to sustain—not only because it is extremely expensive (low faculty-student ratios require high instructional budgets) but also because faculties in the humanities are not likely to grow at the same pace as the student body, and because most students from abroad come for some form of technical training, not primarily for the collegiate experience.

Moreover, as Kronman points out, there is growing pressure—both because of faculty ideology and because of the growing numbers of students who are foreign-born or of non-Western descent—to undercut the “Eurocentric” curriculum and introduce texts from other cultures. The study of other cultures is of course laudable when it supplements the study of the West, but not if it substitutes for it. Kronman is very good on how important it is for students to get some sense of the fundamental ideas that constitute Western culture in its ideal form, that is, the culture we encounter in books:

The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and a recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal division of functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technological products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.

Surely anyone who earns a BA from a reputable college or university ought to understand something about the genealogy of these ideas and practices, about the historical processes from which they have emerged, the tragic cost when societies fail to defend them, and yes, about alternative ideas both within the Western tradition and outside it. That’s a tall order for anyone to satisfy on his or her own—and one of the marks of an educated person is the recognition that it can never be adequately done and is therefore all the more worth doing.

I suspect that the problems Kronman describes become more acute the higher one climbs the pyramid of American higher education toward the institutions of peak prestige. It is in the Ivy League and at other “elite” institutions that concern for prestige is most intense, from the trustees, president, and endowment managers through the faculty down to the students themselves. These are not good conditions for humanistic education. Among the leading research universities, only Columbia and Chicago continue to prescribe Great Books courses for all undergraduates. More commonly, “even at our best colleges and universities,” as Kronman puts it, students “spend four years sampling courses with little or no connection, moved by fancy and curiosity but guided by no common organizing principle or theme.” These students are encouraged to think of themselves as “networking” in order to gain entry to some lucrative field where most of their colleagues will come from schools like their own. What is the utility of true humanistic education for such a life plan? What is its market value?

These are, of course, the wrong questions, and I suspect it is the increasing population (mainly outside the Ivies) of “nontraditional” students—adults who have seen life from the vantage point of failure, or who feel unfulfilled after achieving what others deem success—who are asking the better questions. In short, there remains a real constituency for humanistic education—and if we take the broad and long view, it may even be growing. The required courses in philosophy and theology at many Catholic universities and colleges have to some extent upheld this tradition of humanistic education as well.

In fact, one should take heart from some signs that the tide may be slowing if not turning. Despite the pervasiveness of market values in the university, Kronman speaks of a “hunger” for humanistic education among students and young faculty, and here, too, he is surely right—though it should be said that his perspective, like mine, is inevitably skewed by where he teaches. At my university, a steady number of faculty find satisfaction in the series of compulsory small-group discussion classes (the Columbia Core Curriculum) that includes music and art history as well as courses in literature and political and social thought. And many Columbia alumni, recent graduates as well as those who attended college long ago, regard the “core” as having transformed their lives. This is no doubt equally true for Yale’s Directed Studies Program, where students enroll and faculty teach voluntarily.

These are unrepresentative institutions, but what I know of other colleges—from small Ursinus College in Pennsylvania to the honors college of the vast North Carolina State University—convinces me that humanistic education in Kronman’s sense remains alive and well in many places around the nation. Moreover, the straitened discourse that he decries in the contemporary classroom, where buzz words like “race, class, and gender” encourage students “to see themselves as representatives” rather than as autonomous persons, is noticeably loosening.

It is also worth keeping in mind that education of the sort that Kronman values has always been scarce. At the turn of the twentieth century, when “the art of living” was a legitimate subject in college curricula, only about 2 percent of college-age Americans attended any college at all. In short, despite the scandalous limits on educational opportunity in this country, it is arguably the case today that more students than ever before have the chance to experience something like Kronman’s ideal.

Who, then, should read Kronman’s book, and to what end? Being half-polemic and half-manifesto, it invites objections and emendations-as any good teacher would. I found myself dissenting from Kronman’s view of all religion as “fundamentalist,” and pulling back from his own evangelical tone: “We live today in a narcotized stupor, blind to the ways in which our own immense powers and the knowledge that has produced them cuts us off from the knowledge of who we are.” Some academics will read this book with a priori consent, others with the unshakeable sense that the sort of education Kronman wants is quaintly irrelevant in our postmodern, post-Western, posteverything world. Neither of those parties will get much out of it except for the pleasure of confirming what they think they already know.

The readers one hopes for are college and university presidents trying to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong with their institutions. Their authority over academic affairs, as Kronman points out, is much attenuated from what it once was. But they can still be mediators or brokers or, in rare cases, intellectual leaders. Despite the territorial squabbling and the scramble for resources at every institution, small changes can yield big results, and need not be very expensive. Along with taking the customary research seminars, graduate students can be introduced in a serious way to the question of what teaching is all about. Incentives can be put in place to counter the forces that draw faculty away from undergraduates. Leave policies can be enhanced for those who commit themselves to such teaching, so that they can keep up their research as well. Prestige-mongering (How big is our endowment? How many applicants did we turn away from our college?) can be resisted as a poor way of measuring institutional vitality and integrity.

All such efforts are uphill battles. But anything that can be done is worth doing on behalf of the inestimable value of Socratic discussion between inquiring students and a challenging interlocutor who compels them to confront deep questions with the aid of great texts. Any education without such engagement is empty at worst, partial at best. The problem with advocating for such education is that its worth is only truly understood by those—like Kronman—who have experienced it for themselves. And unfortunately, he is right that many advocates of the academic humanities, instead of persuading their colleagues in the sciences that they deserve a place at the academic table, “have instead,” by their faddishness and shallowness, “dug a hole and pitched themselves to its bottom.” Taking this book seriously would be a start toward climbing out.


Related: The Old College Try, Bernard G. Prusak's review
of Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: 

Andrew Delbanco is Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he has taught in the Core Curriculum and is currently director of American Studies. His most recent book is Melville: His World and Work (Alfred A. Knopf).

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