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...

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About the Author

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).