Did you know that Anthony Kronman ’68, former Dean of Yale Law School, was a member of the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy, Eph division? Me either! Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, aims to be The Closing of the American Mind for 2007.

The question of what living is for — of what one should care about and why — is the most important question a person can ask. Yet under the influence of the modern research ideal, our colleges and universities have expelled this question from their classrooms, judging it unfit for organized study. In this eloquent and carefully considered book, Tony Kronman explores why this has happened and calls for the restoration of life’s most important question to an honored place in higher education.

The author contrasts an earlier era in American education, when the question of the meaning of life was at the center of instruction, with our own times, when this question has been largely abandoned by college and university teachers. In particular, teachers of the humanities, who once felt a special responsibility to guide their students in exploring the question of what living is for, have lost confidence in their authority to do so. And they have lost sight of the question itself in the blinding fog of political correctness that has dominated their disciplines for the past forty years.

Yet Kronman sees a readiness for change — a longing among teachers as well as students to engage questions of ultimate meaning. He urges a revival of the humanities’ lost tradition of studying the meaning of life through the careful but critical reading of great works of literary and philosophical imagination. And he offers here the charter document of that revival.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know that many readers will expect an ex-Marine, anti-big-government wingnut like me to eat this stuff up with a rich man’s spoon. Sorry to disappoint! This is 90% gibberish.

1) Just when was this golden age when “the meaning of life was at the center of instruction?” Was it when I was at Williams 20 years ago, Kronman 30 years ago or my father 50 years ago? I would take the other side on any of those claims. We talked endlessly about the meaning of life in Williams dorms 20 years ago. In classes? Not so much. Of course, there were some great discussions. I still recall arguing over Alistair McIntyre’s conception of virtue in a class with Philosophy Professor Alan White. But, surely, such class room debate still goes on.

2) I do my fair share of fighting against the “fog of political correctness” (fun examples here and here), but the PC ethos has no problem with prattle about the meaning of life. In fact, I bet that the more PC the teacher, the more such prattle there is. It is the “conservatives” in departments like English who insist on focusing on the actual works on the syllabus, who demand that students discuss what Shakespeare wrote and why, rather than on what 18 year-olds think about the “meaning of life.” PC prevents a discussion of actual facts (which might offend someone) rather than sophomoric musings. You can discuss the meaning of life all day, every day at Williams. No one will complain. Try to have a discussion about why there are no African American faculty in Division III. The PC’ers will be at your throat in minutes. Ask Larry Summers!

3) There is a “a longing among teachers” for this? Yeah, right! The faculty control places like Williams and Yale. If there was a real longing among a non-trivial portion of the faculty, we would see much more of this. We don’t, so there isn’t.

4) Is there any evidence that humanities professors in general have “lost confidence in their authority” to guide students on important questions? Not that I have noticed!

There is also an interview with Kronman here which I find much more congenial. Perhaps the book might make for an interesting CGCL. Thoughts?

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