Our 4th annual Winter Study seminar starts tomorrow. Because EphBlog is at the center of the media universe, we arranged for Stanley Fish to write in yesterday’s New York Times about Education’s End. (Thanks to Professor Stephen Fix for the reference. Although the press of Williams business keeps Steve from being a discussant during the seminar, we hope that he will keep an eye on our conversation over the next few weeks.)

At one time justification of the arts and humanities was unnecessary because, as Anthony Kronman puts it in a new book, “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” it was assumed that “a college was above all a place for the training of character, for the nurturing of those intellectual and moral habits that together from the basis for living the best life one can.” It followed that the realization of this goal required an immersion in the great texts of literature, philosophy and history even to the extent of memorizing them, for “to acquire a text by memory is to fix in one’s mind the image and example of the author and his subject.”

It is to a version of this old ideal that Kronman would have us return, not because of a professional investment in the humanities (he is a professor of law and a former dean of the Yale Law School), but because he believes that only the humanities can address “the crisis of spirit we now confront” and “restore the wonder which those who have glimpsed the human condition have always felt, and which our scientific civilization, with its gadgets and discoveries, obscures.”

As this last quotation makes clear, Kronman is not so much mounting a defense of the humanities as he is mounting an attack on everything else. Other spokespersons for the humanities argue for their utility by connecting them (in largely unconvincing ways) to the goals of science, technology and the building of careers. Kronman, however, identifies science, technology and careerism as impediments to living a life with meaning. The real enemies, he declares, are “the careerism that distracts from life as a whole” and “the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition.” These false idols, he says, block the way to understanding. We must turn to the humanities if we are to “meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers,” for only the humanities can help us recover the urgency of “the question of what living is for.”

The humanities do this, Kronman explains, by exposing students to “a range of texts that express with matchless power a number of competing answers to this question.” In the course of this program – Kronman calls it “secular humanism” – students will be moved “to consider which alternatives lie closest to their own evolving sense of self.” As they survey “the different ways of living that have been held up by different authors,” they will be encouraged “to enter as deeply as they can into the experiences, ideas, and values that give each its permanent appeal.” And not only would such a “revitalized humanism” contribute to the growth of the self, it “would put the conventional pieties of our moral and political world in question” and “bring what is hidden into the open – the highest goal of the humanities and the first responsibility of every teacher.”

Here then is a justification of the humanities that is neither strained (reading poetry contributes to the state’s bottom line) nor crassly careerist. It is a stirring vision that promises the highest reward to those who respond to it. Entering into a conversation with the great authors of the western tradition holds out the prospect of experiencing “a kind of immortality” and achieving “a position immune to the corrupting powers of time.”

Sounds great, but I have my doubts. Does it really work that way? Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?

Good questions! See the rest for Fish’s answers. Join us at EphBlog for continuing conversation.

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