Thu 10 Jan 2008
When I graduated from Williams, I was determined to pursue a Ph.D in Comparative Literature, hoping to expose myself to the best of European & American literature so that I might teach students to appreciate great books where they could find insights to guild them in their lives’ journeys. Not only that, I hoped to write about literature, showing how those great writers of the past addressed themes that we confront in our lives today.
Inspired by such Williams professors as Kurt Tauber (Political Science), George Pistorius (French), Lisa H. Wright (English), Gail Newman (German) and Anson Piper (Romance Languages), I saw the profession of university teaching as one where a scholar helps students relate literature to their own lives. These works would, I hoped, remind students that there is more to life, to quote my favorite poet, than “getting and spending.” They would see the study of literature as a life-long avocation, something to pursue alongside their professional endeavors.
I abandoned my study of literature for a great variety of reasons, notably because I became increasingly aware that graduate programs in the humanities were increasingly replacing study of the great works or literature themselves with a focus on criticism. Professors of literature scoffed at the notion that the books under study were any more than texts, with some even dismissing the notion of their greatness.
As I made that decision, I recalled how Lisa Wright, well aware of my passion for literature (it was she who had seen the spark in my eye when we studied Beowulf in English 301), had reminded me that literary scholarship often had little to do with passion. During my senior year, she had directed me to the section of Sawyer Library where the literary journals were shelved, telling me to familiarize myself with their contents.
And those journals frequently contained dry articles, frequently addressed obscure points in the works of literature under consideration or tried to relate them to the latest literary fad, where that fad’s jargon seemed more important than the contents of the various literary works.
My love for literature and ideas would not leave me. Just over three years ago, I decided to study mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute because that quirky program seemed less focused on criticism and more devoted to studying ancient stories and rituals and considering their real-world meaning. I’m just now beginning work on my dissertation where I intend to explore how understanding the role of the goddess Athena in the lives of Greek heroes can help men realize the importance of the non-sexual feminine in their own lives.
Given this appreciation of literature and myth, this belief that this great stories can help us lead rich and more fulfilling lives, it’s no wonder I ordered Anthony Kronman‘s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life soon after reading upon it on Instapundit. The very title encapsulated the primary reasons behind the decision I made not to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature.
When I received the book, I was delighted to discover that Kronman is an Ephman. While an undergraduate he too had a professor, Nathaniel Lawrence (Philosophy) who led animated discussions where they considered important questions about life. But, as Kronman pursued his own career in academia, as a professor and dean at Yale Law School, he found the question of life’s meaning
exiled from the humanities, first as a result of the growing authority of the modern research ideal and then on account of the culture of political correctness that has undermined the legitimacy of the question itself and the authority of humanity’s teachers to ask it. I have felt puzzlement and anger at the easy sweeping aside of values that seem to me so obvious and important. And watching these developments, I have been moved to wonder about their causes and consequences and the likelihood of a cure.
In his book, he explores just that. And I found myself nodding my head in agreement with many of his observations. While coming from a different political background than I (he had volunteered for the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society in college; I had served as state president of the College Republicans), he had reached the same conclusion about the state of the humanities in colleges and universities as had I.
Proof that the humanities can serve to bring together people with different political views, even different backgrounds as they remind us of our common humanity.
After diagnosing the problem, that humanities professors no longer see their various disciplines as concerned with the meaning of life, Kronman looks to the history of post-secondary education in America to find its source. While professors were once jacks of all trades, able to teach a great variety of classes in a number of disciplines, today’s college and university teachers have become increasingly specialized, with little ability to teach outside their narrow field of interest. At the same time, a set curriculum has evolved into a smorgasbord.
He shows how secular humanism replaced more religious ideas of instruction with the research ideal. And with the research ideal came an end of the notion of the humanities as initiating a student into a great “conversation that is always alive, where every participant who has ever joined it is still actively engaged, and to which each new generation . . . is introduced.” Devoted to their particular field of expertise, professors were no longer interested in considering the question of what living is for. Their narrow focus replaced a broad interest in themes common to a broad array of works from any number of eras served to “undermine the unique authority they once enjoyed as guides to the meaning of life.”
Another force would join the research ideal in undermining that authority, political correctness. With its concomitant multiculturalism, political correctness has made it increasingly difficult for “students to accept the notion of a common human solidarity that transcends the experience of the particular group to which they belong.” Kronman regrets that:
The sad result of the humanities’ use of racial and gender diversity as a criterion for the selection of texts and teaching methods has therefore been to make it harder to pursue the question of life’s meaning in the only discipline in which there is still any chance of asking it.
And I would note that some of the works selected so that diversity may also include sexual orientation seem to have been chosen not to show how, despite our differences, gay and lesbian people still confront some of the same issues as do our straight peers, but instead focus on the most marginal aspects of gay culture, written more often than not by the most angry and unhappy homosexuals.
[Their inclusion in the curriculum seems designed to please the most radical of gay activists, rather than directed to offering students a balanced perspective of gay life, allowing straight students to see that gay people face the same struggles as do they and giving gay people the resources to see our struggles in terms of the very issues with which men and women have wrestled since our ancestors first expressed themselves in words.]
For example, his observation that “[h]uman sexual desire . . . has an element of fantasy that distinguishes it from the thoughtless sexual appetites of other animals” applies to gay people as well as straight people.
Finally, Kronman reminds us in of the need for spirit in a age of science. Our numerous technological advances do indeed improve our material condition, but they frequently leave us empty, failing to fulfill the spiritual longings of our age, indeed, would fail to fulfill the spiritual longings of any age. As the humanities no longer even pretend to offer that fulfillment, fundamentalist religious institutions, churches and synagogues, are filling the void. These “movements all propose a common cure: the restoration of God to His rightful place, and the demotion of man who has usurped it.”
Kronman faults “cosmopolitan observers” from deriding and scorning these movements:
But their smugness prevents them from grasping the source and magnitude of the crisis of meaning these religious movements address, and from seeing that it is a crisis in which they too are caught, along with those whose spiritual yearnings they mock.
Had humanities professors not undermined the importance of the ideas inherent in the works studied in their own disciplines, students might not need turn to fundamentalist churches to consider the fundamental questions of living.
Kronman believes that a “revival of the humanities” would allow students (and presumably professors themselves):
. . . to reclaim their commitment to the human spirit without the dogmatic assumptions that religion demands. It would give them a platform from which to launch a vigorous and spiritually serious counteroffensive against the fundamentalist movements of our day, which at the moment represent the only serious response to the crisis of meaning whose pervasive presence in our technological civilization makes itself manifest in the debates about religion and science that stir such passions today.
Lacking this commitment, humanities departments lose their importance in the life of colleges and universities and to the lives of those who study there.By distancing themselves from considering the meaning of live, humanities professors make it easier for fundamentalist churches to appeal to college and university students.
There is much more that I could say about this book, indeed, much about its importance to gay people, how a true study of the humanities can benefit us and improve our social standing and how the current study of the humanities, while designed to include us, in some ways serves to perpetuate our isolation. But, I realize I have already gone on longer than I had intended when I set out to write this piece.
Even so, I keep finding passages that I had meant to quote. This book addresses an issue with which I have wrestled many times over the past two decades, how to promote a serious study of the desires, the questions the conflicts which confront the heroes of myth and legend and the characters in great works of literature so they may inspire us in our everyday lives. And to consider the meaning of the images of the visual arts and poetry. And the ideas in philosophy.
Kronman offers an important book which should be mandatory reading for every professor of humanities at every post-secondary institution in this country. Hopefully, this book will cause them to ask why it is they have chosen a profession which requires them to teach literature, art and ideas to future bankers, lawyers, doctors, politicians and other professionals to whose careers, the liberal arts seem irrelevant.
At times, Kronman repeats himself overmuch, particularly in the middle three chapters. For those not much interested in the history of the American university, I would recommend skimming the second and third chapters.
Despite its flaws, this is an excellent book — and an important one. In age where every new day seems to bring a new scientific breakthrough, a new technological advance, we could all benefit from confronting the great questions of life, ideas explored in mythology and in great works of literature. For as we wrestle with these ideas, we may wonder why with scientific knowledge “greater than ever before,” earlier ages, in the view of Anthony Kronman (and this blogger), “knew more about humanity than we do.”
Reading his book could serve as the first step to recapturing that knowledge.
For those of us with fond memories of our Williams education, particularly those of us who majored (or took a number of courses) in the humanities, this reminds us why those years were so well spent. And we should return to some of the works we studied in that happiest period of our lives to inspire us as those years recede ever further into our past. What better tribute could we pay to our alma mater, then to read a book by one of her sons which reminds us of the value of our studies.
For this book reminds us that our studies in the humanities do have a meaning which transcends those stimulating exchanges we had in our undergraduate days. It wasn’t just the chance to talk about great works with other intelligent people, but to see in these works reflections of our lives and to find in them visions of how we could better live them if we but considered the ideas and images contained in their pages.
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