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Education’s End, Chapter 2, “Secular Humanism”

In the second chapter of the book, Tony Kronman gives us a 53 page (pp.37-90) summary of the three phases of the life of the humanities in American higher education and he certainly doesn’t leave the reader in suspense about his assessment of the current relationship between the humanities as taught and the meaning of life.  

It has been stripped of its legitimacy as a question that teachers of the humanities feel they may properly and competently address with their students in a formal program of instruction. It has been exiled from the classroom and kicked out of school, so that today it survives only in private, in pianissimo, in the extracurricular lives of teachers and students, even those in liberal arts programs whose distinctive purpose presupposes the vital importance of this question itself (p.45)     

Phase 1, which I like to call “The Christian Gentleman Phase”, started in 1636 at that other college at the Eastern end of Route 2. The Puritans were quite keen on education, but it was much more focuses on shaping the character of their students than producing original scholarship. Everybody pretty much memorized the same thing (Latin, Greek, the classics, the Bible), and were to use these works and the men in them as sterling examples of behavior. (Given my limited knowledge of the classical world, I do wonder if Aristophanes, Catullus, Terrence or Petronius got much play in these classrooms. Also, the lives of Alcibiades and Caligula were probably what financial analysts like to call contrary indicators) There wasn’t much distinction between areas of study, the faculty were the staff, and generally the president of the college taught the senior capstone of the course. (More on this in a moment) Dr. Kronman lays out the two assumptions that girded this world.

 1)    Teachers have an unassailable authority on matters moral thanks to their experience.

2)    Every branch of study is connected to everything else, so don’t leave out anything.

Williams was, at this time, more or less a little po-dunk college out in the sticks of the Berkshires, but it did have one Mark Hopkins of “the log” fame, who pretty much lived up to all of this. He was the president of Williams, he taught the capstone course and it is fair to say that he was much more interested in the character of his students than their (or his to be honest) intellectual accomplishments. 

His (Hopkins’) triumph as one of the old-time college presidents must be attributed, in no small degree, to the success with which he refused to permit learning to assume an ascending importance in his life. (p.27, Mark Hopkins and the Log, Yale, 1956)   


I must admit that the thought of a 19th century Christian madrassa came to mind while reading this part, though the greater tension was probably between the education itself, based on the liberal arts, those subject fit for the study of “free” men, which meant the gentry in Europe, and the useful arts, for the study of artisans, which was championed by Ben Franklin and probably quite a bit more useful in the development of the continent. This leads to the second phase in the life of the humanities, “The Secular Humanist Phase”. 

As the 19th century progressed, America saw the ideal of the German research university transferred to its soil (Dr. Kronman will go into more detail on this in the third chapter. Here’s a bit of foreshadowing, the research ideal has a lot to answer for). Cornell, Johns Hopkins, even Harvard got the fever under President Eliot, and, boom, out goes character formation as the goal of a college education and in comes learning and scholarship. The explosion of knowledge in the 2nd half of the 19th century put to bed any idea that a student could come out in four years with a grasp on the totality of knowledge, which meant that some things had to be left out, which eventually led to the ideas of majors and electives and to the formation of distinct academic disciplines. 

If we use Williams nomenclature and say that knowledge was being divided into divisions 1,2 and 3, then 2 and 3 were prospering in the new world thanks to their use of the scientific method. Div 1, however, doesn’t use the method, so it had to pay its way in this new world by continuing to talk about the purpose and value of human life. What separated these new humanists from the Mark Hopkins type? Well, each believed there is a common human nature, but the secularists: 

1) Thought that a common human nature did not preclude pluralistic beliefs about the meaning of life.

2) Thought that human nature, though open and malleable, still followed a discrete number of life paths (warrior, artist, priest, etc) and that these paths could be studied.

3) Thought that transcendence could no longer chalked up to the supernatural, but to rather Platonic values that were larger than any one person. 

The great conversation among western thinkers, from Biblical to current time is essentially how each person was trying to sort out how their lives and thoughts related to these timeless values. Unfortunately, while the age of secular humanism was advancing, forces were gathering that led to Phase 3, The Death of the Dead White Male (my terminology, not Dr. Kronman’s) 

In Phase 3, the Great Conversation itself is attacked as the limits it proscribes: a singular core human nature, a limited number of patterns to human life, and an elite, though slowly growing canon, are held up as illusory and masked expressions of power used to marginalize other cultures and ideals. This, accompanied by the spread of the research ideal from the sciences into the humanities, sounded the death knell for the search for life’s meaning in the humanities department. Chapters 3 and 4 will go into this in far more detail. 

I would have liked Dr. Kronman to spend a bit of time talking about how this change in higher ed mirrored the economic changes going on in the country as a whole, since Phase 1 to Phase 2 rather neatly follows the model of artisan/apprentice work in antebellum America to the rise of the factory and mass production in the second half of the 19th century and Phase 2 to Phase 3 from mass production/consumption to customized production/consumption in the second half of the twentieth century. Were the humanities just following the money?