Thanks to FROSH mom (an anonymous mother of a current Williams student) for providing the below discussion of Chapter 3: The Research Ideal from Education’s End by Anthony Kronman ’68 for our CGCL.


Believing in the merits of brevity, I have tried to provide as concise a summary as possible. I have also attempted to supply questions that can lead to discussion regardless of how well you have digested the material.

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By the end of Chapter Two, Kronman has set the premise that the tenets of secular humanism were being replaced by a different set of values. Chapter Three opens with a spirited description of the “scholarly ideal” by social historian Max Weber, and its ultimate place of prestige within our institutions of higher learning.

Kronman then steps back in time, to show us how this “modern research ideal” and “specialization” became the ruling principles of academics. He begins with the German universities of the early 19th century and the surprising role of the Romantics, in particular, Gottfried Herder and his predecessor, J.G. Hamann in challenging the established work of Voltaire, their argument being, that he “ underestimates the differences that distinguish one culture from another.”

He elucidates, “This new, romantically inspired view had a revolutionary effect on the field of classical studies. It encouraged a more historical approach to the subject, placed greater weight on the knowledge of facts,” and required “specialization” as a guiding principle of study.

Kronman theorizes that this ideal asks that the student accept himself as part of a “multigenerational enterprise”, one that embraces what he calls the “ethic of supersession” which “demands that the research scholar acknowledge, even relish, the prospect that his own original contribution will be superseded in turn” by the next scholar.

I’d like to add here, that Kronman’s explanation of specialization is not a new one. Inspired by a reference Ken made a couple of days ago, I was intrigued to find a very similar description within Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life”. Adapted by D. Weinstein, it says:

“In addition to more liberty, the nineteenth century demanded the functional specialization of man and his work; this specialization makes one incomparable to another, and each of them indispensable to the highest extent. However, this specialization makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others.”

Kronman then goes on to justify the ensuing establishment of universities as the most practical way to support this kind of study, and the importance of the German concept of “Bildung” in endowing this new ideal of specialized research with “moral and spiritual significance.” After all, scholars would need incentive in order to enthusiastically take their place in a “timeless venture” in which “the researcher’s own mortality has little or no meaning.”

He concedes, “In the natural sciences, the research ideal has proved remarkably fruitful.”…. a “productive fit”.

But Kronman’s argument is that “In the humanities, by contrast, the benefits of research are less uniform or certain”, that the research ideal “draws our attention away from the whole of our lives and requires that we focus on some small aspect of them instead.” He claims that it “made the question of the meaning of life appear unprofessional—a question that no responsible teacher of the humanities could henceforth take seriously.” The result being, “humanities teachers who judge things from this point of view undermine the unique authority they once enjoyed as guides to the meaning of life.”

Most alarmingly, he concludes Chapter Three with, “It has left teachers in these disciplines with a sense of inferiority and no way back to their lost authority. It has left them in an anxious void, without a secure sense of their own special role in higher education.”

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Although any relevant comments are welcome, those based on your own educational experience would be especially interesting.

1. Do you agree with Kronman, that the Research Ideal, and specialization, are responsible for the devaluing of questions and discussions about the meaning of life?

2. Within your own education, did you feel an absence and/or avoidance of discussions re the meaning of life?

3. Are teachers of the humanities experiencing a feeling of inferiority; no secure sense of their own special role in higher education? Have they lost authority they once had?

4. Would it improve higher education, to make available, a curriculum that addresses these questions?

5. Does an institution that embraces an alternative program, (one which addresses these questions), have better success in preparing the student for life?

(examples; St. Johns College, Reed College, the Directed Studies program at Yale)

6. Did Secular Humanism provide a better setting for the teachings of the humanities?

7. Lastly, and more broadly, can you provide any evidence, and/or compelling argument for or against Kronman’s claims?

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