Tue 22 Jan 2008
Anthony Kronman ’68 wants to know why you haven’t been participating in our Winter Study seminar, our cross-generational community of learning, on his book, Education’s End.
For day 5, we have comments from Williams trustee Frederick Lawrence `77 on chapter 4: Political Correctness. Note that Dean Lawrence has kindly provided an overview of Kronman’s argument, so feel free to chime in even if you have not done the reading. It is Winter Study after all . . .
Education’s End: toward the Neo-Classical Academy
Frederick M. Lawrence
In Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, Tony Kronman asks, indeed implores, the humanities to return to their task of not only asking the meaning of life question, but leading students through the exploration of this vital question. We cannot help but think of all of those “shaggy dog” jokes of the seeker who strives to find the one who will answer this question for him. At the end of this posting, I will provide my own favorite version of this joke, one that in fact is less punch line than pedagogy and one that I think Kronman would appreciate.
Tony Kronman and I share much in common. We are both graduates of Williams, we are both trained as lawyers, and we are both law professors who became law school Deans. Of perhaps greater significance for this essay, we are also both former students of the great Grant Gilmore (Tony was also Gilmore’s colleague on the Yale Law School faculty). Gilmore was a profound influence on a number of fields of law and jurisprudence. Among his other insights was the way in which he situated the development of contact law in the movement between the classical and the romantic, which we associate more typically with the arts. It is in this light that I understand Education’s End as a call for a robust “neo-classicism” in the humanities. It is call that is made with erudition, passion, and power.
Kronman celebrates Secular Humanism, the school of thought that dominated the Humanities, and American colleges and universities generally, during the century between the Civil War and the 1960’s. We can think of this as the “Classical” period. It followed on the first period of American higher education, from its founding in the early 17th century through the next two and one-half centuries, which was characterized by inculcation of universal and Divinely based truths through the study of ancient texts. Although Kronman rightly describes this as a classical exercise – based in the study of classical texts – I hope he would accept my characterization of this as the “Gothic” period, founded on faith and acceptance rather than skepticism and searching. It is with the advent of Secular Humanism that the search for meaning does not, or need not, take place in the search for God’s single will. Rather, the search for meaning requires the student to insert him or herself into the on-going cultural discussion of the meaning of life, what Kronman, borrowing from Michael Oakeshott, calls the “great conversation.” This conversation is inherently a human exercise but it is not ultimately subjective and individualistic. It transcends any individual and searches for a transcendent, albeit human structure. In this Classical period, the role of both student and professor change from the Gothic period. The student is no longer mere recipient of past knowledge; he or she is a seeker for a path. The professor is no longer a mere transmitter of past answers; her or she is a guide, not of a single path but of the “landmarks on the landscape of life” that the Humanities can provide (p. 80)
The transition from Secular Humanism to the Research Ideal can then be seen as a move from the classical to the romantic. The Research Ideal, grounded in the German romantic emphasis on the individual’s striving for a kind of cultural self-perfection, or self-cultivation, again made for profound changes in the task of both student and professor. The professor is now not a guide of a path of landmarks but a seeker him or herself for new and individualistic answers. The Classical teacher, like the Gothic teacher, was a transmitter of knowledge, although a different kind of knowledge. The Romantic teacher is a creator of knowledge. And although the Romantic student is a seeker of answers, as was the Classical student, it is for highly subjective individualistic answers, not transcendent answers that seek, even it not ever fully to reach, objectivity. In the Romantic Research Ideal, participating in the “great conversation” is less important than the striving for an individual answer. In this world, the professor no longer is guide as the student searches for the meaning of life. The professor is a co-seeker for something both smaller and more subjective than the meaning of life.
This brings us to Chapter 4 on “Political Correctness.” Deprived of its key role from both the Gothic period of providing the answers to the meaning of life and the Classical period of providing the landmarks on the path that each student travels in searching for a answer, the Humanities is ripe for the assault of a radical critique to the entire enterprise. The search for the meaning of life becomes something more like a “search” for the “meaning” of life. Perhaps even “life” must go in quotation marks. Kronman identifies three key aspects of Political Correctness: diversity, multi-culturalism and constructivism. Each begins with a powerful truth than when employed crudely and unreflectively undermines the critical function of the Humanities and liberal arts education generally.
Diversity is based in the essential recognition that at the contemporary college and university, all must be free to come, and to study, and to bring their own backgrounds to the process of searching for meaning. But crude diversity drives to a kind of conformity of political correctness that is ironically more similar to the single answer associated with the Gothic period than it is with the Classic period in which plural views of the good were to be tolerated: there was “room for the soldier who values honor above equality, for the poet who believes that beauty is more important than justice, for the thinker who regards with disinterest or contempt the concerns of political life – as well as for the moral crusader devoted to liberal values.” (p. 156)
Multi-culturalism is based on the essential recognition that in a global society there are a wide range of cultural traditions and backgrounds that deserve a hearing. But crude multi-culturalism drives to a kind of radically individualistic dilettantism in which the student or professor feels free to borrow as wide a range of views as seem to fit, without situating those views in the internal dialogue of that culture, over centuries of development and internal critique. Put somewhat simply, multi-culturalism helpfully, perhaps essentially, recognizes that the world and for that matter American society is indeed multi-cultural today; crude multi-culturalism seeks impossibly for individuals themselves to be multi-cultural, rather than products of a particular culture who seek to learn from others but necessarily to bring these teachings to their own cultural conversation. Perhaps “impossibly” and “necessarily” are too strong. But a truly multi-cultural individual would be an unusually learned and gifted person, a cultural version of a truly bilingual individual. Whatever else is true, this description does not capture the majority of students and professors of the Humanities today.
Finally constructivism recognizes, as did the Secular Humanism of the Classical Period, that the search for meaning is an unavoidably human task. But crude constructivism deprives us of any ordering among human ideas. None is better or worse than the others; each is a product of humanly produced hierarchy of values and stems only from the imposition of power by some over others.
As a result of the three prongs of Political Correctness, Kronman argues, the central question of the meaning of life has been driven out of the academy leaving it to religious institutions that, even if tolerant, are necessarily non-pluralistic and non-rational, in short fundamentalist. (Kronman may be giving short shrift to the various efforts to build liberal non-fundamentalist faith systems that establish a rich “we” that does not require the denigration of the “they”, but that is another essay for another time.) The Humanities, he says, have a vital role to play in reestablishing the academy as the site for the search for the meaning of life. This is a call for a return to Secular Humanism, a neo-Classicism.
In the neo-Classical academy, students like those of the Classical period will search for a transcendent notion of the good, based on taking part in the great conversation of their own cultural tradition. But they will now do so along with the recognition that there are other cultural traditions as well. This recognition will in turn be tempered by the awareness of the need for individual “rootedness;” one participates in a multi-cultural world aware of ones own membership in a particular cultural tradition with its own internal conversation. In the neo-Classical academy, students like those of the Classical period, will recover a vocabulary, even if a tentative and skeptical one, of better and worse ideas. But the success of an idea will be measured not merely in its acceptance by Western standards but by its “universal validity and applicability.” (p. 176) Professors of Humanities in the neo-Classical academy will teach the landmarks of the great conversation, and bring to bare other conversations as they can. Together they will search for the meaning of life, testing ideas against the exacting standard of “universal validity and applicability.” One is reminded of Gandhi’s famous quip when asked for his views on Western or British civilization. “It would,” he said, “have been a good idea.” The very power of Gandhi’s remark – indeed of his philosophy generally – is that he measured Western civilization against universal standards: Western civilization per se measured up well, but the West itself often measured up poorly against this very standard.
I promised my own favorite answer to the story of the seeker who searches for the meaning of life. Typically in these jokes, the seeker has gone from teacher to teacher and place to place to find the answer to the question of the meaning of life. At long last, the seeker reaches the final seer who can provide the answer. In one version, this great teacher says, “you have such a lovely question, why spoil it with my answer?” Of course this response says too much, because the question will be spoiled only if the answer purports to end the inquiry altogether. If instead the answer is to provide the context for the learning, or perhaps best put, the context for the continued asking and striving, then the question has not been spoiled at all. Instead we have reached the precise reason for Mark Hopkins and the student to sit down on that log.
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