There are questions so big they’re almost laughable. What is the meaning of life? for instance. We’ve been grappling with that one ever since Adam and Eve saw the first exit sign. Our modern technology promises many blessings, but a GPS of life-direction is not among them. In diligent distraction and frenzied concentration, we juggle a hundred indecisions and measure out our lives with coffee spoons.
Still, the biggest questions of life don’t go away. Who am I, and what do I care about? Who do I want to be, and what should I care about? And¯above all¯why? College was once thought to be an appropriate time for us to first take up such considerations, but most students these days graduate without the answers. And often without even the questions.
Or so, at least, claims Anthony T. Kronman. In his recent book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life , the former dean of Yale’s law school traces what has gone wrong. With increased specialization and a scientific ethos, he notes, professors churn out knowledge like never before. Sensitive to diversity in its countless facets, they see the world with uniform open-mindedness.
But still, writes Kronman, "at the very heart of our civilization, with its vast powers of control, there is an emptiness that science has created and cannot fill." If our universities are to have a future, he argues, they must recover their end: They must once again prompt students to ask and answer life’s core questions. The humanities depend upon it. Humanity does too.
With more than six thousand colleges and universities in the United States, and courses taught in subjects as wide ranging as wine tasting, wedding planning, and liturgical dance, it’s hard to say anything comprehensive about American higher education. Diversity may be the only universal among our universities. But in the beginning it was not so. Harvard, founded by a Puritan minister in the mid-seventeenth century, sought to be a "City on the Hill" under the proud motto Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae . An heir to the long scholastic tradition of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard had its students read and recite the classical authors. They learned the intricacies of theology and the Bible, and, when they graduated, they took with them the minds and manners of the Christian gentleman. Like most schools founded before the Civil War, Harvard aimed to shape society by first shaping its students’ souls.
The nineteenth century, however, uprooted this ideal. Yes, the Enlightenment had left its mark, and ideals of unfettered rationality began pushing aside archaic dogma about man’s place in a divinely ordained universe. Kronman glosses over this minor ideological shift as inevitable, irreversible, and ultimately good. Scientific discoveries were influential too, he concedes, and gradually new subjects entered the curriculum and less-than-ancient authors joined the canon.
The real shift, however, was methodological. Shamed or inspired by German research universities of the Berlin model, American higher education converted to the vision of original scholarship. Laboratories began competing with libraries as cradles of knowledge, and the scientific ideals of objectivity, utility, and productivity became the measuring sticks for all academic work.
Certainly, philosophy, theology, and literature were weakened by the apparently embarrassing comparison to strict science. But the humanities were already in bad shape. The romantic emphasis on personal uniqueness had undermined the belief that universal ideas are conveyed in great texts. Perennial themes about nature and human nature looked like the furniture of grandma’s attic, but the endless stream of facts surrounding each age and author appeared fresh and promising. The nineteenth century, we were repeatedly told, was the era of the factory worker and the assembly line. And since the generalist has no place in any fact-accruing business, the university must emulate the pin factory.
And so the disciplines multiplied, the specialties emerged, and the once-cohesive worldview of the humanities faded, carrying away with it the deep questions college was supposed to teach.
Not everywhere, of course. Realizing the need to educate students in "the art of living," "the spirit of learning," "the best that has been thought and said," many of the older universities retained or reinstated a remnant of their old curricula as core requirements and humanities sequences. Shortly after the Second World War, both Harvard and Yale established programs with the goal, they said, of intellectually defending the values of civilization¯liberty, democracy, human dignity¯for which so many had just given their lives. Where religious convictions and a Christian worldview had once ordered the university’s mission, secular humanism now stepped in.
Secular humanism , Kronman explains, describes the "conviction that it is possible to explore the meaning of life in a deliberate and organized way even after its religious foundations have been called into doubt." But secular humanism is more, he thinks, than a religion of the ruins. It demands that we wrestle with the classic works of the Western tradition, from ancient ideas of the ordered state and soul to modern conceptions of creative freedom. It draws the student into the great conversation of civilization "as a respectful but not subservient latecomer . . . who has much to learn but also something to add."
There are real theoretical obstacles buried in here, but, even on its own terms, secular humanism faced problems. Within the university, the push toward scientific standards of research increasingly circumscribed and compartmentalized the humanities. More devastating, however, was the pressure of political correctness, with its ideals of diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism. Kronman spends a substantial portion of Education’s End exposing these tendencies and fighting back in the name of secular humanism.
The ideal of diversity emerged, he suggests, with the civil rights movement, when universities recognized the justice and educational advantage of a broad student population. In the end, however, affirmative action constrained rather than freed. Authors and students alike were reduced to being delegates of ethnic, gender, or socio-economic factions.
And this, Kronman thinks, is where questions about life’s meaning were lost¯in debates about racial hegemony, patriarchal oppression, and the biases of Western thought. Certainly, exposure to Asian and African and South American works can be good. Blame the history of ideas, blame the lack of technology, blame camel trains or pirates or stormy seas, but most non-Western works, "except occasionally and peripherally . . . have not been part of the conversation that constitutes the civilization of the West."
Our universities, in other words, need an intellectual first language, and we find it in the Western canon. When we affirm human rights, individual freedom, toleration, democratic government, and the scientific spirit, it is not because they were taught by dead white males but because they encompass something universal and true. These are the concepts that allow us to understand and engage our globalized world: "Globalization is modernization," Kronman asserts, "and modernization is Westernization."
Education’s End is bold in its assessment of the modern age and its critique of American academia. It narrates the evolution of higher education in this country by explaining how ideas come to life¯and are put to death¯in the university. But is this story accurate?
Kronman gives us little hard evidence beyond his own experience as a student at Williams College and a professor at Yale¯no summary of other schools’ undergraduate requirements, no proof that questions about man’s nature and purpose go untouched in the standard American classroom. Still, his historical survey and anecdotal evidence touch a nerve. Every teacher knows¯or ought to know¯that our educational system has grown thin and antiseptic.
The question, of course, is whether Kronman is right: Can a renewal of secular humanism really provide the solution? Faith and study were once openly integrated in higher education. Look at the founding mottos of the Ivy League schools: In Deo Speramus, Vox Clamantis in Deserto, Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae . Together, college and church sought to form minds and hearts.
The blade of Enlightenment rationalism severed that union, so that now ultimate questions fall primarily under the rule of religion. And a dangerous, tyrannical rule that is, Kronman claims: "No religion can be pluralist in the deep and final sense that secular humanism is. No religion can accept the proposition that there are incommensurably different answers to the question of life’s meaning." Moreover, every religion demands a "sacrifice of the intellect," an acquiescence to powers beyond reason. In noble contrast, "secular humanism investigates, interrogates, takes with utmost seriousness" the fundamental beliefs of religion, but ultimately it "refuses to embrace" them. In short, Kronman’s idea of humanism isn’t really secular; it is secularist.
The critique of religion in Education’s End could be debated on many points, but Kronman doesn’t need me or you, or even John Paul’s profoundly humanist Fides et Ratio , to do the debating. Just look at the classic works of literature, philosophy, theology: Read St. Paul’s letters , with their metaphor of the Mystical Body, or Dante’s Paradiso , with its glimmer of the wisdom beyond human understanding. Study Augustine’s Confessions ¯the battle of a restless heart¯and reflect on the paradox of liberating faith. Witness as Milton justifies the ways of God in Paradise Lost and grieve with Adam and Eve as they go their solitary way. Kronman tells us what his freshman read, and all these masterpieces are among them.
Education’s End asks how the modern university can attain its purpose of guiding students in a secular age. Kronman’s answer is clear and persuasive: Students need to enter the conversation of civilization, to engage the greatest human questions. Ultimately, though, the identity of the university is not what’s at stake; it’s the identity of students¯the purpose of their lives. And when each of these students asks, "What is the meaning of my life?" secularist Kronman will not answer. Fortunately, even unwittingly, he points to those who will.
The greatest human questions may not need God or religion. But if Paul and Augustine, Dante and Milton, are right, the greatest human answers do.
Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things .