Law professors are the last intellectuals. While most academics grind away in their disciplines, the folks in the law schools seem to have the confidence and freedom to think and write about things far removed from the technical world of law. Stephen Carter at Yale writes novels. Alan Dershowitz at Harvard is a member of the book-a-year club. Richard Posner is now a judge, but he remains the paradigmatic law professor: a man to write books with theories about everything.
So it comes as no surprise that a law professor has produced an intelligent, accessible, and pointed criticism of the cultural wasteland of the contemporary university. Anthony T. Kronman’s title says it all, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life . As Amanda Shaw noted in her earlier review for First Things , it’s a book not lacking in confidence and ambition.
A long-time dean of Yale Law School¯which led to an exchange in First Things ’ pages back in 1997¯he stepped down in 2004 to teach a great-books program at Yale. From that perch, he sees a central problem with higher education today: It’s not higher. “I have watched the question of life’s meaning,” he writes, “lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and honored place.” In other words, students at places such as Yale learn lots of things, no doubt many important and useful things. But they don’t learn how to think carefully about how to live.
It’s a shame, because the answers are not obvious. As Kronman points out, Aristotle gave good reasons for thinking that only the wealthy can be wise. It’s an arresting and challenging thought for Americans. Our combination of Christian and modern sensibilities rebel against the idea. But the arguments are out there, and not just in Aristotle. The entire plot of Henry James’ late novel The Wings of the Dove turns on the need young talent has for wealth. At a more mundane level, even our officially egalitarian political culture is sometimes romanced by the idea of patrician virtue. So it’s not always and altogether clear that privilege and inequality are harmful to the common good.
Kronman wants undergraduate education to engage these kinds of questions, but the current trend is in the other direction. There is, of course, political correctness. University faculty don’t actually have very many true believers, and the few who exist can be easily demolished by Roger Kimball and harried by David Horowitz. Yet they continue to exercise remarkable influence. Kronman half suggests the real reason. Goofy political correctness amounts to a protective belt of extremism around fairly conventional liberal pieties about equality and inclusive social justice. It’s not that Princeton or Yale or Harvard wants students to become post-colonial theorists. What the institutions really want is to protect the students from thoughts that might challenge the liberal status quo. The PC fringe provides the pit bull patrol.
Thus the current situation, which Kronman describes with accuracy: “Today’s diversity is so limited that one might with justification call it a sham diversity, whose real goal is the promotion of moral and spiritual uniformity instead.” With ethnically cleansed course assignments, and Women Studies, African-American Studies, Hispanic Studies, Native American Studies, and other allocations of academic patronage, to say nothing of the rarified realms of so-called critical theory, students in the humanities are pretty well insulated from the possibility of actual critical discussion of the mainstream liberal ideas that are taken for granted.
Kronman is right to point out that political correctness is only part of the problem. What he calls “the research ideal” encourages humanists to imitate scientists. The problem is not merely specialization. Rather, the research ideal puts a premium on original discoveries, and this contradicts the basic role of humanistic study. Under the inspiration of the research ideal, Kronman observes, “a scholar does not aim to stand where his ancestors did. His goal is not to join but supersede them and his success is measured not by the proximity of his thoughts to theirs but by the distance between them—by how far he has progressed beyond his ancestors’ inferior state of knowledge.”
Kronman does not exaggerate the destructive influence of the research ideal. For many years, I was asked to report on my scholarly productivity. One question on the form asked, “What new contribution to knowledge did your scholarship make?” But that was exactly the wrong question. My job is to try to understand what has been taught and said in the past, not to come up with something “new.” (See Galatians 1:8!) And my vocation is not unique to teachers of theology. It’s comical to think of the professor who, after putting on his white lab coat, pronounces in a definitive tone that he has finally shown just why and how Aristotle was wrong about virtue. A true humanist seeks fluency not discovery.
Against the corruptive roles of political correctness and the research ideal, Kronman advocates what he calls secular humanism, which he boils down into three principles. First, we share a common condition, and therefore views and claims about the meaning of life from different times and cultures have relevance to our lives here and today. Second, we cannot create the meaning of our lives. We receive rather than invent the kinds of truths that make a difference. Third, however, this reception depends on us. We must choose from an irreducible pluralism of options. We must make our lives our own.
Kronman thinks his secular humanism conflicts with the educational ideals inspired by Christian faith. In the first place, he writes, “no religion can be pluralistic in the deep and final sense that secular humanism is.” The second supposed point of conflict concerns the use of reason. “Every religion,” he writes, “insists that at some point thinking is no longer adequate to the questions of life’s meaning, and that further progress can be made only by means other than thought.” In short, all religions, unlike secular humanism, are “fundamentalistic,” because, in the end, to have faith involves believing that something really is truth for all people, and that this truth cannot be proved, deduced, or decided by reason alone. This, he thinks, means that religions impose their truths rather than allowing for us to adopt them by way of an act of free, internal assent.
Kronman’s bark is loud, but the distinction between secular humanism and religion turns out to have very little bite. I don’t think I’m being especially subtle or profound by observing that if I choose from a menu of “incommensurably different answers to the question of life’s meaning,” then the result is a truth “for me”—something true because my personal deliberations and decisions have made it so. Such a view of truth contradicts one of the doctrines of secular humanism: that we do not make the meaning of our lives.
The second supposed contrast concerns the role of reason, but here again Kronman offers slogans that cannot be sustained. Faith, he says, moves us beyond “reason’s frontiers.” Of that I have no doubt. But what is the alternative? If reason alone were capable of guiding us toward an answer to the question of the meaning of life, then one would suppose that discussions of Aristotle and clarification of his arguments would clarify for all reasonable men and women the truth or falsity of his views about virtue. But we know this not to be the case. Some find themselves persuaded, others not. As Pascal observed long ago, “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”
The same lack of any real difference holds for Kronman’s presumption that only secular humanism makes room for genuine personal conviction. “No one else,” he writes, “can answer for me the question of what I should ultimately care about and why.” It’s a noble sentiment, and it turns out to be one expressed quite clearly in the Declaration on Religious Freedom affirmed at the Second Vatican Council.
Anthony Kronman has done us a good service. With plain-spoken and clear analysis, he shows us the perversity of contemporary elite education: Students are not directed toward intelligent discussion of the fundamental questions of how to live a fully human life. But he needs to overcome his clichés about religious belief. If he were to spend a little time reading John Henry Newman or the documents of the Second Vatican Council or the encyclicals of John Paul II, then he might discover that there is something called Christian humanism, which is actually more faithful to the supposed principles of secular humanism than his own honorable but confused views of conscience, belief, and truth.
R.R. Reno is features editor for First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman
Review by Amanda Shaw for First Things (October 16, 2007)