Today’s colleges and universities have abandoned their most important task, en masse, says Anthony Kronman in his recent Boston Globe article. What are the prospects for getting back in the saddle?
“The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for” is the most important question for young people to be educated about. Yet “America’s colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life’s most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom.” Kronman is right about this, of course. College educators’ standard position is, ‘That’s not my job.’
Yet the college years are crucial years for students to work out their answer to this question. If their high school math, science, writing skills, and so forth are not good enough preparation for the adult world, on the question of what to live for their pre-college preparation is likely to be even less adequate. If they do already have the kernel of a good answer, they still will need support and stimulation in the process of refining and developing it to respond to their new abilities, opportunities, and the new knowledge they are gaining. Yet this is a question studiously avoided in nearly all their coursework. It should be little surprise, then, if college educators are disappointed with where their students’ priorities lie. The students know very well that on the most important questions their coursework has little to say.
Kronman insists that things need not be so. There is a rich tradition addressing this question in the humanities. Higher education has been thrown off-course by the idea that universities’ main purpose is specialized research, and teachers of the humanities need to reclaim their “old role” as “guides to the meaning of life”.
The trick, of course, is to do this without really doing it the way it was done in the old days. The old way, after all, was religious, and relied to a large extent on religious authority. Colleges were founded by religious groups to educate “Christian gentlemen, schooled in the classics and devoted to God.” In Kronman’s view, however, to let religious conviction guide on the meaning of life is “disturbing and dangerous,” and anyway, well, it won’t fly in today’s academy.
Kronman is quite optimistic that college can lead students to explore the meaning of life in “an organized way”, but without relying on religious answers–indeed, as “an alternative to religion”. The religious answers are the “wrong answers”, though to the “right questions”. I strongly agree that colleges need to take up the big questions, and I am eager to cultivate “a richer and more open debate about ultimate values”, but I do not share Kronman’s optimism about his program.
Some of my doubts:
1) There is much more than the research ideal behind higher education’s avoidance of the big questions. At least as deep is an ideal of autonomy, and a broad suspicion of authority, with regard to moral questions. To present oneself as a guide to the meaning of life is morally suspicious in today’s academic ethos. And if a Ph.D. program does not involve moral training, then where would an academic acquire this authority?
2) Today’s pluralistic student populations make it very difficult to address the big questions, practically, in the classroom. One can rely on very little in the way of shared assumptions. As a result, conversations tend to either remain at a very basic and undeveloped level, or proceed only by bracketing the question of what students actually believe. Proceeding into a serious subject matter, seriously examining specific, developed answers, leads to sharp and emotional disagreements, and a class cannot tolerate much of this while maintaining the welcoming environment needed for free inquiry and frank discussion. Bracketing the question of what students actually believe, on the other hand, cripples the process and encourages the habit of taking nothing seriously, a habit students are generally quite good enough at already.
3) Even supposing that the meaning of life is not purely personal–i.e. we can objectively establish some views on the meaning of life to be objectively better than others–for students to explore their own reasons for taking a certain view remains a very personal business, well beyond the bounds of usual classroom relationships, and for it to be brought routinely in bounds would require deep changes in the way college communities function.
4) Supposing all of these formal obstacles to exploring the meaning of life in a classroom can be overcome, what of the content? Religion is clearly out as a serious source of answers in Kronman’s program. But what is left? Kronman refers to one exemplar of his ideal of secular spirituality, Alexander Meiklejohn. But one not-terribly-famous exemplar does not a humanistic tradition make. Other decidedly non-religious sources on the meaning of life include Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Richard Rorty, but these figures have already been working hard for us, at least in English departments, and they don’t seem to have carried off Kronman’s revolution. The fact is that religion has been an indispensible source of spiritual energy and guidance throughout human history. The movement to reinvent human culture without relying on God is too new to provide a robust curriculum, and in most nations remains a minority movement within a mainly religious population. Even thinkers like Kant who tried to found human values on human reason have leaned heavily on the ideals of their culture, strongly shaped by religion. The humanist culture of education that Meiklejohn represents, operating in secular institutions but still pursuing the big questions, is wedged into essentially the first half of the 20th century in Kronman’s story.
Of course, Kronman mentions thinkers like Augustine, Aristotle, and Dante, whose work relies heavily on a conception of God, as part of an exemplary curriculum. How one is to take them seriously as interlocutors while keeping religion out of bounds, though, is a mystery to me.
5) The fact is that most students are religious to one degree or another, and will remain so. To have a serious conversation with them about the meaning of life while leaving God out would require some very awkward mental gymnastics. I just don’t see it working. Of course, there have been more than a few academics who have hoped that, if they proceeded as though God can be ignored, or in some cases actively worked against religious belief, they would eventually be able to converse with a safely secularized population about the most important questions. The great strength of religious movements both in Western society and elsewhere despite several decades of this suggest that this strategy will not work. Indeed, the exclusion of religion from most of academic culture has fed antagonism to the academy, and has probably led to a decrease in the amount of reason circulating in the public discourse of faith.
So, what to do? Do we give up on addressing the meaning of life in education, and surrender the field to Hollywood, anti-intellectual religionists, and beer commercials? No! At least, I hope not! But to seriously explore the meaning of life in an academic context will require taking religion seriously as a source of answers. Not the only source. Not a source whose answers are imposed by professorial authority. But a source whose answers are taken as seriously and explored as carefully as secular answers are, in the classroom.
Are academics up to this task? Kronman for one apparently isn’t. Kronman writes as though any religion today is “fundamentalism” and hence something intellectuals will naturally “mock and despise”. More broadly, there is not much ground for hope when to pass for educated one need know little more about religion than one reads in the newspaper. Is there any prospect that academics will be up to this task soon? What would it take?