Taking On the Big Questions

September 24, 2007 | 48 comments
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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?

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48 Responses to Taking On the Big Questions

  1. Sue on September 24, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    I think for most students these days, college is nothing more than a prerequisite to a career. For good or ill, they aren’t interested in learning to think, they’re interested in learning a profession.

  2. Mark Hansen on September 24, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    All this ethical and intellectual bantering aside, I was raised that I went to college not to “discover truth” but to “get a good job”.

  3. Adam Greenwood on September 24, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Excellent post, Ben H.

    In my view, the basic unit of education is the university, not the classroom or academia as a whole. If Kronman’s project is to work, it needs a variety of institutions each institutionally comitted to some distinct account of secular meaning. Real educational diversity, in other words.

  4. Ben H on September 24, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Right, Sue, and the education system has been failing them on this score for a long time before they reach college. Otherwise maybe they wouldn’t be so jaded.

    But even given that attitude when they come in . . . how many of them want to learn calculus? How many want to write well? How many want to learn a foreign language or do lab research? But colleges require them to do these things. We should also require them to think carefully about the most important questions, as part of their preparation for functioning well in their careers–and in their lives generally.

    Sure, Mark, lots of people are told that. But how healthy is it to make people really good at getting things done, if they are not good at figuring out what is worth doing? Efficiency without ethics is a big problem.

  5. ronito on September 24, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    College is supposed to be about finding truth? Straight up? Get out of here. Everyone knows College is just boot camp for the professional world. Has been since I went to college will continue to be for generations to come, it’s not some scary new trend.

  6. Ardis Parshall on September 24, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    I remember a LOT of people asking me why I studied humanities and how was I going to earn a living with that? My answer was always that I wasn’t going to school for job training, I was learning how to live. It was by learning broad skills and ideals, not particular sets of facts or tasks, that has enabled me to reinvent my life two or three times, without having to go back to school for additional job training.

    I hate to pick on BYU — I like BYU — but it seems relevant to Ben’s post that earlier this month an announcement appeared on their website that BYU was eliminating its master’s program in history. At the same time, local news was very laudatory about the money being paid to BYU and one of its faculty members by Yoplait for developing a process to carbonate yogurt. Wildly profitable fizzy yogurt is celebrated; history, one of the university’s core reasons for being, one of the studies mandated by the D&C, one of mankind’s best ways of learning about itself and the meaning of life, is silently dumped. Go figure (and figure quickly, in case math is the next to go).

  7. TMD on September 24, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    Ronito, without personal offense–since I don\’t know anything about your own approach, as opposed to a description of a state of affairs–but I think that that is much of the problem with the way far too many people go about college, and why many of them learn nothing of worth. It\’s destructive of culture, the ability to appreciate beauty, serious and rigorous egangement with belief, etc. THe idea that the university is a mere technical school, or that it\’s main product should be techne (skill), is among the great dangers our society faces as a society and a culture that produces meaningful experiences for its members (particularly LDS society–BY wasn\’t just interested in people going to gets skills).

  8. Kevin Barney on September 24, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    Nice post, Ben. I don’t see how one can talk meaningfully about the meaning of life and ignore religion.

  9. ronito on September 24, 2007 at 5:39 pm

    TMD,
    Don’t look at me I majored in music.

    But, let’s be honest. This isn’t new pluralistic demon monster that’s suddenly happened upon us. When I went to college I was constantly asked, “Why are you majoring in music? Why not accounting? Engineering? Why throw away the education?”

    And now that I’m in the professional world I am constantly asked, “Why did you major in music? Why not accounting or engineering?” and “Why don’t you go and get a MBA?” I could try an explain that to me education is not job training.

    I’m just pointing out this isn’t a new trend. It’s been happening for a good long time. It was around when my father went to college, my brothers and me, and no doubt will be around when my children go to college.

  10. Steve Evans on September 24, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Ardis, I was under the impression that the graduate degree program in History at BYU had actually been dying for years now, and that very few (if any) students were a part of it. Your comment leaves the implication that this was some sort of nefarious economical calculus at play, and I am not sure there’s really any evidence to support that kind of implication.

  11. TMD on September 24, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Ronito-=-
    I’d say it’s growing, what with the increasing comercialization of often fraudulent universities like Phoenix (fraudulent in terms of having such low standards that one can get through without learning anything) and the way that education is being sold.

    But I went to a liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, so I guess have strong biases about what education should be like.

  12. Ardis Parshall on September 24, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    /sigh/ People are always finding unintended nefarious implications in my comments these days …

    I didn’t mean to suggest that, Steve, especially not that there was any direct tie between fizzy yogurt and canceled history programs. Only that the university (the ideal of a university, not BYU in particular — I only drew on them for an example) may be fading, just as outlined in the article Ben launches from. If “the meaning of life” is important, and if it’s important that universities help students find or form their meaning, I would prefer that such meaning came from religion — or history — than from personal financial profitability.

  13. Ben H on September 24, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    ronito, read the article. The change Kronman refers to happened vaguely from the 1860s to the 1960s. Colleges and universities are drastically different now than before. You decide if that’s “new”.

    Adam, I kind of agree. Students have an educational experience that is shaped more by an institution (including dorm life, student activities, etc.) than any given class, and classes have to be supported, or at least tolerated, by the institution. But universities are not independent agents for several reasons:
    a) They have to hire faculty from other institutions. Hiring too many of your own graduate students damages credibility and leads to inbreeding. But faculty are shaped mainly by their graduate programs, wouldn’t you agree?
    b) They have to have materials to teach from. It takes a lot of scholarship and other creative activity to build a strong curriculum, and that takes more than one faculty.
    c) Faculty research normally involves conversations with scholars scattered across a nation or a hemisphere.

  14. Ben H on September 24, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Ardis, I suspect the closing of the history program has a lot to do with the fact that universities aren’t independent. Another reason . . .
    d) They have to be able to place their students, or else the value of the program becomes questionable.
    My sense is that in any humanities discipline, at the moment, BYU has some doubts to overcome (and some internal issues to work out), and students interested in getting a PhD would do well to go elsewhere for the MA. So I am sad that the History MA program doesn’t seem to have been viable, but I don’t think it’s particularly for lack of idealism.

  15. California Condor on September 24, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Ardis,

    Try the yogurt then maybe you’ll be singing a different tune.

  16. Adam Greenwood on September 24, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    But universities are not independent agents for several reasons:
    a) They have to hire faculty from other institutions. Hiring too many of your own graduate students damages credibility and leads to inbreeding. But faculty are shaped mainly by their graduate programs, wouldn’t you agree?
    b) They have to have materials to teach from. It takes a lot of scholarship and other creative activity to build a strong curriculum, and that takes more than one faculty.
    c) Faculty research normally involves conversations with scholars scattered across a nation or a hemisphere.

    Those are all problems and may suggest why its easier to agree that the secular academic program will be not religious than to actually agree on a program. However, religious schools have managed to surmount these obstacles to one degree or another. They haven’t surmounted them completely and they haven’t succeeded at fully instantiating their distinct world views, but they’ve certainly done something. We’d be better off if there were at least a few more respectable schools representing distinct strains of secular thought.

  17. Bob on September 24, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    I don’t know: I went to college in the late 60s, when everyone was looking at their “navel’. “All You Need Is LOVE”. A Business major was looked down on. ROTC was mocked. No one gave a damn about their future job. “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Students were reading Nietzsche like Harry Potter!

  18. Julie M. Smith on September 24, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Perhaps this is terribly naive, but I’m wondering if we could acknowledge economic reality while still cultivating “the life of the mind” for undergrads. Is it as simple as requiring a humanities minor for all of those engineering and business majors?

    Bob, the ironic thing is that all of those 60s radicals ended up being 80s yuppies. How did that happen?

  19. Ray on September 24, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Julie, they grew up? (*wink*)

  20. BYU MA Student on September 24, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Ardis, Steve, and Ben-

    The History MA Program at BYU currently has roughly 20 students, approximately 10-13 of whom will continue on to pursue a PhD in History at another University. While Steve is correct (in #10) in pointing out that the program has “actually been dying for years now,” that doesn’t mean that there was not “some sort of nefarious economical calculus at play.” In fact, the “nefarious economical calculus at play” is largely the reason that the program has been going downhill for the last 10 or so years. The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and the “powers-that-be” in the History Department have refused to put the resources into making the MA program what it could (and some feel, that it _should_) be.

    A few faculty members proposed a revamping of the program, calling for an expanded budget and opening graduate survey courses up to assistant professors to teach, but the proposal was rejected. They were hoping to model the revamped MA program on that of Utah State, which has had some recent success as a good stepping stone to prestigious PhD programs. Ultimately, the faculty voted 18-17 in favor of axing the program. More than a few faculty members voted for axing the program precisely because BYU refused to put the necessary resources into making the MA experience what it could be.

  21. Steve Evans on September 24, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the clarification.

  22. Costanza on September 24, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    Even over the past 10 years of steady decline, the BYU History MA program has placed students at top PhD programs in history and religious studies (a couple to Indiana University in American history and the history of religion, some to the University of Nebraska in the history of the American West, UNC Chapel Hill in American religious history, Duke, etc.) So it’s not like it is completely without merit, although most people that I have spoken to agree with the MA student above–the resources weren’t there, primarily because BYU is focused on undergraduate education.

  23. Bob on September 24, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    #18: Good question..no answer. But it turned on a dine in CA. From Gov. Jerry Brown to Ronald Reagan. In the 60s, it was called being Co-oped. Which meant the other side just bought you off. Good lesson though: you never know how the kids will turn out. My son graduated from Berkley ( For you BYU football guys that’s Cal). At least, when he starts too much Liberal trash talk, I get to say…no,no, I was THERE for the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

  24. TMD on September 24, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    If I ever ran a university, the following things would not be there at the undergraduate level:
    communications
    marketing
    business
    accounting
    education, except maybe primary
    etc.

    …these are the real enemies, the programs that require all but no work and no rigor, but leave their students thinking they are ‘practical.’

  25. queuno on September 24, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Applicants for the BYU freshman class starting in Fall 2006 were asked on the Hinckley Scholarship application to write an essay outlining which three BYU COLLEGES they would eliminate if they could. It fostered a great debate amongst my sibs and sibs-in-law.

    For some reason, Education and Nursing were amongst the two most popular to be eliminated. I seem to think the Kennedy Center was the third.

    I have degrees from the Humanities and Mathematical Sciences colleges at BYU. I found them both equally challenging, intellectually. For all the talk about how open-minded the College of Humanities claims to be, Dr. Higgins and Dr. Campbell had some pretty powerful philosophical debates while discussing their algorithms.

  26. Matt Evans on September 25, 2007 at 1:05 am

    “Colleges and universities are drastically different now than before.”

    Mostly, that 50% of 18-year-olds now enroll, compared to 4% in years past. Almost every change at universities can be traced to the democratization of higher education.

    Laws restricting businesses from administering IQ tests have had a huge impact, too, as those laws have forced businesses to use intelligence proxies, and educational attainment is the best indicator. Given that employers use education as a proxy for intelligence, prospective employees know that if they want to look intelligent, they go to college to get their ticket punched.

  27. Norbert on September 25, 2007 at 6:13 am

    Going back to the original question — can educators provide students with the ability to find meaning in life, with or without religion — oddly enough, I am now writing a speech on this topic. I’ll probably post the finished speech, but here’s a few thoughts as a teaser…

    I approach this from the high school educator perspective, not the college academic, so it may be a little different.

    An educator’s job is (or should be) much less based on the presentation of facts and much more on the analysis of sets of facts and why and how they are presented. Technology has driven this. In the same way, it is, I believe, possible to present morality and values in a similar manner — not to sell ideas, but to introduce students to the marketplace and give some good shopping tips. The ‘tips’ require delicacy, but being a guide means emphasizing and modeling certain skills and qualities — a level of detachment and the application of the Socratic method jump to mind. Religion in a general sense — the idea of religion, or a scope of religious concepts — ought to be presented as a part of that marketplace. In my experience, more specific applications are difficult to present because of the biases of both the religious and irreligious and the inability for many people, including and maybe especially teachers, to be detached from religious beliefs or attitudes about them.

    In the end, values education is less about giving out the answers, but more about asking big questions and suggesting there are answers by giving a range of them and some guidance about how to evaluate them; and that by saying there are no answers to the questions is an answer in its own right.

  28. Lib on September 25, 2007 at 8:17 am

    I think a good religious education and/or a good secular education in the humanities can curb everyone’s tendency towards pure self-interest and remind them that we live in a society, one in which there is at least some obligation to look outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, and think about how we work together, how we need each other. Very few people make their livings on desert islands.

    While I applaud the idea of teaching values and stimulating students to explore and refine their own notions of the meaning of life I think that standing in the way of this is the conviction, or at least the suspicion of many Americans, that our schools of higher education cannot be trusted to teach such values. There is too much mistrust of the values and philosophies of the academy.

    Home schooling, and its natural follow-on, colleges such as Liberty University and Bob Jones U., are seen by a lot of Americans as the only dependable places for their children to explore values or deepen the ones they have. Brigham Young exists in part because of, as well as exploits, this anxiety. Which is not to take away from its academic excellence, which I acknowledge.

    Bluntly, most universities are seen by most observant church-goers as anti-religious. Presumably parents aren’t worried about their children’s faith when they are enrollled in civil engineering.

    To gain broad acceptance in today’s climate, colleges and universities would have to convince parents that their teaching is, if not complementary with their children’s religious training, at least it is not hostile to it.

    For myself, I’d love to see the mearning of life held out as a necessary subject for college students to explore. I don’t think the sky is falling, but certain things in American society have changed for the worse, in my view. For example, I look at the venality, materialism and conspicuous consumption (yes, all value judgments) that have swept our nation to the point where Utah newlyweds whose parents grew up in

  29. TMD on September 25, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Norbert:

    As someone who teaches college students, I have to strongly disagree with your statement that educators should teach analysis rather than facts, at least at the high school level. It is impossible to effectively evaluate sets of facts or their presentation without meaningful, pre-existing factual knowledge. Thus the first task of a teacher must be to give them the background, and then, only then, begin to talk about methods of analysis and critique. Otherwise (and as is all too frequent with the students I teach at a big state university) the students’ ‘analysis’ is thin and shallow and entirely ahistorical, since they have no ability to effectively evaluate the claims made or speak in terms of evidence or even structured argument. Students are happy to look for the author’s apparent personal ‘biases’ from their positions or the conclusions drawn, but getting them to take an argument in itself on its merits, and evaluate the claims made on the way to the conclusion in terms of theory and evidence–the only kind of analysis that ultimately matters? Foreign and impossible to most students, since the ‘analysis’ taught in HS almost never includes rigorous logic and their teachers were so focused on talking about the ‘presentation of facts’ that their supply of actual facts about say, major world events like WWI, is all but bare. (by way of info, I teach international politics, as a grad student)

  30. Lib on September 25, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Oops, I see there is a limit to post size. Sorry for the prolixity. Here are the last two paragraphs I’d penned:

    For myself, I’d love to see the mearning of life held out as a necessary subject for college students to explore. I don’t think the sky is falling, but certain things in American society have changed for the worse, in my view. For example, I look at the venality, materialism and conspicuous consumption (yes, all value judgments) that have swept our nation to the point where Utah newlyweds whose parents grew up in

  31. Lib on September 25, 2007 at 8:33 am

    Oh dear, how embarassing. I used the less than symbol and the system thought it was about to see a tag and left everything out that followed. I apologize and will read the FAQ. But before then, I’ll try again:

    For myself, I’d love to see the mearning of life held out as a necessary subject for college students to explore. I don’t think the sky is falling, but certain things in American society have changed for the worse, in my view. For example, I look at the venality, materialism and conspicuous consumption (yes, all value judgments) that have swept our nation to the point where Utah newlyweds whose parents grew up in less than 1,000 square foot homes are buying 3,000 square foot homes and coveting the 10-15,000 square foot ones just up the hill. (The Salt Lake Valley now has numerous homes larger than 15,000. http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,600152434,00.html), and shake my head.

    Of course, I’ve always been a sucker for that love-your-neighbor, and the country-next-door, and the continent-across-the-ocean, stuff.

  32. John Mansfield on September 25, 2007 at 9:09 am

    At the elementary school level, we’ve experienced an interesting parallel to what TMD describes. In our county’s schools, the mechanics of writing are ignored, and kindergarteners and first graders are supposed to just spontaneously start writing complete sentences. But since the manual skill of handwriting is not part of the curriculum, the product is awful and takes excessive and discouraging time and effort to produce.

    Failing to acquire any mastery of plain, cold facts leaves us a nation of hand wavers.

  33. Norbert on September 25, 2007 at 9:37 am

    TMD: I don’t disagree with you in the slightest. Doing analysis without the right tools is bad analysis. But taking your history example, they should understand that different historians come to different conclusions and have some tools for evaluating those claims and how those historians came to those conclusions.

  34. TMD on September 25, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Norbert, the basic problem is that most high school history teachers are themselves unfamiliar with serious historiography (not all of couse, but probably 70%–just because serious historiography is itself taught only in the most upper division undergraduate courses, which are generally untouched by those doing social studies teaching degrees, at least in the US). So while they may say that different historians come to different conclusions, their ability to really explain how and why is itself limited. From my experience teaching undergrads, they are aware that there are different interpretations, but don’t really know why the interpretations are different, and tend to reduce it to the absence of real standards and the ideology/personal characteristscs of the person speaking or writing (both of which are, to a great extent, wrong). So this is not real analysis. Thus, they don’t really have the tools–the natural result of people who themselved don’t understand the analytical tools spending less time on the general narrative and facts and more time talking about the multitude of analytic interpretations.

  35. Norbert on September 25, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Any general narrative I choose to tell can be successfully challenged by any knucklehead with a computer. I need to explain why, and how to tell the difference between a good narrative and a poor one. I agree that what you describe is not real analysis. But what you claim they need — ‘ability to effectively evaluate the claims made or speak in terms of evidence or even structured argument’ — are the skills I would seek to teach.

  36. mmiles on September 25, 2007 at 11:53 am

    1) “[…] 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?”
    I’m not sure this is where the author of the article was going—I don’t think he thought it was the university’s job to be a moral compass, but only to explore the human condition more in depth with a humanistic compass, which he obviously believes he possesses. In humanism authority is needed.
    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.”
    I disagree. The author himself accuses academia of being too dogmatic. The authority of dogma is based on shared assumptions. Take for instance Stanford. Donald Rumsfeld was just appointed to be a fellow at the Hoover Institute next year. This, of course, has caused outrage. An open letter of protest was signed by not only students, but by many, many faculty members. I’m sure you can imagine all the anti-Rumsfeld rhetoric on campus and in the letter. It appears that both the students and faculty desire to give up seriously examining deep issues and problems in order to maintain shared assumptions and beliefs amongst themselves.

  37. Ben H on September 25, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for lots of interesting comments, everyone.

    Adam (#16), I agree that religious schools have pressed on despite the challenges I’ve named. There aren’t very many who have done all that well, though. Notre Dame is one of the best examples, but it is barely hanging on in my view. They require two theology and two philosophy courses, which represent most of the academic approach to the big questions. But the philosophy component as often as not is an introduction to what professional philosophers do, and professional philosophers are as research-oriented as anyone, and mostly steer clear of the really big questions. What makes a life worthwhile is a topic for a certain brand of ethics, a sub-specialty of a sub-specialty of philosophy, and other people specialize in “technology and values” or certain brands of philosophical theories of ethics, with little relationship to how most people think about value questions. One of my best students at Notre Dame, a theology major, had been dreading and avoiding the philosophy requirement for years before she finally, as a senior, had to grit her teeth and sign up (and fortunately was pleasantly surprised by my unusual intro course). Anyway, very little of the coursework done under that requirement seriously address big value questions. And I’m not sure the theology courses are all that great, either. The academic study of religion (who wrote which passages in this book?) is not the same thing as asking religious questions.

    BYU? I fear at BYU there is an assumption that we have already answered the big questions, so we can focus on minutiae in religion classes. Do they try to connect religion with the political questions of the day? Rarely in the serious manner of the liberal arts (unless you were studying with Hugh Nibley!).

    BYU MA student and Costanza (#20, #22), I’m very glad to hear there have been good placements from the program. I was just speculating based on my sense of some of the issues in other humanities fields. I’m curious–how many of the students in the program lately were at BYU as undergraduates, and how many were coming in from elsewhere?

    Matt (#26), many of the changes have been driven by the changes in student population (more and different students than before), but plenty of them have been driven by the evolution of human knowledge as well. The specialization that becomes necessary as knowledge expands is key to the dynamic we’ve seen.

    Lib (#28), I agree that in the eyes of the general population the moral credibility of the universities is pretty low. This isn’t just something that happened to them, though. Colleges and universities have largely abandoned the business of morality, and where they continue to pursue it a big part of their agenda is counter-cultural, which hurts their credibility. If they chose to take up the task of answering the big questions in a serious way, over time I think they could regain their credibility, and hey, they still get the students anyway! But it is not an easy task, partly for the reasons I’ve described. The task honestly has become much harder than it was in the old days.

  38. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    What you say about Notre Dame is true. It doesn’t take being a religious school seriously enough. (True story: in the Notre Dame Law Review, I, a Mormon, was instrumental in persuading the others, largely Catholics, that if we recieved submissions that contradicted Catholic teaching we should either refuse to publish them or try to publish them in tandem with a counter-argument). But at the same time Notre Dame has accomplished something. I learned a lot more about the best Catholic and Christian thought while I was there, not because it was forced on me but because it was visible in a way that probably wouldn’t be at other schools.

    I also think that what you say about BYU is true. We Mormons don’t have much of anything that’s intellectually mature yet, so BYU’s religious component and its academic components aren’t very well integrated. To a degree there’s a self-created secular/religious divide. But I would make two counterpoints: first, I and lots of other students went through a pretty profound spiritual transformation there. This transformation wasn’t very intellectual, but a university that takes meaning and the soul seriously doesn’t have to do so just in a an arms-length, intellectual sense. Second, some of the forums and devotionals and some of the honors seminars and some of my professors did do the kind of integration of faith and reason that you’re talking about, often in very interesting ways. Sometimes this even involved politics in the narrow sense, though not always.

    However, the obstacles you identify are pretty serious. I think the problem the secular but meaning-filled University has is that institutions like ND and BYU have a large outside supporting network because of their religious affiliation. A Meiklejohn university would have only its own resources, which probably aren’t enough to overcome the fairly serious obstacles.

    In many ways, American universities are victims of their own success. If university was no longer professional education the number of universities would collapse but those students who were still interested enough in education for its own sake would be much more likely to care about the big questions.

    By the way, Ben H., what do you think about St. Johns College? Its a ‘great books’ school. I don’t think it has a set of answers that frame the discussion, but discussing the big questions is definitely what the school is about.

  39. Nate Oman on September 25, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Reading Kronman’s article I am frankly skeptical that he knows that much about religion or religious thinking. He is upset by fundamentalism, but I would be rather surprised if he actually even knows that much about it or its place in religious ecology. He certainly doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a conversation in which religion was engaged as a non-doctrinaire interlocuter.

    I am not quite sure what he has in mind other than the notion that scholars in the humanities ought to avoid over-specialization and political correctness in their teaching. I am not sure that there is any there there in his proposal.

  40. Ben H on September 25, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Adam, I was just thinking about St. John’s today, because I was preparing to teach on Auguste Comte, and as with many other philosophers his thinking is deeply engaged with developments in science in his time period and in the couple of centuries prior, and yet his main point is to hold up an ideal for reasoning about humans and their societies . . . anyway, it hit me that my students can hardly begin to understand what he is really doing unless they understand a fair bit about the history of science. So a lot of what I did today was to explain relevant developments in the history of science, which fortunately I know something about. I was talking about the heavenly spheres and electron orbitals and Humean causation and . . . But I actually find myself doing this constantly–feeling I have to fill in large swathes of historical context. I don’t know how I made sense of much philosophy before I knew what I now know about history and science–I think mostly I didn’t. In a great books program, we would read the history (political and religious) and the science together with the philosophy (at least, that’s how they do it at Thomas Aquinas College), and frankly it is just efficient. I don’t see how we talked ourselves into doing things any other way. None of these people were philosophers in the way philosophers work today. Comte was working with religion, politics and science all at once. So were Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, Hobbes. So was Newton, frankly, at least science and religion.

    Nate, I agree that Kronman doesn’t seem to know much about religion, or have much of a proposal to speak of. I’m going to take a look at his book, though. At least he seems to have thought about the history and the forces leading us to where we are, which I want to learn more about, and then there is this aspiration, however vaguely worked out.

  41. smb on September 25, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    There are people like Michael Sandel or Robert Coles or Brian Palmer/Kate Holbrook who have offered large undergraduate courses devoted to consideration of the big ideas. I’ve known many people whose lives and careers were affected by the latter two courses, and many more people who found Sandel’s courses wonderfully illuminating. By couching them as courses in political philosophy or social activism, these courses were able to allow people of various religious traditions to come together to sort through ethical and personal questions. All of those undergraduate courses had high enrollment numbers and enjoyed immense popularity. I don’t know whether it’s because Boston has such a long history of theological inquiry and social activism, but courses at BU, such as those of Howard Zinn mirrored the others I’ve mentioned. Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School is another person who teaches in that line.

    I personally think a mix of religious schools like Notre Dame and BYU with more secular institutions that include courses like the ones I’ve outlined would be a reasonable way to attempt to ensure that undergraduates are at least engaging the big ideas. The ND/BYU schools provide a setting for confessional intimacy but may not challenge thinking about big questions generally, while the other institutions could provide the opposite.

  42. Adam Greenwood on September 25, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    Ben H.,
    I think you’d really enjoy reading Michael Flynn’s novel Eifelheim or his novelette in July’s Analog Magazine.

  43. Mark D. on September 26, 2007 at 2:34 am

    TMD (#24),

    I am with you on eliminating undergraduate majors in communications, marketing, business, accounting, and education. Shouldn’t undergraduate majors in psychology, sociology, and political science be eliminated for the same reason? Not to mention majors in (fill in the blank) studies?

  44. BYU MA Student on September 26, 2007 at 2:54 am

    Ben H. (#37),

    I don’t know the exact number, but I would estimate that 80% of current History MA students at BYU also attended the University as undergrads. There are a few that attended USU, the U, UVSC, BYU-H, and a few schools in Idaho.

  45. Ben H on September 26, 2007 at 11:52 am

    Thanks, BYU MA student. Of course, the administration wants as many people as possible to have “the BYU experience”, and most of them had already had it. Do you think this played a role in the decision?

  46. Yellow Raven on September 27, 2007 at 2:53 am

    St. John\’s College: I completed a master\’s degree at this Great Books college and must say that in terms of sheer intellectual broadening and expansion it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. Careful reasoning and thoughtful analysis of the classic texts of the Western tradition, honed through robust Socratic debate in which the opinions and assertions of each participant are continually subject to the polishing process of mutual collision, stands at the heart of this program. There is no reliance on theory, little focus on historical context, and rarely are definitive, universally applicable answers discovered. However, the process itself trains one to exalt and savor the inner faculties of reason and judgment above the mere assimilation of facts. Now, in terms of guaranteeing financial rewards, it probably won\’t (but may) make one a millionaire. Nevertheless, this Great Books/Socratic approach has very real applications in the \”real world.\” I would argue, for example, that it is one\’s posture towards the great and terrible questions (mainly those pertaining to God), which human existence poses, that dictates how one arranges and orders every aspect and activity of life. Fostered by the great minds of the ages, it is namely this inclination towards and deep appreciation of both the poignant mysteries of humanity and the wonders of the eternal, abstract realm that firmly ground serious students of the liberal arts. A great thread runs through the great and terrible questions of human life and gives shape to the multi-lateral conversations that take place through the ages between the wise, to which most of us are merely grateful spectators. Whether it is Augustine conversing with Plato; Plato rebuking Homer; Homer inspiring Tolstoy; Tolstoy adopting Schopenhauer; Nietzsche ridiculing Schopenhauer; Dostoyevsky dazzling Nietzsche; Cervantes stirring Dostoyevsky; these thinkers do mankind a favor by pointing us beyond the mundane transitoriness of this life. As Joseph Smith said: “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” St. John\’s College operates under the Platonic assumption that every person inherently possesses the condition for finding out truth (or to be more precise, Socrates asserted that every person \”recollects\” the truth that is already within). Far beyond individual fulfillment, this process of learning is perhaps the only real bond that can make lasting fraternal fellowship and love possible. And fraternal love is perhaps the main reason our educational system needs to return to the great and terrible questions that endow our lives with meaning.

  47. Adam Greenwood on September 27, 2007 at 11:26 am

    I think St. Johns College is great, great, great. I wish more schools would follow that model. But the defect in their model is that their corporate form doesn’t instantiate truth. It instantiates searching for truth.

  48. Robert C. on October 1, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Great post and discussion, sorry I’m late (and basically missed it). I’m curious how things are going and will go in France where I understand (very, very vaguely) that they have a lot of philosophy required in the schools, and philosophy has sort of taken a theological turn.

    My favorite classes at BYU were in literature (Dostoevsky by Gary Browning and Shakespeare by Gene England), and a philosophy elective class (by Terry Warner) because we were able to talk freely, frankly, and smartly with other thoughtful Church members about how great writers/thinkers tackled these big questions….