Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
Anthony T. Kronman
Yale University Press, 2008
320 pp., $19.00
The Big Questions
"No matter where they've attended school," the reader is assured in Becoming a Master Student, the most widely used text intended to orient incoming freshmen, "liberally educated people can state what they're willing to bet their lives on." But this otherwise helpful book fails to give students direction on how to discover such confidence.
Among the more formidable attempts to help higher education address life's big questions was the Great Books movement, closely associated with the life work of Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago. He was leery of any social or institutional commitments fueled by zeal without knowledge, and the latter came most notably through a study of the great thinkers through the ages—the "Great Conversation." During a lively 1970 interview (worth reading in its entirety), he cautioned the Academy:
It is the absence of anything relevant in the current program of the multiversity that has produced this demand for relevance on the part of the young. When young people are asked, "What are you interested in?" they answer that they are interested in justice, they want justice for the Negro, they want justice for the Third World. If you say, "Well, what is justice?" they haven't any idea … . They are ignorant of the fact that there is a Great Conversation echoing back through history on the subject of justice.
Anthony T. Kronman, former dean of the Law School at Yale, makes a laudable attempt to revive this Great Conversation approach in Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. Kronman's focus is on the humanities, and his appraisal is blunt: humanities professors in our finest colleges and universities have collectively blown it, cowering in the face of the German "research ideal":
This damage was not the result of an attack from without. It was not caused by barbarians crashing the gates. It was a self-destructive response to the crisis of authority that teachers of the humanities ...