September 12, 2007


This long essay on true purpose of a college eduation deserved it own posting to this blog. Though most readers of this blog are well pass college, as teachers and citizens it addresses something which should be of continuing concern for all of us.

Kronman, Anthony T., Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2007) (“By 1880, the world of the antebellum college had disappeared. For those teachers of the humanities who felt some loyalty to the traditions of the old regime and still believed they had a duty to guide their students in the search for an answer to the question of what ultimately matters in life and why, a new way of providing such guidance had to be found amidst the ruins of the old order, in a culture of skeptical pluralism that had not antecedent in American higher education.” “Those who took up the challenge agreed on two basic points: The first was that the tendency toward specialization must be resisted. The purpose of a college education is not, they said, merely or even mainly to prepare students for their careers by conveying to them the specialized knowledge they need for their work. More fundamentally, a college must equip its students for the comprehensive challenges of life by giving them what Alexander Meiklejohn called training in the general ‘art of living.’ A college’s first duty, he said, is to help its students acquire this art—not to equip them for the more limited responsibilities associated with a particular job.” “Second, there was a broad agreement that the humanities are the disciplines best suited to do this. Literary studies were though particularly important in this regard…. The study of literature, classical and modern, had become an important vehicle for training students in Meiklejohn’s art of living.” “The same was true of philosophy…. It had become a testing ground for the examination of competing philosophies of life and the arguments that support them…. The study of history, which supplies an organizing framework for the examination of man’s cultural achievements and helps bring these to bear in an orderly way on the central problems of life, seemed relevant to Meiklejohn’s goal as well. Among the many specialized fields of study that now had a place in the university, it was the humanities—literature, philosophy, history, and art—that still seemed most alive to the old, unspecialized question of how best to live.” Id. at 71-72. “Yet despite their variety, most of these programs rested on several important (and today controversial) assumptions that went beyond the general idea that a student’s education should be preparation for life and that the humanities are the disciplines best equipped to provide it. Together these assumptions defined a philosophy pf humanistic education. They defined its goal and the best means to reach it.” “I shall call this ideal ‘secular humanism.’ Others have used the name and given it different meanings. Some of these have implications I do not wish to endorse. But it is a good name nonetheless. For it underscores the single most important feature of the outlook I have in mind. This was 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. In a culture of deepening skepticism, secular humanism offered modest but real grounds for hop to teachers of the humanities who wanted to believe they still had the competence to lead their students in a disciplined study of the human condition and to help them locate their own personal search for meaning within it. For the better part of a century, secular humanism remained a source of inspiration—sometimes noticed, often not—for teachers who wanted to do this and who recognized that their efforts had to be based on something other than man’s well-understood relation to God.” Id. at 74-75. “Today, this idea is not threatened by doubts. It is threatened by pious conviction. Its real enemy is the new faith which prescribes the orthodoxy to which so many students subscribe—the culture of political correctness that strangles serious debate, the careerism that distracts from life as a whole, the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition. It is these that now put the idea of an art of living at risk and undermine the authority of humanities teachers to teach it. But these same pieties make it essential that this authority to be reclaimed. The secular humanism that once saved us from our doubts must now save us from the forces that belittle and obscure it and restore the openness and wonder that will always accompany any authentic effort to ask it.” Id. at 258-259.).