Education’s End, a book by Anthony T. Kronman, a law professor at Yale, nicely articulates many of the gripes I have with higher education and the public stoning the humanities have been weathering since well before I went to college. The book chronicles the evolution (or descent, depending on your perspective) of American universities from sacrosanct academies dedicated to cultivating minds and morals to ethically apathetic institutes concerned with the advancement of increasingly abstract knowledge. The book’s motif is the contrast between secular humanism—Kronman’s term for the intellectual and spiritual edification that comes an education founded in classical literature, history, and philosophy—and the research ideal, the apotheosis of empirical, highly-specialized learning that is further specialized ad infinitum.
The book is really a elegy for our lost educational traditions. Kronman does an admirable job of outlining the transformation of American universities from their origins, emphasizing the rote transmission of traditional texts, consisting mostly of ancient Greeks and Romans, to a middle stage, in which students engaged in meaningful discussions about tried-and-true texts, becoming part of an intellectual heritage stretching back thousands of years, to the current incarnation, where liberal arts scholarship has taken up the hard sciences as their model for research practices. He laments that teaching the meaning of life at college through the humanities has become taboo and there is no place for personal discoveries in the curriculum.
For people like me who worry that as a society we’re becoming culturally eviscerated, Kronman’s book is a rallying cry. But in the end, he may just be preaching to the choir. While Education’s End diagnoses a sickness in humanistic scholarship, Kronman’s idealism and nostalgia—the book begins with him fondly reminiscing on an undergrad philosophy course—prevents him from offering a viable cure. His final message is little more than “wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the way college used to be?” I won’t fault him for this because I share his idealism, but it’s not clear that it’s desirable, or even possible, to go back.
After all, is the forced creation of more classics courses (Kronman cites Yale’s Directed Studies Program as a model) really going to change students’ perceptions of the humanities? If your child isn’t eating enough broccoli, is the solution piling more on his plate? I’ve never read a word of Herodotus or Kant (at least not yet), and many would say I’m losing out on something because of that, but I don’t think anyone would argue that that fact is stopping me from becoming a socially productive, happy citizen. The meaning of life, as well as the soft skills and analytical thinking developed in liberal arts courses, aren’t tethered to specific texts, but to a way of reading good texts. What’s more important is rigorous reflection and writing. So what’s so wrong with thinking about books that students find more relevant?
Education’s End is a book that needed to be written, but there is more work to be done. If the humanities are to be revitalized, I suspect that it will be in making them more marketable, more practical (as much as it pains me to say that). Humanists need to promote studies that demonstrates the cognitive benefits of reading and writing and show that an education steeped in the liberal arts not only is personally fulfilling, but results in better workers. We also need to demonstrate for how a life with art is better than one without it, rather than just taking it for granted. It would be nice to see someone take up the mantle of Education’s End and propose pragmatic changes that administrators and professors can truly get behind. Until then, we know the disease but lack the medicine.