Has exploring life’s meaning been lost in higher education?
The modern research ideal has pushed debate of life’s big questions out of college and into the exclusive domain of religious institutions. But at what consequence?
In the fall of 1965, I was a sophomore at Williams College — for the second time.
The year before, I had left Williams to work as an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. It was an exciting time to be in college. Black students in the South were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Their courage had set an example for the world to admire. In the North, the (mostly white) student leaders of the SDS had begun a movement of their own for social and economic change.
The Port Huron Statement of 1962 was their manifesto.
It described with passionate clarity the gap between America’s ideals and the realities of racism and poverty, and summoned my generation of students — ‘‘bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit’’ — to close it. The war in Vietnam was on the horizon. The campuses of America’s colleges and universities were beginning to stir with an energy they had not seen since the 1930s. By the time the decade was over, these stirrings would grow into the most powerful student movement the country has ever known.
It was in this mood that I enrolled that fall in a seminar taught by Nathaniel Lawrence, who was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Williams. I had some dim sense that I might find in philosophy, and in professor Lawrence’s seminar, answers to the questions that plagued me. The seminar was titled ‘‘Existentialism.’’ Most of the other students were juniors and seniors, and I felt a bit over my head. The readings were difficult. We read Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” and “The Mystery of Being” by the great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel. We met once a week in professor Lawrence’s home at the end of Main Street, a few blocks from campus. Each session lasted three hours. We broke in the middle for tea, and there were always fresh cookies (courtesy of Mrs. Lawrence). The fall came on, the days shortened, the air grew chilly. The Berkshires were covered in scarlet and gold. When we arrived at professor Lawrence’s home, late in the afternoon, we found a fire going, and his two golden retrievers asleep like bookends beside the hearth.
The discussions were animated, often passionate. It seemed to all of us that much was at stake — just what one would expect in a seminar on existentialism. At the heart of the seminar was the question of how best to live, of what to care about and why, the question of the meaning of life. It was the question that Kierkegaard, Sartre and Marcel all addressed in different ways and that we discussed — awkwardly, confusedly, eagerly — around the fire in professor Lawrence’s living room. By the third or fourth week of the term, I had begun to look forward to our meetings with growing excitement. The seminar became the center of everything I did that fall, in class and out. Partly it was because the readings were deep and enlightening, partly because I discovered I could keep up with my more advanced classmates and even make a contribution or two, partly because professor Lawrence’s wisdom and kindness enveloped us all. But mostly it was because I made a discovery in that class that has been a central conviction of mine ever since. I discovered that the meaning of life is a subject that can be studied in school.
What I discovered in professor Lawrence’s seminar so many years ago was that an institution of higher education is one of the places where the question of what living is for can be pursued in an organized way. I had left Williams looking for a place where the question has more reality than I thought it ever could in school. What I found when I returned was the place for which I had been searching. It has been my professional home ever since.
An institution of higher education is one of the places where the question of what living is for can be pursued in an organized way.
For more than 50 years, I have been by turns a student, a teacher and a dean. I am now, after 10 years as a dean, a teacher once again. For decades, I was a member of the faculty of the Yale Law School. More recently, I taught a freshman program in Yale College devoted to the study of the great works of philosophy, history, literature and politics that form the foundation of the Western tradition.
For all this time, and in the different roles that I have occupied in my career, my deepest belief has remained unchanged: that a college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past. Over the years, many of my beliefs have changed but not this one. My confidence that the meaning of life is a teachable topic has never faltered since professor Lawrence first helped me to have it, and my whole professional life has been devoted to vindicating this confidence and to transmitting it to my students.
But over time, I have watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction. I’ve seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and honored place, and I have felt what I can only describe as a sense of personal loss on account of my own very substantial investment in the belief that the question is one that can and must be taught in our schools. The question has been exiled from the humanities, first as a result of the growing authority of the modern research ideal and then on account of the culture of political correctness that has undermined the legitimacy of the question itself and the authority of humanities teachers to ask it. I have felt puzzlement and anger at the easy sweeping aside of values that seem, to me, so obvious and important.
Why did the question of what living is for disappear from the roster of questions our colleges and universities address in a deliberate and disciplined way? What is the source of the appeal of the research ideal, and why is it so hostile to this question? Why are the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism and the belief that values are merely expressions of power so corrosive to the exploration of the question of life’s purpose and meaning? What have the consequences of the disappearance of this question from our colleges and universities been for the culture at large, where our churches now monopolize the authority to address it? And what are the prospects for its restoration to a position of respect in the academy?
Our lives are the most precious resource we possess, and the question of how to spend them is the most important question we face. The lives we actually lead are the more-or-less well-thought-out answers we give to this question. Our answers depend, of course, on what we value and where we find fulfillment. How should I spend my life? That question immediately invites another. What do I most care about and why? For the sake of what — or who — am I living? What is my life for?
Perhaps the most obvious thing to be said about the question is that it has an unavoidably personal quality. How I answer it depends upon my interests, tastes and talents, as well as my upbringing and social and economic circumstances — in short, upon a thousand factors that distinguish me from you and everyone else. These differences all have a bearing on what I care about, and hence on how I choose to spend my life.
But there is a second, deeper sense in which the question of what my life is for is personal to me. For it is a question that only I can answer. No one else in the world is competent to answer it for me, even if they know as much about my makeup as I do. I may of course learn from others and take instruction from their example. But what matters most to me — what is of overriding importance — is not that the question of what living is for has a right answer, which someone else perhaps has already found, but that my answer be the right one, even if others discovered it long ago.
Deference and delegation, which are appropriate where an impersonal concern for the truth has priority, are out of place here. The question of how to spend my life, of what my life is for, is a question posed only to me, and I can no more delegate the responsibility for answering it than I can delegate the task of dying.
The question of what living is for arises only from the standpoint of the idea of life as a whole. This idea is at once inclusive and bounded. It gathers every aspect of one’s life and underscores its mortal limits. Only this combination of inclusiveness and mortality provides the perspective from which the question of the meaning of life comes into view.
The modern research ideal attacks both elements of this idea at once.
Through its demand for specialization, it discourages inclusiveness. It requires the scholar to concentrate her attention on something much smaller than life as a whole and disdains more inclusive pursuits as a dilettantism with little or no academic value. And through its insistence on the supreme importance of the discipline, of the multigenerational program of discovery and invention in which the individual researcher is engaged and in the context of whose larger life her own mortal career has no meaning, the research ideal minimizes the importance of mortality and promotes an ethic of supersession that condemns the scholar who takes her death too seriously as immature and unprofessional.
The modern research ideal thus compels those who embrace it to concentrate their attention on matters that are, at once, both smaller and larger than their lives as a whole. It discourages, at once, the inclusiveness and the attention to mortality from whose combination the idea of life as a whole derives. It devalues both and deprives the idea of its ethical and spiritual worth. It makes the idea of life as a whole seem childish, ridiculous, unprofessional, self-indulgent. And by doing that, it undermines the credibility and authority of the one point of view from which the question of what living is for arises.
The effect of this, of course, is not to make the question itself disappear but only to deprive it of legitimacy within the arena of academic work — to push it out of school.
Human beings, scholars included, are irresistibly drawn to the question of life’s meaning, and there is no reason to expect this will change. But to the extent the modern research ideal systematically devalues the perspective from which this question must be asked, it compels those who would ask it to look outside the academy for answers.
It says, to teachers and students alike, ‘‘Do not look for answers to the question of life’s meaning here. Do not even expect the question to be raised here, for to do so would violate the most basic premises on which modern scholarship is based.”
By accepting the imperatives of the research ideal and arranging their work to meet its demands, humanities teachers have therefore traded a valuable and distinctive authority for one based upon values they can never hope to realize to anything like the degree their colleagues in the natural and social sciences can.
For the humanities, this has been a very bad bargain indeed.
It has left teachers in these disciplines with a sense of inferiority and no way back to their lost authority. It has left them in an anxious void, without a secure sense of their own special role in higher education. It was into this void that the political ideas of the 1960s and 1970s entered — the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism, and the theory that values are merely disguised acts of power. These took root in the humanities in part because they met with no resistance — because teachers in these fields had lost the self-confidence that would have given them the strength to resist. But more fundamentally, they took root because they seemed to offer an antidote to the emptiness produced by the humanities’ own endorsement of the research ideal.
But the cure has proved an illusion. The culture of political correctness that has grown from these ideas has not restored the self-confidence of the humanities but further weakened it instead. It has diminished their authority, not repaired it. It has placed the humanities at an even greater distance from the question of life’s meaning — the real source of their most lasting authority — and made it even more imperative that teachers of the humanities recover the wisdom and nerve to ask it.
The question of what living is for is not threatened by doubts but by pious conviction to political correctness and the blind acceptance of science and technology that disguise and deny our human condition.
The ideas of diversity and multiculturalism start from attractive moral and political premises. Each promotes a worthy cause — racial justice in the one case, and responsible global citizenship in the other. By transforming these ideas into principles of pedagogy, teachers of the humanities have been able to reassert their claim to a special and valued role in higher education. They have been able to see themselves as making a distinctive contribution to the moral and political work of their colleges and universities. And by grounding the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism in a constructivist theory of knowledge that emphasizes the depth of human freedom and choice, they have been able to conceive their new role as one that extends a key premise of secular humanism to its fulfilling conclusion.
But all this is a mistake. The real effect of the humanities’ endorsement of these ideas has been quite the opposite. It has not restored their authority but further compromised it instead. It has undermined the notion of an old and ongoing conversation that gives each entrant a weighted and responsible sense of connection to the past, and substituted the egotistic presumption that we can start a new and freer conversation on our own, engaging all the works of all the world’s great civilizations in a colloquy we invent for ourselves. It has encouraged the fantasy that in our world today, the ideas and institutions of the West have no more significance or value than those of any other civilization. It has wrecked the humanities’ claim to be able to provide organized guidance in the exploration of the question of the meaning of life. And it has simultaneously limited the idea of human freedom by tying our powers of judgment too closely to facts about ourselves we cannot change, and expanded the notion of freedom to the point where our choices are emptied of their meaning.
In all these ways, the wide acceptance within the humanities of the ideas of diversity, multiculturalism and constructivism has made it harder for teachers in these fields to acknowledge the legitimacy of the question of what living is for and to approach it in a serious, responsible and organized fashion.
Today, the legitimacy of the question of what living is for 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 be reclaimed. In the secular academy, the humanism that once saved us from our doubts must now save us from our convictions. It must rescue the question of life’s meaning from the forces that belittle and obscure it and restore the openness and wonder that will always accompany any authentic effort to ask it.
America’s colleges and universities are today the leading centers of research in the world. But we have the right to expect something more. We have the right to expect that they offer their students an education in the meaning of life. Once they did, and will again, when the tradition which has been misplaced, but can never be lost, is recovered and put to work as a lever to dislodge the orthodoxies that now blind us.
That this will happen, I am hopeful. The conditions are encouraging, and the need is great. For the desire to understand is eternal, and in an age of forgetfulness, when our humanity is concealed by the powers we possess and the question of life’s meaning is monopolized by the churches, to whom our colleges and universities have relinquished all authority to ask it. With wonder and sobriety and the courage to face our mortal selves: Let our colleges and universities be the spiritual leaders they once were and that all of us — teachers, students, parents, citizens of the republic — need for them to be again.
Anthony T. Kronman is the Sterling Professor of Law and a former dean of Yale Law School. This essay was excerpted from his book “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.” Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Kronman. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.