Welcome Instapundit Readers!!
When I graduated from college, I was determined to pursue a Ph.D in Comparative Literature, hoping to expose myself to the best of European & American literature so that I might teach students to appreciate great books where they could find insights to guild them in their lives’ journeys. Not only that, I hoped to write about literature, showing how those great writers of the past addressed themes that we confront in our lives today.
In short, I saw the profession of university teaching as one where a scholar would help students relate literature to their own lives. These works would, I hoped, remind students that there is more to life, to quote my favorite poet, than “getting and spending.” They would see the study of literature as a life-long avocation, something to pursue alongside their professional endeavors.
I abandoned my study of literature for a great variety of reasons, notably because I became increasingly aware that graduate programs in the humanities were increasingly replacing study of the great works or literature themselves with a focus on criticism. Professors of literature scoffed at the notion that the books under study were any more than texts, with some even dismissing the notion of their greatness.
Just over three years ago, I decided to study mythology at Pacifica Graduate Institute because that quirky program seemed less focused on criticism and more devoted to studying ancient stories and rituals and considering their real-world meaning. Indeed, as I begin work on my dissertation, I intend to explore how understanding the role of the goddess Athena in the lives of Greek heroes can help men realize the importance of the non-sexual feminine in their own lives.
Given this appreciation of literature and myth, this belief that this great stories can help us lead rich and more fulfilling lives, it’s no wonder I ordered Anthony Kronman‘s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life soon after reading upon it on Instapundit. The very title encapsulated the primary reasons behind the decision I made not to pursue a Ph.D. in Literature.
When I received the book, I was delighted to discover that, like yours truly, Kronman is a graduate of America’s finest liberal arts college. While an undergraduate he too had a professor who led animated discussions where they considered important questions about life. But, as he pursued his own career in academia, as a professor and dean at Yale Law School, he found the question of life’s meaning
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 humanity’s 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. And watching these developments, I have been moved to wonder about their causes and consequences and the likelihood of a cure.
In his book, he explores just that. And I found myself nodding my head in agreement with many of his observations. While coming from a different political background than I (he had volunteered for the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society in college; I had served as state president of the College Republicans), he had reached the same conclusion about the state of the humanities in colleges and universities as had I.
Proof that the humanities can serve to bring together people with different political views, even different backgrounds as they remind us of our common humanity.
After diagnosing the problem, that humanities professors no longer see their various disciplines as concerned with the meaning of life, Kronman looks to the history of post-secondary education in America to find its source. While professors were once jacks of all trades, able to teach a great variety of classes in a number of disciplines, today’s college and university teachers have become increasingly specialized, with little ability to teach outside their narrow field of interest. As the same time, a set curriculum has evolved into a smorgasbord.
He shows how secular humanism replaced more religious ideas of instruction with the research ideal. And with the research ideal came an end of the notion of the humanities as initiating a student into a great “conversation that is always alive, where every participant who has ever joined it is still actively engaged, and to which each new generation . . . is introduced.” Devoted to their particular field of expertise, professors were no longer interested in considering the question of what living is for. Their narrow focus replaced a broad interest in themes common to a great variety of works from any number of eras served to “undermine the unique authority they once enjoyed as guides to the meaning of life.”
Another force would join the research ideal in undermining that authority, political correctness. With its concomitant multiculturalism, political correctness has made it increasingly difficult for “students to accept the notion of a common human solidarity that transcends the experience of the particular group to which they belong.” Kronman regrets that:
The sad result of the humanities’ use of racial and gender diversity as a criterion for the selection of texts and teaching methods has therefore been to make it harder to pursue the question of life’s meaning in the only discipline in which there is still any chance of asking it.
And I would note that some of the works selected so that diversity may also include sexual orientation seem to have been chosen not to show how, despite our differences, gay and lesbian people still confront some of the same issues as do our straight peers, but instead focus on the most marginal aspects of gay culture, written more often than not by the most angry and unhappy homosexuals.
Their inclusion in the curriculum seems designed to please the most radical of gay activists, rather than directed to offering students a balanced perspective of gay life, allowing straight students to see that gay people face the same struggles as do they and giving gay people the resources to see our struggles in terms of the very issues with which men and women have wrestled since our ancestors first expressed themselves in words.
For example, his observation that “[h]uman sexual desire . . . has an element of fantasy that distinguishes it from the thoughtless sexual appetites of other animals” applies to gay people as well as straight people.