Put the ‘human’ back in the humanities

Romantic individualism and political correctness have robbed university humanities departments of their ‘love of man’, that ‘amusing, tragic, contradictory creature who yearns to be the master of his fate and transform the world’.

Alex Standish

Topics Books

Anthony Kronman, professor of law, teaches in Yale University’s Directed Studies Programme. This is Yale’s renowned humanities programme in which freshmen students spend one year studying the work of classic, renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers including Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Kant, Hume, Mill, Marx and the Bible.

Looking through the full list of readings, it is clear that anybody who completed such a course of study would have a wealth of insight and ideas upon which to draw.

Yet Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, is about the relative death of the humanities in American higher education. He investigates why humanities courses no longer aim to provide young people with insights into the meaning of life. Kronman argues that both he and his colleagues don’t think that the courses themselves have changed, nor do they think that the readings have become irrelevant in our globalised Information Age, as some might argue. He notes that professors at Yale will, in private, acknowledge that the humanities programme continues to provide young people with a perspective on the human condition, but publicly the humanities in America no longer plays its traditional role of pursuing life’s meaning. Hence, those teaching in liberal arts and humanities ‘claim not to possess any special wisdom about the meaning of life that might be communicated to their students in a disciplined way’, suggests Kronman.

When did this change take place? The book divides the history of the study of humanities in American colleges and universities into three periods. The first began with the founding of Harvard College in 1636 and continued up to the American Civil War. During this period, studying the human condition was synonymous with religion. Education was bound to religious instruction and pursued the question of life’s meaning as prescribed in the Bible.

This changed in the latter decades of the nineteenth century as the weight of science challenged religion’s dominance of society. In education, the classical curriculum was increasingly replaced by a modern one and, by the end of the century, public education had banished religion from its schools. This takes us into Kronman’s second period in which the humanities became distinct from the natural and social sciences. In contrast to these empirical disciplines, the now-secular humanities continued as an interpretive pursuit, the objective of which was to explore the human condition in art, literature, culture, history, philosophy and politics. Whereas the natural and social sciences sought to reveal the true nature of phenomena, the humanities continued to provide higher education institutions with an avenue to explore the moral side of life, albeit a diminished role eclipsed by scientific research.

The 1960s is the decade when Kronman suggests that a further transition began to take place, and the humanities entered a third stage in their history, one which has seen them abdicate their role of moral guidance. Kronman cites two main factors that have served to undermine their exploration of humanity: the research ideal and political correctness.

The ‘research ideal’ began to dominate universities in the nineteenth century. Kronman describes the research ideal as the ‘production and dissemination of scholarship’ in ever more specialised niches. The idea is that an individual should dedicate his career to researching a narrow area of knowledge in order that he might make a unique contribution to his discipline during his lifetime. Kronman recounts how the research ideal originated in early nineteenth-century German universities, beginning in the classics, and was promoted by scholars such as Max Weber. Individual specialised research gained moral and spiritual significance through the ‘uniquely German concept of Bildung’, suggests Kronman. The term implies a process of ‘self-cultivation, of inward development’ that has parallels in the Christian belief in the sanctity of the individual. The research ideal was its secular equivalent and came to dominate American institutions of higher education later in the century.

Scholarship as individual specialisation and expertise contrasted with the earlier tradition in which intellectuals were generalists and expected to have knowledge and moral insight in a wide range of topics. Founded on the Aristotelian conception of well-roundedness, this notion informed many intellectuals during the Enlightenment. Geographer Alexander Humboldt, for instance, worked on a study of the entire physical and human world. The title of his unfinished manuscript was Cosmos. While perhaps an overambitious project, it at least conveyed the intellectual spirit of Humboldt’s times.

Kronman notes that nineteenth-century Romanticism challenged the generalist and universalistic position by emphasising the human qualities of the individual. It is in this vein that scholarship became increasingly specialised. Young academics in the twentieth century were, and continue to be, drilled into seeing their academic careers on a trajectory of a narrow path of specialised expertise. Kronman suggests that this is how one makes it in today’s higher education institutions, while the ‘research ideal’ is also a way of finding spiritual purpose in what is often a lonely, individualistic pursuit.

Of course, the research ideal has motivated many scientists to achieve remarkable breakthroughs in human knowledge of the natural and social worlds, which have transformed the way many people live their lives. The vast improvements in the quality and longevity of human life in many countries around the world have only been possible because of the achievements of scientists in the fields of medicine, agriculture, electronics, engineering, and so forth.

However, the problem Kronman has with the ‘research ideal’ as it presently exists in higher education is that it has drawn academics away from engaging with ideas on a broader scale, away from ideas that can provide insight into contemporary moral problems. It has narrowed education to a focus on purely scientific pursuits at the expense of moral questions. Intellectuals have become experts in their narrow specialist areas but rarely do they contribute to discussions outside of their area of expertise, including ethical issues of life. While natural and social scientists are increasingly looked to for answers to scientific and social problems, like global warming or the importance of class size in education, colleges and universities are not considered institutions for philosophical or moral problems.

This has happened for two reasons, suggests Kronman. First, the values of recurrence, connection and closure inherent to secular humanism have each been undermined by the research ideal. While secular humanism advocated a stable repertoire of values over time and space, the research ideal celebrates individualisation; while secular humanism was founded on communion with past scholars, the research ideal emphasises supersession; and while colleges and universities teaching in the secular humanist tradition sought to provide students with a more or less complete education in the humanities over a four-year period, this contrasts with the ongoing and open-ended view of knowledge upheld by the research ideal.

Second, Kronman notes that the research ideal has undermined the value of the meaning of life itself as a question to be posed in an institution of higher learning. He argues that, in order to comprehend the meaning of life, one must consider both its inclusiveness and its finitude. By inclusiveness, Kronman posits that life attains meaning from a perspective of its wholeness, from which no aspect of our lives should be excluded. And only by considering the temporal limits to our existence does our life gain meaning. Again, the research ideal challenges both of these perspectives, by celebrating one small area of lives (our contribution to research) to the detriment of others, and by emphasising the continuity of knowledge beyond the lives of individuals. Both of these detract from considering the completeness and uniqueness of human life.

With secular humanism in a weakened position in higher education, a further challenge to its core purpose came about in the 1970s in the form of political correctness, argues Kronman. Political correctness gave rise to diversity and multiculturalism as pedagogical values informing the very purpose of education in classrooms across America.

For many in the humanities, this offered a new rationale for the subject, but at a further cost to its potential to explore the human condition. Kronman notes how academic thought has played a significant role here through the widely accepted theory of social constructivism. Constructivism posits that all knowledge is generated in a given social and cultural context, and hence will reflect the culturally specific values of the individuals who created it. Therefore, knowledge developed in one cultural context cannot be directly transferred to another; it becomes meaningless outside of the ideological framework in which it was generated. The logical outcome of constructivism is to challenge the possibility of an objective basis to knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Knowledge and truth have been replaced by knowledges and truths in many academic departments.

From here it is a short step to multiculturalism. Culture has been replaced by cultures, now viewed as exclusive entities rather than a potentially universalising force. Constructivism takes a ‘deeply rooted’ view of culture in which individuals are dominated by their past and identities, asserts Kronman. While some aspects of one’s identity are hard to change, such as gender, others are more flexible, like ethnicity and nationality. However, as educational institutions began teaching young people about the virtues of their distinctive cultures, so students came to see themselves through culturally infused lenses. Some students passing through the American education systems enter as Americans and leave with hyphenated identities: Asian-Americans or African-Americans (1).

Kronman recalls that celebrating diversity in American schools began in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. The idea that schools should play a role in shaping democracy was established by the progressive education movement early in the century. Hence, in the Sixties and Seventies, education was seen as having a crucial role to play in addressing past injustices dealt to minority groups. While the Supreme Court initially ruled that this was a political not an educational objective, schools learnt to present their new mission in purely pedagogical terms: that culturally diverse classrooms were educational for its students. Of course, at one level, this is correct. We can learn from the diverse experiences of people from different cultural backgrounds if we are placed in the same room as them. Kronman rightly points out that the problem arises when diversity becomes an extrinsic aim of education, replacing the pursuit of knowledge: the values and identity of students overshadow learning about the world as the primary focus of classrooms.

Kronman is careful to note that the crisis afflicting the humanities arises mostly from pressures outside of education, in a wider crisis of ‘spirituality’, but he also sees education as having a part to play in returning moral questions to its curricula. The humanities is in a unique position to help us respond because they ‘meet the need for meaning in an age of vast but pointless powers and satisfy our desire to understand for the intrinsic pleasure such understanding affords’. Kronman probably overstates the potential of education to reverse a crisis that is fundamentally political and cultural in nature. However, academics can certainly play an important role by standing up for the intrinsic worth of their profession rather than allowing it to continue to be subservient to extrinsic goals. Kronman’s defence of the humanities is a very strong point of the book. Teaching in Yale’s humanities programme, he gives a clear account of its educational value in communicating to students a sense of our humanity. In discussing the need to resuscitate the humanities, he argues:

‘It is the love of man that needs to be restored: the love of the amusing, tragic, contradictory creature who yearns to be the master of his fate and transform the world in pursuit of ambition, but to whom Sophocoles says, death comes in the end regardless – the inescapable end, foreshadowed from the start, which alone confers meaning on the doomed but magnificent campaign to overcome it.’

The humanities address this task through their exploration of human ideas, products and cultural traits forcing students to ‘confront a wider and more disturbing diversity of opinion than they now do in their college and university classrooms’. For instance: ‘Achilles’ reflections on honour and memory and the fleeting beauty of youth; Shakespeare’s defence of love against the powers of “sluttish time”; Kant’s struggle to put our knowledge of certain things on an unchallengeable foundation so as to place the knowledge of others forever beyond reach; Caravaggio’s painting of the sacrifices of Isaac, which depicts a confusion of loves that defeats all understanding.’

Yet Kronman is keenly aware that such a task is only possible if academics can restore truth as a central value to their institutions. Without a relationship to truth, knowledge becomes meaningless. Knowledge has meaning for people only because it helps them make sense of the world around them. Kronman notes that students are motivated by an inner ‘curiosity about the reasons and causes for the world’s being as it is’, which is characterised by an absence of understanding. This leads to a quest for knowledge or the process of education at the end of which lies a second sense of wonder. Here, our wonder about things has been transformed into wonder at them, asserts Kronman, ‘to amazement at the structures of things and our capacity to grasp this structure ourselves’. In essence, education is a thing of beauty in and of itself, regardless of its utility. It is also unique to the human world and thus contributes to our humanity.

Yet the restoration of the humanities is only possible if knowledge regains its relationship to truth rather than being viewed as culturally rooted. While the relationship of the humanities to truth is more circular and less clearly defined than in the sciences, notes Kronman, it is still just as important. How can we make comparisons and evaluate the moral worth of something without an objective measure? He rightly asserts that many academics believe in the necessity of objectivity, but seem reluctant publicly to acclaim their belief. He observes that ‘there can be no coherent discussion of any subject without an implicit belief in the possibility of discovering the truth about it’. Only by recapturing the essence of the humanities can they challenge the dominance of the research ideal and restore questions about the meaning of life to a position of respectability in American colleges and universities.

Kronman sees some hope in the present political climate on American campuses with frustrations over political correctness, discussions of a spiritual nature brought to a head by fundamentalist religion and the aimless nature of many students’ higher education experience. He probably underestimates the pervasiveness of political correctness and the degree to which it has infused disciplines beyond the humanities, especially the social sciences. His book also addresses only some factors that are contributing to Education’s End. There are other extrinsic goals which have eroded the curriculum including environmental, vocational and therapeutic aims. Nevertheless, Kronman’s defence of the intrinsic value of the humanities and need for education to include a moral dimension in addition to scientific content is an excellent starting point.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University.

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by AT Kronman is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See see Tamar Jacoby in Re-Inventing the Melting Pot

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter