A Review of 'Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life'

By David Chizum

    Anthony T. Kronman. (2007). Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    If you have ever been interested in the meaning of life or how today’s colleges and universities prepare students for more than just their careers, then Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning Life will be a treat for you. Including topical histories, social commentaries, and quotations from copious classical figures and philosophers of every age, Education’s End is at its heart a philosophical work on the shortcomings of higher education and how a return to secular humanism is the solution.

    Author Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School, observes in Education’s End the lack of preparation which today’s young people receive during their college education, specifically the lack of any guidance concerning the meaning of life or, as Kronman states, what living is for. Kronman observed that graduates of the last 40 years, and today’s students in particular, focus on one area of study and are prepared very well for careers in specific fields. However, when that question which most digs at what is ultimately important is posed—why? — the graduate has no confident answers, let alone a background on which to draw in order to develop a response and avoid a major life crisis. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Why do I hold these values? Why do I care? Kronman notes that while every mundane activity may not drive these sorts of uncomfortable questions, anything and everything always can. And so for the many unprepared college and university graduates, as well as PhDs and professors, these important questions about the value of life are regularly, plainly, and painfully dismissed.

    Starting from the presupposition that “our lives are the most precious resource we possess, and the question of how to spend them is the most important question we face” (Kronman, 2007, p. 9), Kronman traces the development and downfall of higher education’s historic solution to this problem, the classical curriculum which dominated higher education from the founding of Harvard by the Puritans to the Civil War, and philosophically addresses the double-edged developments following the Civil War which sought to improve the human condition but instead worked to undermine man’s unique and natural curiosity and desire to know the truth which lies beyond himself. Of the developments from the 1860s to today, Kronman is most critical of two. First is the German-influenced scholastic research model. Counter to the holistic nature of life, specialized degrees and the professional expectation to focus in on an area of research compartmentalizes man’s view of the world and his studies to one field of expertise, preparing him for his career but not for the questions which it and life will raise. The research model is also empirically biased. Kronman finds that while the material surrounding man, the matter which makes him up, and the societal functions which operate around him are widely studied, the meaning of life is not; for there is no way to step outside of it, to observe and experiment upon it. Further, Kronman appeals that due to this bias the sciences—natural and social—are highly academically esteemed while the humanities are wrongly considered inferior and archaic, artifacts of a lost people, culture, and time which are no longer reliable authorities in the wake of higher criticism. Second is the political correctness which dominates Western culture and, as a result, destroys the authoritativeness of the humanities, the academic disciplines which deal most with the human condition and man’s purpose. Kronman argues that the positive attempts at developing equality and racial justice in the 1960s—mulitculturalism and affirmative action, respectively—did incalculable damage to the pursuit of truth by replacing the authority of the Western cultural background with an unstable and unsure pluralism.

    Surprisingly, however, while Education’s End addresses the so-called death of God, the more dangerous and pressing issue Kronman argues is what follows the death of God: the death of man. Man is by nature mortal, he has a life-giving curiosity for as long as he is alive. Yet the death of man, according to Kronman, is not his physical death but the sapping of his spirit, his desire to press the metaphysical limits with his mind and discover all the meaning there is in the world. The goal for higher education and society on the whole, then, is to dismiss the traces of modernity and post-modernity which it has collected and to return to secular humanism which will again encourage and allow man to search out the most meaningful answers.

    To higher education professionals, whether at private, public, faith-based or secular institutions, Education’s End presents a fair and well-formed critique of the limitations of modernity and post-modernity through the historic lens of higher education and, particularly, the worldview of secular humanism. While Kronman’s philosophy is applied to higher education, it is not limited to it. Education’s End is an impassioned call to revive and restore the spirit of mankind by restoring the authority and prominence of the humanities—classical literature, philosophy, history, religion, and the arts—in the mind of the modern man so that young people may be able to answer life’s most important questions, most important of all what living is for.

     

    David Chizum is a graduate student in the MAHE program at Taylor University, where he currently serves as the Graduate Assistant for Publications.

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