boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Opinion/Ideas

Why are we here?

Colleges ignore life's biggest questions, and we all pay the price

In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country's selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.

The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency - abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment - move to the center of debate in our society, America's colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.

What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.

For this to happen, teachers of the humanities must reconsider the nature and value of their work, and confront the ways in which the modern research ideal has deformed it. That will require real boldness on their part. But the stakes are high.

The question of life's meaning is a worry of the spirit. Our colleges and universities need to reclaim their authority to speak to the subject, in a conversation broader than any church alone can conduct. The beneficiaries, in the end, will be both their students and the culture they will inherit.

Before the Civil War, America's colleges were small institutions with religious roots, training students for the higher professions of medicine, teaching, ministry, and law. Only a fraction of Americans attended college, and the education they received was based on beliefs whose truth was taken for granted. The Puritan divines who founded Harvard College in 1636 understood their task to be the education of Christian gentlemen, schooled in the classics and devoted to God. They knew the answer to the question of what living is for, and saw that their students learned it.

In the years after the Civil War, however, American higher education underwent a fundamental transformation. Thousands of American educators had gone to Germany earlier in the century to pursue advanced study in their fields, and they returned with a new conception of what institutions of higher learning were for. The German university of the 19th century was based on a novel assumption with no precedent in the history of education. This was that universities exist primarily to sponsor research - that their first responsibility is to provide the space, books, and other resources that scholars need to produce new knowledge.

In the 1860s and '70s, a handful of older American colleges, including Harvard, began transforming themselves into research universities, and a number of new schools, such as Cornell and Johns Hopkins, were established to promote research. The research ideal began to gain influence in every area of study and teaching. Faculty divided into departments, and then into more specialized units of work. Departments of philosophy appeared for the first time, followed by departments of English. In 1893, the department of biology at the University of Chicago was reorganized into five departments of zoology, botany, anatomy, neurology, and physiology. At the same time, the religious premises of antebellum education were called into question, in part as a result of the new scientific spirit encouraged by the research ideal. Increasingly, our colleges and universities, especially the most elite, became secular and specialized institutions.

In the process, the world of higher education assumed the shape it has today. Graduate schools were created; scholarly journals were established to publish research. Centralized control of funds for research became increasingly important. College teachers were expected to have some specialized knowledge of a particular discipline. And students were expected to specialize too, by "majoring" in a particular subject.

In the sciences, the adoption of the research ideal has produced astounding results. Our knowledge of the natural and social worlds, and ability to control them, is a direct result of the modern system of academic research.

In the humanities, however, the legacy of the research ideal has been mixed. We know vastly more today than we did even 50 years ago about the order of Plato's dialogues, the accuracy of Gibbon's citations, and how Benjamin Franklin spent his time in Paris. But the research ideal has excluded the question of life's meaning from serious academic concern as a question too large, too unformed, too personal, to be a subject of specialized research. A tenure-minded junior professor studying Shakespeare or Freud or Spinoza might re-inspect every scrap of his subject's work with the hope of making some small but novel discovery - but would be either very brave or very foolish to write a book about Spinoza's suggestion that a free man thinks only of life, never of death; or about Freud's appealing, if enigmatic, statement that the meaning of life is to be found in work and love.

As this new vision of higher education took hold in America, faculty members ceased to think of themselves as shapers of souls. Today's students are thus denied the opportunity to explore the question of life's meaning in an organized way, under the guidance of teachers who seek to acquaint their students with the answers contained in the rich tradition whose transmission was once the special duty of the humanities.

It has also put the humanities in the shadow of the natural and social sciences. Judged by the standards of these latter disciplines, research in the humanities is bound to seem less conclusive, less accretive, less quantifiable. In philosophy, one can reasonably claim that there has been no meaningful progress since Plato. For a physicist to say the same thing about Newton would be absurd. Teachers of the humanities who judge their work strictly from the standpoint of the research ideal condemn themselves to an inferior position in the hierarchy of academic authority and prestige.

Conservatives who bemoan our schools' disengagement from spiritual questions often point a finger at political correctness, a stifling culture of moral and political uniformity based on progressive ideals. But to blame political correctness reverses the order of causation. The culture of political correctness is only a symptom, a discouraging response to a larger sense of directionlessness in the humanities.

Multiculturalism, anti-colonialism, and insistence on race and gender as organizing principles of study are an expression of the anxious search for a new and morally honorable role for the humanities once their older role as guides to the meaning of life lost its credibility. It is that older role we now need to recover.

Can the meaning of life be studied independent of religion? There are many who doubt that it can. They say that any program of this sort must rest on religious beliefs, which have lost their status as a source of authority in higher education. But that is a mistake. For even after the rise of the research university, with its secular and scientific culture, there were humanists who believed that the question of life's meaning can be studied in a disciplined but nonreligious way. Their approach gives us a model to follow today.

One of the most forceful proponents of this view was Alexander Meiklejohn, a distinguished professor of government and constitutional law, and the president of Amherst College from 1912 to 1924. Meiklejohn insisted that undergraduate education be more than a preparation for a career. He thought it vital that students also explore what he called "the art of living," the spiritual question of how they ought to live their lives. He defended the idea of spiritual seriousness in a nonreligious age, and thought it could be studied without dogmatic commitments.

In the first half of the 20th century, many colleges and universities had programs that sought to implement Meiklejohn's ideal. Most have disappeared, though some survive today. At Reed College in Oregon, freshmen are required to take a yearlong humanities course, for which they prepare by reading Homer's "Iliad" the summer before. Columbia University has a core curriculum consisting of four courses devoted to the masterpieces of Western literature, philosophy, music, and art. At Yale, where I teach, incoming freshmen can apply to the Directed Studies program, which begins in the fall with Herodotus, Homer, and Plato, and concludes in the spring with Wittgenstein, T. S. Eliot, and Hannah Arendt. These programs differ in many ways, and inevitably reflect the culture of their schools; some are mandatory and others, like Yale's Directed Studies, are elective. But despite their differences, all rest on a set of common assumptions, which together define a shared conception of humane education.

The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.

These are challenging works. But they are accessible too, and an 18-year-old with some curiosity about life will find much that is inspiring in them: the great battle scenes of "War and Peace," and Tolstoy's meditations on the insignificance of the individual in history; Descartes' invitation to his readers to doubt everything they think they know, at least once in their lives; Arendt's account of Eichmann on trial, and her chilling description of the "banality of evil"; Virgil's Aeneas and Jane Austin's Emma, both in love, but with more on their minds.

Though critics have attacked "great books" programs as a kind of indoctrination into a European-dominated intellectual canon, the students in my Directed Studies class respond in the opposite way. They become rambunctiously independent. For they learn that the greatest minds in the world are on their side - or aren't, and feel entitled to quarrel with them. A college freshman who has read Descartes, and who crafts her own reasons to reject his invitation to doubt, is on her way to an independence of spirit that is surely one of the conditions to living a meaningful life.

For our humanities departments to make room for this kind of study again, they need not repudiate the research ideal. Much would be lost if they did. But they can insist that teachers in these fields equip themselves to guide their students in an exploration of life's meaning, which can be done with confidence and honor only if the research ideal is acknowledged to have limits.

There are hopeful signs this will happen. The tide of political correctness is receding on our campuses. There is an increasing demand among undergraduates for courses that address the big questions of life, in all their sprawling grandeur, without reticence or embarrassment. At Harvard, Michael Sandel's famous course on justice, which explores the meaning of the concept from Aristotle to Mill and beyond, draws hundreds of students each year. Ten percent of the freshmen at Yale now apply to Directed Studies - more than can be admitted.

Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school.

Our culture may be spiritually impoverished, but what it needs is not more religion. What it needs is an alternative to religion, for colleges and universities to become again the places they once were - spiritually serious but nondogmatic, concerned with the soul but agnostic about God.

Much depends on this. America's entire leadership class now goes to college - something that was not true a century ago. Infusing higher education with a new and vibrant humanism will produce benefits not only for the future leaders of government and business, but for society at large: A richer and more open debate about ultimate values; an electorate less likely to be cowed into thinking that only the faithful have the right to invoke them; a humbler regard for the mystery of life in a world increasingly dominated by technocratic reason.

The most immediate beneficiaries of any such revival, however, would be the young men and women in school today. Instead of offering a disorganized reprieve between the hard work of high school and the challenges of a career, their college education will endow them with priceless materials for a lifetime of struggle with the most important question anyone ever asks.

When this happens, a place in fall's freshman class will be the prize it ought to be.

Anthony Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale and author of "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life."

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES