In the September 16 2007 Boston Globe, Anthony Kronman—the Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University—writes, “In a shift of historic importance, America’s college 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.”
Comment this week asked a select group of professors, students and colleagues to respond to Kronman’s article. Today, we present these responses as a mini-symposium on the relationship between academia and religious conviction, in the formation of today’s young adults.
Jump to a response:
- Dr. Aaron Belz (Department of English, Saint Louis University)
- Rev. Ron Choong (Founder and Director, Academy for Christian Thought)
- Steven Garber (Director, Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture)
- Dr. Jennifer Hart Weed (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Tyndale University College)
- Dr. John Seel (Writer & Consultant, Walden Media)
- Dr. James K. A. Smith (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College)
- Greg Veltman (Ph.D. Student, University of Pittsburgh)
Dr. John Seel
Writer & Consultant, Walden Media
Hollow Questions, Hollow Men
There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source from some definitive
The closer I am to fine
Anthony Kronman’s article is both provocative and flawed. He laments the loss of asking “big questions” on today’s university campuses. We know more and more about less and less. We know a great deal about what is, but ignore with studied caution what ought to be. We know how to make a living, but don’t know why one should bother getting out of bed in the morning. College classes, he writes, no longer explore the meaning of life, what one should care about and why, and what living is for. Nothing is more basic, it would seem. Yet nothing is more scrupulously avoided. Kronman wants the college curriculums to ask the questions again. He recognizes that those who control the questions also dictate the scope of the answers.
He traces the history of this change, blaming the shift on the rise of research universities in the late 19th century and the subsequent abandonment of the traditional classical curriculum. The twin engines of science and business created a climate of materialistic rationalism and technological pragmatism that gradually eclipsed questions outside the scope of the scientific method. Reality and the study of it was reduced to what is visible, measurable, and repeatable.
Appealing to an ancient tradition that assumes a correspondence between truth and reality, and assumes that there were objective standards of what is good, true, and beautiful, Kronman wants to reassert worldview thinking back into the modern curriculum—but with a difference: now there are no objective standards. Old questions, new wine. The curriculum would recognize that there is more than one answer to life’s persistent questions, that the number of answers is limited, that the various answers are irreconcilable, and that they necessitate a personal choice. In the past, he notes the founders of the great universities believed that “they knew the answers” and thus felt obligated to pass on those answers to their students. Not so their modern heirs. At their best modern teachers can only pass on questions, not answers. Anything more would smack of dogmatism bordering on the dreaded “F” word, “fundamentalism.”
Is it any wonder that when one no longer has confidence in the possibility of answers, one eventually loses the motivation to ask the questions in the first place? If nothing is true, does anything really matter? If a question has no answer, is it really a question or is it just nonsense?
Kronman’s solution is a throwback to an older form of existentialism, where the benefit comes in the fact that I made a personal choice, but not in the truth of the decision. My worldview is meaningful, because I choose it to be meaningful for me. I can affirm my meaning of the universe either by walking an elderly lady across the street or by unexpectedly pushing her in front of an oncoming bus. The moral significance of the act is in the fact that I made the choice, not in the content or consequence of the act. This is not what the ancients had in mind when they spoke of the Great Conversation. The older humanities professors did not always agree with each other, but they believed in the significance of their disagreements because they were thought to be statements about reality. Not so today. The only agreement is that there is no final truth, no ultimate affirmation, no final cause, and no value in religious affirmations that suppose that there are. The search is the end; the questions are all one has. Kronman’s animus against religious conviction is his animus against any fixed and final absolute. When “truth” is person-specific, the Great Conversation is reduced to the Great Monologue.
Moderns want meaning with autonomy. It’s not possible. This is the real choice that faces the contemporary college professor and student. There is value in these questions because they reflect the repressed but undeniable reality of living in God’s creation as persons made in his image. But to pretend that there is benefit from asking ultimate questions, when no true answers are thought possible, is the academic equivalent of Madonna dressing as a nun: in the end, it’s a costume without conviction, and a humanities program that betrays its ancient heritage.
Director, Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture
It is not possible to read Professor Kronman’s essay and conclude that he is anything less than a gentleman and scholar; he is humane in the very best way, I am sure. Acknowledging that, I am also sure that he is profoundly wrong in his judgment of the possibility of a search for meaning in a world without windows to transcendence and truth. One does not need to draw upon what he identifies as “fundamentalists” to make the argument.
Within his own tradition of Enlightenment humanism, Nietzsche said it early and well: “I am with you. God is dead. But we must be honest about the cost of that claim, viz. we will no longer be able to speak about meaning and morality.” A sober statement, but profoundly honest about what is philosophically possible. One of those I listen to most attentively is the Czech playwright/prisoner/president, Vaclav Havel, who has given years to exploring a philosophically and politically viable basis for responsibility in and for history. Speech after speech, essay upon essay, his thesis is this: if we lose God, then we lose access to meaning and purpose, accountability and responsibility. He is not writing as a Christian, but as someone with the same stark honesty of Nietzsche, realizing that there is a line-in-the-sand: if God is there, certain questions and answers are meaningful; if God is not there, then we can no longer meaningfully ask and answer certain questions. We are, in Walker Percy’s memorable image, lost in the cosmos.
If I were to suggest some reading for Professor Kronman, there are several sources that would be worth his time. One is the series of speeches that T.S. Eliot gave in the 1950s at the University of Chicago, “The Aims of Education.” Trenchant, profound, speaking into an audience of folk not unlike Professor Kronman, Eliot argued that it was not possible to disconnect meaningful learning from meaningful life—and that inevitably leads one to questions of transcendence and truth, to God himself. Across the Atlantic, in that same decade, C.S. Lewis wrote two books, one a “public square” argument taking on the growing secularism of English society, and in particular its meaning for education. Soberly, he called it The Abolition of Man. Making the same argument in narrative form, he wrote what he called “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” That Hideous Strength; the two are meant to be read together. And finally, a more lucid account of the “lost in the cosmos” on-the-ground reality of contemporary humanism and its necessary consequences for higher education is found in The Abandoned Generation by William Willimon and Thomas Naylor from Duke University. Sadly, there is nothing very humane about what they see growing out of Professor Kronman’s hopes and dreams for a world without God.
I cannot help but think of the scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi’s soul-searching, brought about by the two world wars of the first half of the 20th-century. A Hungarian, he could not understand the continuing arrogance of Western humanism to audaciously believe that we were in an age of Enlightenment. Seeing his civilization in ruins, he wondered why. His honest questions led him to honest answers, an—by amazing grace—to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who became incarnate in Christ. A similar pilgrimage took place in the scientist/novelist Walker Percy, wondering why and how his fellow humanists could make their claims in light of “the murderous, mechanized 20th century”—the same world that caused such a metaphysical and moral chill for Polanyi. Probed in his deepest places by Augustine and others, Percy too found his way to the God who is there, and who is not silent—for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.
Reading great books, asking important questions, engaging in real conversations—together they are always at the heart of the best learning. Professor Kronman’s Directed Studies Program at Yale sounds like a curriculum that is intellectually rich, offering avenues for reflection that are wonderfully diverse. My only suggestion would be to add Nietzsche and Havel, Polanyi and Percy to the reading list; and perhaps Lewis too, asking together what on earth did he mean by “the abolition of man”—it is an image that sounds neither humane nor human, which is a real loss for a humanist.
Dr. James K.A. Smith
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Anthony Kronman’s jeremiad about the state of university “education” talks loudly but carries just a flimsy little stick. Like most liberal rants, its imagination and courage are both stunted. Despite its bluster, and even a willingness (gasp!) to sound almost like a conservative, at the end of the day I think Kronman’s vision remains too timid. Here’s why:
While I think his diagnosis of the commodification of knowledge in University, Inc. is right on the money; and while I’m all for a more robust role for the humanities in a university education; and while I’m downright enthusiastic about a university education that actually grapples with “the big questions” about what it means to be human and what it looks like to live “the good life”—the fact is Kronman’s lament points out the need for so much more than he proposes. What’s needed is for the university to recover an understanding of education as formation.
But Kronman’s liberalism won’t let him imagine that. In order for education to be formative—in order for education to actually mold and shape students into certain kinds of people who are primed to live out a vision of the good life—such education needs to be shaped by a story, grounded by a tradition, and oriented toward a particular vision of the Good. But that would entail a violation of cherished liberal principles of the modern university—the stories it tells itself about its alleged neutrality, its supposed tolerant largesse, and its respect for human autonomy and self-determination. This is why he demonizes a “religious” education as the worst possible threat. So Kronman really just imagines a liberal, modern bastardization of a formative education: a syllabus that “raises the big questions,” but then leaves the sophomore in the place of lord and master, free to make her own decisions about the good life. (In this respect, his pedagogical memory is selective: the rich tradition of education that he points toward was not just unabashedly formative. It was, at times, positively dogmatic!)
It’s precisely because Kronman’s diagnosis is on the money that I continue to believe in the project of the Christian liberal arts college. While we, too, have become much too enamored with Research University, Ltd., we might also be the last outpost in North American culture where education as formation remains a possibility.
Ph.D. Student, University of Pittsburgh
In “Why Are We Here?”, Professor Anthony Kronman laments the fact that large research universities in America have lost their ability and the value of engaging students in the bigger questions of life, questions of the soul and the meaning of life. While he correctly identifies that the German research model has taken over as the main model for higher education, he does not address the main problem: the academy as a community.
The only major innovation that the US has provided to higher education is the invention of the community college. While the name seems to imply that care is involved, the exact opposite is the case. With this rise of mass education came the rise of education as technique, at the expense of place and community. Education was no longer about asking fundamental questions, but rather had a pragmatic approach to train people in the techniques of their selected (often by the marketplace) sphere of work. Higher education was in the business of producing technologists to fit into a technological society. This technological society turned out to have quite a different view of what it means to be human and thus, the humanities became a burden to the working of the system. If higher education regained its vision of helping people come to understand themselves and their world, it would need to rethink society as a community, and human beings’ place in it.
So, while I also lament the decline of the humanities at the research universities, they are indeed alive and well at small, more communal institutions. I think that larger institutions can learn from what has been happening at small, often times religious, liberal arts colleges. It is in an intimate and loving community that students have the freedom and trust to engage the fundamental questions of life. What will be required is a more communal vision of society and how students can flourish as human beings within it. There is a communal nature to learning, which is why religious and church-related colleges have been able to continue to ask the important questions. The church as a model of community can be of great insight to higher education.
Finally, Kronman assumes that fundamental questions can be irreligious. The problem is that questions of meaning cannot be asked or answered using technique. It’s only through the risk of engaging the imaginations of students and teachers that one’s fundamental beliefs and religion are challenged and better understood. In the context of community this is a dynamic activity that leads us toward our true humanity, rather than the techniques of our culture.
Dr. Aaron Belz
Department of English, Saint Louis University
It’s inspiring to think that there is a historical dialogue, a “great conversation,” that—listened in on, contemplated, and responded to—has the capacity to convert average citizens to “rambunctiously independent” intellectuals and visionaries. It’s even more inspiring to imagine that American education at any level might pay attention to such a dialogue, and that incorporating it into curriculum would have its intended effect: that it would help students transcend their little lives, full of mundane concerns about tuition payments and roommate squabbles, and fit their glorious souls for eternity, or at least for positions of leadership in the fading American empire.
However, learning to think beyond the mess of daily life by becoming fluent in Augustine, Plato, Aristotle, Tolstoy, et al, whom Anthony Kronman takes for contributors to the canon of great thought, is not enough to prevent a person from becoming the Unibomber or even a run-of-the-mill hustling, Machiavellian capitalist. How many American corporate executives and second-rate politicians have participated in courses such as Kronman’s Directed Studies? Or graduated from St. John’s College? One might argue that Ivy League schools and “great books” programs have turned out more good citizens than bad, and that’s a fair point: but even if that’s true, it is safe to conclude, by reviewing the exceptions to the rule, that there’s no salvation in familiarity with “great ideas” per se. It doesn’t necessarily equip people to be morally good, or even to think freely—and that, I would say, is the main problem with Kronman’s argument.
Kronman attempts to distinguish between “religious conviction” and “spiritual urgency,” between “doctrinaire” fundamentalists and intellectual “shapers of souls,” and eventually asks, “Can the meaning of life be studied independent of religion?” Perhaps it’s telling that he cites the early twentieth-century scholar Alexander Meiklejohn’s answer to this question. Meiklejohn, who believed that matters of “spiritual seriousness” could be studied without “dogmatic commitments,” stood upon what Kronman identifies as the precipice of the collapse of the freethinking humanities-based college, and at the historical beginning of the contemporary research university. I am not familiar with Meiklejohn, but whatever he propounded about the possibility of a spiritual but religion-free academic environment did not exactly take hold, as the first third of Kronman’s essay ably demonstrates.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his famous 1978 Harvard address, framed the collapse of true humanism in slightly different terms. He said that “in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.” For Solzhenitsyn, it is materialism and a resultant “boundless” humanism—an ideology that celebrates human value but does not acknowledge boundaries designed by God—that has led to the general moral collapse of the West, and of America in particular. He calls it “endless materialism” and defines it as “freedom from religion and religious responsibility.”
The trajectory of American society, Solzhenitsyn concludes, is similar to that of communist society in the first half of the twentieth century: “Not by coincidence all of communism’s meaningless pledges and oaths are about Man, with a capital ‘M,’ and his earthly happiness. At first glance it seems an ugly parallel: common traits in the thinking and way of life of today’s West and today’s East? But such is the logic of materialistic development.” The West, he says, inevitably will “reach the stage of anti-religious dictatorship; concentration on social structures with a seemingly scientific approach.” Sounds a bit like life under the bureaucracy of a modern research university, doesn’t it?
Great thinkers like Augustine and Pascal warned at length of the folly of humans trying to live well and be good without acknowledging God—not only acknowledging him, but loving him. Does Kronman dismiss these ideas in his Directed Studies class? When, in the glorious history of the West, do great thinkers begin abandoning God for the idea of God, and then for no God at all? One might even argue that most of this great thought, from Da Vinci to Descartes to Nietzsche to Heidegger, emerged from intellectual cultures that had a basically Christian conception of the universe, and that that is why the study of “great ideas” has become anathema in the modern, politically correct university.
Dr. Jennifer Hart Weed
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Tyndale University College
In a recent advertisement for the Ontario Liberal Party, Premier Dalton McGuinty argues that the greatest thing about Ontario public schools is that they are public—and by public the Premier means non-religious, as he contrasts public education with private, religious education. In contrast, Professor Anthony Kronman laments the current state of American universities as being public in McGuinty’s sense. In Kronman’s view, American universities largely administer career preparation or professional development, rather than teaching students about values and the various ways in which human beings have discovered values through religion.
Stephen Prothero, Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, argues that all Americans need what he terms, “religious literacy,” because religion is an important cultural force. Indeed, one cannot understand western culture without reference to the major western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To leave the monotheisms out of the Middle Ages, for example, would be to revise history. One cannot study Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides without reference to his practice of Judaism, just as one cannot study St. Thomas Aquinas without reference to his Christianity.
If Prothero and Kronman are right, then academia in some quarters is failing its students by overlooking or ignoring the importance of religion in the world and not teaching students to be literate in religion. As with all academic subjects, it is important to teach students how to critically evaluate a given set of answers to a question, as well as to teach them the various answers particular historical figures have offered to that same question. To make our institutions of higher learning in Canada public in the McGuinty sense is to work against the “liberal” nature of a classically Liberal Arts education. Well-educated young people should be literate in religion just as they should be literate with respect to history, philosophy, literature, etc. To ignore religion in academia is not to be “public,” as Kronman puts it, but to deprive our students of a tremendous learning opportunity.
Rev. Ron Choong
Founder & Director, Academy for Christian Thought
I am puzzled by Professor Kronman’s stated concern. The deeper questions he wishes to preserve have always been religious. Religious conviction remains the universal preoccupation of every human community and is intrinsic to the nature of belief. To describe the increasing influence of people ‘motivated by religious conviction’ as ‘a disturbing and dangerous development’ is itself perhaps a disturbing and dangerous development of our academic leaders. Why is there no mention of the positive cultural and social fruits of religious convictions? What was it that prompted our founding fathers to protect the church from government? When did we forget that that the single most important distinguishing mark of a democracy against any form of communism is the presence of religious conviction? Have we forgotten that the legal system itself developed its sense of justice from the presumption of spiritual sanction against perjury? What Kronman calls for is not a return to earlier times of academic bliss but a wholesale attack on the very foundations of education and free human inquiry, that is, free to account for the existence of God without undue pressure.
The special duties of the humanities to offer answers to life’s deeper questions began with religious convictions and an appreciation for the metaphysical realities inaccessible by any exhaustive human inquiry. Kronman is right to challenge the criterion of research as the standard academic measure of progress, but wrong to conclude that the enemy within is religious conviction. The very idea that God does not exist is itself a religious conviction of a high order. It demands conviction that exhaustive studies have denied this ancient sneaking suspicion that there is more to living than life.
Kronman argues for a spiritual seriousness in a nonreligious way. He presumably refers to studying the geist of life without the role of institutionalized religions. Yet it is this very spirit of humanity that expressed itself in religious rituals. All worship impulses are responses to an inner need, and not initiatives for external gratification. That is why religious convictions can survive censure, denial and torture. That is why they thrive despite the urgent renunciations of Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud, Marx and Dewey.
Professor Kronman confuses conviction with commitment. While I resonate with his fear of dogma, within the church, dogmatism has always been met with reformation. No religious tradition today survives untouched by free inquiry, including Kronman’s own religious conviction that we can enjoy spiritualism without being religious.