Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, by Anthony T. Kronman (Yale University Press, 320 pages, $27.50)
If there is an upside to the decline of the humanities as a respectable field of study, it is that conservative intellectuals have entertainingly engaged in chronicling their downfall. Books like Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education have shaped the outlines of a compelling critique, which runs roughly as follows. In an earlier era, the humanities were devoted to studying the highest achievements of Western civilization. But beginning in the 1960s, with the ascent of political radicals to positions of academic prominence, the humanities lost their way. Today, they cast aside the classics of literature, philosophy, and history to dote on the often exaggerated contributions of minorities, women, and Third World cultures. Exit Aristotle, enter Amiri Baraka.
In Education’s End, Anthony Kronman echoes these familiar concerns. The book is notable less for its originality than for its author’s unusual biography. As a professor in Yale’s Directed Studies program and a self-identified political liberal, Kronman has an advantage over the conservative critics whose arguments he revisits here—bien-pensant academics can’t dismiss him as just another “wingnut” wielding his ideological ax against the Ivory Tower.
Kronman’s diagnosis of what ails the humanities is reasonable enough. He believes that three factors account for the field’s woes. The first is what he calls the “research ideal”—the prevalent notion that universities exist primarily to sponsor scholarly endeavor and advance knowledge. Though essential to the natural sciences, the research ideal has a corrosive effect on the humanities. Whereas the sciences seek objective facts, the humanities, concerned as they are with the questions of life’s deeper purpose, forsake those aims when they “aspire to value-free knowledge.” Hence the paradox that, as the humanities strive to emulate modern science, they become less relevant. Similarly, Kronman argues that the division of the field into disparate sub-specialties—a corollary of the “research ideal”—has been counterproductive. Rather than instructing students in “the art of living,” as an older conception had it, the humanities today produce theory-obsessed specialists who can’t be bothered to reflect on the “permanently important” ideas that underlie humanities education.
The second cause of the humanities’ decline, Kronman believes, is the culture of political correctness to which the 1960s gave rise, and which today manifests itself in the worship of “diversity” as the supreme pedagogical virtue. Kronman writes perceptively, if sometimes repetitively, about the disastrous consequences of this transformation, and rightly deplores the dubious notion that race, gender, and ethnicity are appropriate criteria for selecting classroom texts. The sixties’ political upheavals cannot alone explain the humanities’ sad state, Kronman notes. Had the field been more sure of its mission in preceding years, it might not have surrendered so readily to the counterculture’s hordes. Nevertheless, this onetime member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society—that quintessential sixties organization—concludes that, in academia at least, the decade’s legacy has been destructive.
Having spent much of the past year poring over course syllabi for a book on higher education, I can say that, if anything, Kronman understates the gravity of the problem. The ugly fact of modern academic life is that the same professors who claim to abhor bigotry feel no compunction about including the most pernicious racial attacks on whites in their courses. Look up any course with “diversity” in its title and you will find that, more often than not, the assigned texts portray whites as racist and oppressive and American society as a reflection of these alleged prejudices. It was no accident, as the Marxists used to put it, that the faculty at Duke University, unconcerned with anything so trivial as evidence, rushed to condemn the “privileged” white students on the lacrosse team as rapists. The faculty response was an inevitable outgrowth of academic political correctness that, far from eliminating racism, has only sanctioned new strains of it.
If Kronman misses a chance to illustrate the destructive and broad-ranging influence of race and gender theory, he does describe the long-term harm that it does to higher education. The more deeply students are convinced of the futility of seeing beyond their membership in certain groups, the more likely they are to become mere advocates for those groups—that is, expensively miseducated cheerleaders for identity politics. Kronman acknowledges that many humanities programs exist mainly to inculcate students in the “political liberalism” of their professors. Outside academic circles, the suggestion is of course uncontroversial. But it is refreshing to hear a liberal professor at an Ivy League school state it so boldly. Harvard’s Larry Summers was banished for less.
The final factor in the humanities’ downward spiral is the proliferation of what Kronman calls “constructivism,” which others more commonly refer to as postmodernism. In its crudest form, postmodernism holds that all values merely express personal interests or political preferences, and that there can be no objective defense for the truth or wisdom of one idea over another. Kronman provides an engaging (ahem) deconstruction of these ideas.
So far, so good. But the author falters when he allows his liberal pieties to impair his judgment. In discussing the failures of political correctness, Kronman also offers an awkward defense of affirmative action, which he deems “educationally appropriate” to benefit “victims” of injustice in the United States. But it is hard to see how the minority applicants who today benefit from these programs are victims in any meaningful sense, particularly since many have no direct experience with discrimination in America, while others are children of recent immigrants. This is a matter not of mere policy differences, but of philosophical coherence. For if universities are right to use acceptance policies for the purposes of social engineering, there is no obvious reason why they shouldn’t extend the principle into the classroom by way of more “diverse” and “multicultural” syllabi. Universities can view themselves either as defenders of merit and scholastic accomplishment, or as agents of redistributive justice. Both are, in theory, defensible propositions. But only one is consistent with Kronman’s ideal of an elite humanities curriculum firmly rooted in the Western tradition.
A more disappointing aspect of the book is Kronman’s failure to recommend a strategy for restoring standards to the humanities. He urges “forces outside of the academy” to take action, but declines to specify which forces he has in mind—alumni? trustees? divine intervention?—and what actions they might take to shake up an ossified academic status quo. To write a book bemoaning the possible “end” of education, and then to propose no practical way to avoid the grim predicament, seems like a dereliction of duty. And Kronman’s hopeful declaration that the era of political correctness on campus is “coming to a close” is bound to surprise anyone who has observed the annual provocations of radical professors, the excesses of politicized academic departments, and the deferential complicity of administrators. If these are signs that political correctness is moribund, one shudders to imagine what it might look like in full vigor.
Still, Kronman’s intelligent book may yet advance the argument for academic reform. Left-leaning faculty have proven themselves unwaveringly hostile to the conservative charge that the humanities are in crisis. Perhaps they will be more inclined to take notice when one of their number sounds the alarm.