Buy the Book

Inhuman Humanities

Is PC's 40-year run nearing its end?

By 5.22.08

Send to Kindle

Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
By Anthony T. Kronman
(Yale, $27.50, 320 pages)

How many English majors does it take to make a cinnamon dolce latte? (That's actually the set-up and the punch line.) If current trends continue, java junkies will have to rely not on tragically tattooed English majors but on high school drop-outs and illegal immigrants to mix our ridiculously expensive frappacinos and caramel macchiatos.

With university costs topping $50,000 a year and the cost of food, fuel, insurance, and pretty much everything else rising, majoring in the Humanities seems to make little economic sense. Which is why universities in the US and the UK have seen dramatic decreases in the number of students majoring in English, philosophy, fine arts, classics and history. (The Humanities still thrive in the rarified air of the Ivy League and Oxbridge where money is not generally an issue, but these few schools are the exceptions.)

Indeed the Humanities are a tough sell in the best of times, and God knows it is tough to pay off those student loans on a barista's wages. Today, business savvy students are demanding more bang for their buck, which translates into specialized training, not education.

It is not just the new crop of students who think so. Recently in the UK, an Education Minister drew flak when he called some history professors "ornaments" and suggested their departments did not deserve state funding.

Rising costs, however, cannot completely explain the decline of the Humanities. There must be other factors at work.

The decline of the American university has been a perennially popular subject for editorialists since Henry Adams' day. Nearly 75 years ago, Albert Jay Nock complained that universities were offering training, not education, for the obvious reason that "education is a flat liability," and a "subversive influence." Nock noted that, "circumstances have enabled our society to get along rather prosperously, though by no means creditably, without thought and without regard for thought, proceeding merely by a series of improvisations; hence it has always instinctively resented thought, as likely to interfere with what it was doing."

As early as 1987, Allan Bloom's surprise bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, alleged that universities had "extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life." In subsequent decades Dinesh D'Souza and Roger Kimball have taken up the subject.

Now a self-described non-partisan academic has seen the fading light. Yale law professor Anthony T. Kronman's Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life attempts to explain why the Humanities have been relegated to second-class status somewhere above Physical Ed, but below HVAC repair, and what this may mean for our civilization.

AT ONE TIME the purpose of a university education was to give future leaders an opportunity -- before they shouldered the dull burdens of civic responsibility -- to explore the purpose and value of life. By instilling a strong sense of history, of reason, of logic, of the best of what has been thought and said, a background in the Humanities would prepare a young scholar for whatever may lie ahead.

This, at least, had been the belief going back to Plato's Republic.

Like Nock, Bloom believed the university should provide the student with four years of freedom, "a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate." More important, the college years were "civilization's only chance to get to him." (Somehow I doubt Tom Wolfe would agree.)

The Humanities also served a primary existential purpose, which was to counterbalance "the defects of a democratic order" (Bloom's phrase), and to fill "a void by pointing to the human ends which the ideals of liberty and equal rights are unable to prescribe," adds James Pierson in the New Criterion.

The Sixties Generation broke with this four-thousand-year tradition. If the bugbears of early 20th Century radicals were the consumer-driven economy and the thoughtless pursuit of material comfort, then the Baby Boomers' bete noire was Western Civilization and all it entailed.

From then on, social change, rather than concerns about work and consumption, would be paramount on college campuses. Such change would not come from the government or the people, but from the university, since the university was uniquely situated to tackle moral issues. After all where else could one find so many smart, morally superior persons? First, however, the university, and its Humanities departments (the propagandizer of the elitist, racist, sexist, imperial tradition of Western culture) must change and adapt.

In the subsequent 40 years the radicals and their political agenda have triumphed unopposed on the college campus, so much so that today's student is compelled to conform to an intolerant progressive doctrine if he hopes to receive his sheepskin. Students are now told that there is a single right answer and, like the Sphinx, only he, the professor, possesses it.

Inevitably this atmosphere of conformity and groupthink results in a sterile learning environment, where dialogue and debate are limited for fear of uttering the wrong sentiment and facing disciplinary action.

A RADICAL FREE MARKETER might say that the Humanities deserve their fate since they proved unable to compete in both the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas. However it wasn't the marketplace that killed the Humanities, says Kronman. Rather, it was the one-two punch of political correctness and research specialization.

Of these, political correctness and its offspring diversity, multiculturalism and constructivism (which gave us such wonders as "rainforest math" and "African math") have done the most damage. With more women than men on college campuses, and near majorities of foreign students, to say nothing of the distinctive viewpoints, experiences and traditions they bring, political correctness is seen as an "instrument of corrective justice" -- payback for the sins of all of the Dead White Males that created the racist, patriarchic and imperial West.

Not only are the ideas and institutions of the West and the works that embody them no more valuable than those of other non-Western civilizations, but professors find it difficult to teach Western Civilization courses when they loathe its chief representatives. Lost in this political quagmire is the question of how we can hope to understand or appreciate or compare and contrast ourselves to other cultures if we are wholly ignorant of our own?

The final blow to the Humanities has come in the form of the modern research ideal, an idea that honors and rewards original scholarship, specialization, and incremental thinking, and whereby academics "choose an inch or two of the garden to cultivate," and which the Greeks and the renaissance scholars knew was the antithesis of true learning.

Kronman reminds us that specialization is anathema to the broad study of the "great conversation" that has been going on throughout the history of Western Civilization. When he focuses on original discoveries, Kronman argues, "a scholar does not aim to stand where his ancestors did. His goal is not to join but supersede them and his success is measured not by the proximity of his thoughts to theirs, but by the distance between them -- by how far he has progressed beyond his ancestors' inferior state of knowledge," all of which leads him to pretentious philosophical departures like deconstruction, where one misses the big picture by focusing on the minutiae. As Pauline Kael's reminded, "Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole."

Despite the obvious doom and gloom Kronman sees reason for optimism. Political correctness has had a 40-year run and at long last seems to be on the wane. A few universities are even dusting off their Great Books courses.

And then there is obstinate human nature. The instinct to find an ultimate meaning remains as powerful as ever, it has just been directed away from its proper home in the universities toward fundamentalist religion, New Age spiritualism, and Barack Obama's campaign.

It's time to bring the eternal questions home. Can I get a "Yes we can?"

Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.