Elevating the Great Books Anew

Author of Education's End explains his critique of the standard college curriculum and what he would do about it.
September 26, 2007

In his new book, Anthony T. Kronman argues that the American college curriculum is seriously flawed for not giving students a true grounding in the classics that explore the human condition. Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press) mixes Kronman's assessment of the problems in academe with a set of proposed solutions. Kronman, the Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University, responded to questions about the book.

Q: Why have our our colleges and universities "given up on the meaning of life"?

A: Those who teach in our colleges and universities are nearly all graduates of Ph.D. programs, in which they learn to measure success in higher education by the standards of the research ideal. From the vantage point of that ideal, the question of life's meaning -- of what I should care about, and why -- is too large, too sprawling, too personal to be a subject than any specialized scholar feels comfortable tackling. The research ideal has squeezed this question from the field of respectable topics, especially in the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to it. The humanities today seek to compete with the natural and social sciences on the ground of the research ideal. But this is a competition they can never win. In the process, they have distanced themselves from the one question which they, of all the disciplines, are best equipped to address.

Q: You note that there are places, like Columbia University, which have maintained requirements based on the "great books" traditions. Are there other programs of this sort that you respect? Would you like to see colleges go as far as St. John's College?

A: Yes, a number: Reed College has a required year-long humanities course for freshmen, who prepare for their freshman year by reading the Iliad the summer before. Carleton College has a similar program, and the Directed Studies Program at Yale, in which I teach, is another example. Directed Studies is an elective program that takes 120 students each year. They study philosophy, literature, history and politics in a common curriculum that begins with Homer, Herodotus and Plato and ends with T.S. Eliot, Wittgenstein and Hannah Arendt. While I admire St. John's immensely, and believe that its program serves as an admirable counterweight to the directionlessness that prevails at most colleges and universities, I do not think it necessary to go as far as St. John's does. My proposal is a modest one: let's make some space in the curriculum for the organized study of great works of philosophical and literary imagination, recognizing that students (and faculty!) have many other worthwhile things to do as well.

Q: Many say that the era when more people had a common program of great thinkers was also an era when the student body was more homogeneous, wealthier, etc. Would you apply your ideas in different ways at Yale and at an urban, open admissions public university?

A: Even our most elite colleges and universities have become vastly more diverse than they were a half century ago. That is a wonderful thing. But the works of the great thinkers are our common heritage. They belong to us all. It is wonderful to throw open the doors of our colleges and universities -- but terribly sad then to deprive those who were excluded in the past of the chance to become friends with Plato and Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Descartes. The great books program at Columbia was instituted in 1919 precisely to insure that the university's increasingly diverse student body had a shared educational experience, and the opportunity together to explore the perennial questions of life's meaning. That should be our aim today, not just at places like Yale, but in all our colleges and universities. Indeed, I believe the appetite for such a venture may very well be greater at our country's less elite schools.

Q: You write critically of the diversity movement. What's wrong with it?

A: Diversity, per se, is not a bad thing. Indeed, it's a very good thing. Everyone benefits from the experience of going to school with others unlike themselves. But the idea that one's experience and values are deeply shaped by gender and race -- facts about oneself that can never be changed -- encourages the view that our power to reflect critically on our values and to change them is severely limited. And that idea strikes at the heart of the liberating promise of all liberal education. Students who accept this view will not see themselves as standing on the common ground of their humanity, but be inclined, instead, to think that others who do not have the same defining, and unchangeable, characteristics must approach the question of life's meaning in fundamentally different ways. That undermines the spirit of shared engagement on which any authentic and enlightening approach to the question depends.

Q: If a college president read your book and called you and said, "I'm impressed -- what are three things I can do right away?" what would you say?

A: First, consider creating an elective program modeled on the humanities course at Reed, or Yale's Directed Studies Program. Second, give the faculty who teach in the program special recognition for doing so (perhaps in the form of some additional leave time to insure that they don't feel torn between research and their commitment to the program). Third, require students to read three books that deal with the question of life's meaning during the summers before each of their four colleges years. Fourth, make the subject an issue in your own talks, especially your talks to parents, and try, whenever possible, to damp down student and parental anxiety about the need to prepare for a career.


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