August 31, 2019

A Progressive Defends Liberal Education

I want to call Anthony Kronman’s new book a cry of the heart, but it’s more like a cry of the brain.

We feel the coolness of the mornings now. The school year has begun. Students are entering or returning to colleges and universities with a busy buzz of hope and anticipation.

The only way to begin any new endeavor is with a sense of excitement about life.

In connection to that, Anthony Kronman has a bracing book on American higher education, its purposes and problems. Mr. Kronman, a professor and former dean at Yale Law School, observes the academy in which he’s spent his career and doesn’t like everything he sees. He is generally progressive yet opposes the leveling produced by the steamroller of prevalent political, cultural and educational attitudes. It is a rich book, densely argued. I want to call it a cry of the heart, but it’s more like a cry of the brain, a calm and erudite one.

I focus on two points. One is an idea that has largely been lost, that was once so broadly held that it barely had to be voiced, and on which he performs a rousing rescue operation.

It is that higher education is a fundamentally moral enterprise whose purpose is to help students become better human beings. Universities should be devoted to not only the “transmission of skills” but the “shaping of souls.” Part of their great work “is to preserve, transmit and honor an aristocratic tradition of respect for human greatness.”

Higher education now tends toward specialized disciplines and “the accumulation of ever more recondite knowledge.” The core curriculum is largely gone; educators have no confidence in a required canon of great works. Mr. Kronman argues, echoing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. , that students need to be directed toward the great questions as expressed in science, philosophy and art.

“Could it be,” he asks, “that there are better and worse ways of living—that there are grades of excellence in the work of being human—even if there is no single way that is demonstrably the best of all? Could it be that there is a form of education that increases a student’s chances of becoming an excellent human being, just as there are educational programs for those who want to be outstanding flute players and mechanics? And could it be that those who receive an education in human excellence are … better equipped to play a special and needed role in our democracy?”

Yes, he says. He praises the humanities, which “put the question of the meaning of life at the center of attention.” Among them: “What is love? Does death make life meaningless or is it, in Wallace Stevens ‘ words, 'the mother of beauty’?” “To what extent can we transcend the circumstances of our birth and join the company of others, living and dead, whose social, political and psychological situation is remote from our own? Does modern science illuminate the human condition or obscure it? And perhaps most important, among the diverse examples of lives in which these questions have been pursued with unusual courage and clarity … is there one or some that might serve as an inspiration for my own?” A statesman or saint whose life you just read? A poet, a physicist?

Even to consider such an education involves believing certain things. First, “that there is such a thing as character; that a person’s character can be better or worse; that character is shaped by education; and that one of the goals of higher education is to instill in the student a love of those things for which a person of fine character should care.”

The vocational approach, in contrast, involves the idea that life is all about work and the business of higher education is to prepare you for a profession. This approach ranks students, but in a limited way: It abstains on the question of who the student is. It has a restricted sense of excellence. It asks, Kronman says, “What do I need to learn to be a successful lawyer or computer scientist?” and ignores the more important, “What makes a whole life honorable and fulfilling?”

Wouldn’t you feel better if your son or daughter had gone off to study things like this?

Mr. Kronman offers a calm-minded perspective on the controversies colleges have been facing over the removal of statues and the renaming of buildings named for those who were admired by their contemporaries and now are seen as especially destructive sinners. The controversies usually focus on race and slavery. As I read Mr. Kronman’s book this week, NPR was reporting on universities taking down the pictures of their distinguished scientists who were white males. At Rockefeller University a visiting Rachel Maddow had asked: “What is up with the Dude Wall?” Everyone on it had won a Nobel Prize or Lasker Award. Yet the wall will be rearranged or redesigned, and other schools are following suit. The assumption is that the portraits send a message that to be thought great you must be white and male. This is assumed to be disheartening for the young. I wonder why it is not instigating of achievement. When I joined an overwhelmingly white male profession my thoughts ran more along the lines of “I’ll show you!” Which was human if not especially admirable. A more admirable response would have been, “One day, gentlemen, I’ll join you on that wall and, by expanding the parameters of achievement, inspire the young.”

Mr. Kronman comes down on the side of addition, not subtraction — for building new memorials, not toppling old ones. He’d like more context. But essentially he asks: Why erase history? Why not face it? Are we really “disfigured by emblems of unrighteousness”? Must everything be leveled and scrubbed clean?

He quotes Milan Kundera ‘s “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”:

“You begin to liquidate a people by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was.”

Do we want to forget what it is and was?

Keeping names and statues serves as “a stimulus to modesty.” It reminds us how hard it has been to reach the more advanced position we hold today. It reminds us that even we, “with our more enlightened ideals, are human beings, with the same imperfections as our predecessors, bedeviled by the same tendency to overestimate ourselves.”

Shouldn’t we remember that we are no more able to see things in a perfect light than our ancestors were? The impulse to tear down “destroys the bridge of sympathy between the present and the past” and “invites a swaggering pride that weakens the power of moral imagination itself.”

Such memorials are like “thorns in our side,” reminding us “that others in the past, with human shortcomings like ours, have not always lived up to the better angels of their nature, and that we shall fail to do so as well. They remind us our moral achievements are hard-won and never entirely secure.”

I found all this thoughtful and refreshing. Happy Labor Day to the laborers who built the great and fabled nation that is still this day the hope of the world.

Republished by permission from

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