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The university of life—A Commentary by Anthony Kronman ’75

The following commentary was published in the Guardian Unlimited (UK) on October 30, 2007.

The university of life
By Anthony Kronman ’75

At the end of the second world war a programme called directed studies (DS) was established at Yale University. Its purpose was to give students an organised introduction to the civilisation for whose sake the war had been fought. Sixty years later, the contours of the programme have changed, but its basic goal remains the same: to acquaint students with the west's greatest works of literary and philosophical imagination, equipping them with a storehouse of images and ideas on which they can draw as they struggle to find or make meaning in their lives.

DS students take three-year courses in which they read Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Tolstoy and others. At any given moment, all the students are reading the same books and discussing them with their teachers in seminar-size classes. The sense of common adventure is strong and the experience of discovery often intense.

Such programmes are a rarity in the US today. They were once far more common. The ambition they express used to be a fundamental premise of American higher education: that college is a time not merely to learn a specialty and prepare for a career, but also to acquire the moral and intellectual equipment one needs to grapple with the question of what living is for.

This ambition has been discredited by the modern research ideal, which rewards specialisation above all else. Many university teachers today regard the question of life's meaning as one that no serious scholar ought to take up in the classroom. And it has been undermined by the careerist anxieties of students. Those anxieties have flourished in the absence of resistance from teachers too preoccupied with their research to see students as anything more than prospective members of their own specialties, rather than as human beings struggling for fulfilment and love, under the long shadow of death.

The dominance of the research ideal has obscured an older responsibility of the humanities - to train students in what used to be called "the art of living", an enterprise larger than any career. Having abandoned this responsibility, but finding themselves unable to compete, as producers of research, with their colleagues in the sciences, humanities teachers have sought to restore a sense of their mission and role by embracing a variety of progressive causes. This has created a culture of political correctness whose stifling uniformity encourages students to see themselves more as representatives than individuals; it blocks serious engagement with the very personal question of life's meaning.

As a result, American students graduate from college well-prepared for their careers, but under-educated in the meaning of life. In a world where the freedom to explore life's meaning is greater than ever, students are less well-equipped for this challenge than those in past generations - and if they want help in meeting it, they must look beyond their universities to the churches, which now have a dangerous monopoly in questions of spiritual importance.

The tradition of reading great books as a way of introducing students to perennial debates about the meaning of existence is one that American universities borrowed from their British counterparts. That tradition is under pressure in Britain for the same reasons it is in the US: an emphasis on research among teachers and on careers among students; the strangling effects of political correctness; and the spread of religious fundamentalism in response to the demand for a serious engagement with matters of spiritual concern.

Programmes such as DS are a way of fighting back against these pressures. The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott spoke of a "great conversation" among the writers whose works constitute the backbone of western civilisation. This civilisation is the shared inheritance of students on both sides of the Atlantic. To deprive them of it is to leave them without landmarks to navigate the difficult and thrilling business of life. There is time enough to prepare for a career, and for scholarly research. Part of a college education ought to be devoted to something else - to the question of what living is for.

Yale's Directed Studies programme was inspired by a British example. Perhaps we can return the favour by offering it as a model to universities in the UK.

Anthony Kronman is Sterling professor of law at Yale. His new book, Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, is published by Yale University Press.