Sunday, September 16, 2007

Why Are We Here? The University as Alternative to Religion?

Here are some excerpts from an interesting piece in Sunday's Boston Globe, "Why Are We Here?", by Anthony Kronman of Yale University, followed by some of my thoughts:

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development. . .

. . . In the humanities, however, the legacy of the research ideal has been mixed. We know vastly more today than we did even 50 years ago about the order of Plato's dialogues, the accuracy of Gibbon's citations, and how Benjamin Franklin spent his time in Paris. But the research ideal has excluded the question of life's meaning from serious academic concern as a question too large, too unformed, too personal, to be a subject of specialized research. A tenure-minded junior professor studying Shakespeare or Freud or Spinoza might re-inspect every scrap of his subject's work with the hope of making some small but novel discovery - but would be either very brave or very foolish to write a book about Spinoza's suggestion that a free man thinks only of life, never of death; or about Freud's appealing, if enigmatic, statement that the meaning of life is to be found in work and love. . .

. . . Conservatives who bemoan our schools' disengagement from spiritual questions often point a finger at political correctness, a stifling culture of moral and political uniformity based on progressive ideals. But to blame political correctness reverses the order of causation. The culture of political correctness is only a symptom, a discouraging response to a larger sense of directionlessness in the humanities.
Multiculturalism, anti-colonialism, and insistence on race and gender as organizing principles of study are an expression of the anxious search for a new and morally honorable role for the humanities once their older role as guides to the meaning of life lost its credibility. It is that older role we now need to recover.
Can the meaning of life be studied independent of religion? There are many who doubt that it can. They say that any program of this sort must rest on religious beliefs, which have lost their status as a source of authority in higher education. But that is a mistake. For even after the rise of the research university, with its secular and scientific culture, there were humanists who believed that the question of life's meaning can be studied in a disciplined but nonreligious way. Their approach gives us a model to follow today. . .
. . . There is an increasing demand among undergraduates for courses that address the big questions of life, in all their sprawling grandeur, without reticence or embarrassment. At Harvard, Michael Sandel's famous course on justice, which explores the meaning of the concept from Aristotle to Mill and beyond, draws hundreds of students each year. Ten percent of the freshmen at Yale now apply to Directed Studies - more than can be admitted.
Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school.
Our culture may be spiritually impoverished, but what it needs is not more religion. What it needs is an alternative to religion, for colleges and universities to become again the places they once were - spiritually serious but nondogmatic, concerned with the soul but agnostic about God. . .

During my years as a graduate student in English Literature I was continually disappointed by the fact that few—if any—of my professors were interested in literature for the same reasons that I was. I was interested in how literature spoke to the “big questions”—the meaning of life, how we should live, what it means to be a person, etc. Unfortunately, most of my professors seemed more concerned with discovering obscure facts about authors and works (which is not without value, I admit) or with deconstructing or dispensing with the very types of meaning with which I was concerned. I was told by some professors at the time that I could make a career of exploring the religious aspects of works of literature because nobody else was doing it, but also that if I were to do so I was likely to be marginalized, especially since I was a Catholic, and worse, a serious one.

So I read with interest this piece which appeared in Sunday’s Boston Globe, “Why Are We Here?”, by Anthony Kronman of Yale. In the article he despairs at the failure of the contemporary university to confront and engage those very questions about the meaning of life. It is an important critique of the contemporary university, and he diagnoses the problem well. He urges universities to return to their historic roots and become places where once again such questions are pondered. To that I say “Amen.”

However, there is also a strange irony to his argument in that the urgency he feels is based upon a fear that without such a return the place where such questions are asked will become the environs of religion, “a disturbing and dangerous development.” His urgency is based on his belief that universities must provide “an alternative to religion.” This fear betrays the fact that his concerns are much more modern than he realizes. He seems to forget that the very idea of a university was forged in a culture that was at ease with religion, not threatened by it. Yes, the meaning of life can be studied independent of religion. Indeed, if taken seriously, it may even be wise to begin there. But the result should not be “an alternative to religion,” but an engagement of religion. To ignore the ways in which people throughout the centuries have answered questions of meaning for fear of being persuaded by some religion or another is to fail to engage the question fully and to ignore the riches of the human spirit. Ultimately, one can arrive at no satisfactory answer to the question “Why are we here?” ignorant of humankind’s religious sensibility and religious heritage. To do so would be to undermine his very argument about the importance of engaging such questions.


Blogger crystal said...

When I went to college I wanted to figure out themeaning of life, the key to the universe, the Truth. I wasn't religious then. Maybe the writer is afraid that religious studies are not meant to discver the truth but only to teach doctrine? In Catholic colleges, do theologians have to have what they teach pre-approved?

3:22 AM  
Blogger angelmeg said...

I have tagged you with the BRA Meme. It really is a lot more prestigious than it sounds. Thanks for being an inspiration to me.

12:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...


Generally, no. Though some theology professors can choose to ask the local bishop for a "mandatum" which, in a sense, gives them Church approval. However, it is not made public who has a mandatum and who doesn't.

12:32 AM  

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