University President Richard Levin drew on an unusual source for his annual freshman address this September.
“Undergraduate education should … encourage you to wrestle with the deepest questions concerning lived experience: What constitutes a good life? What kind of life do you want to lead? What values do you hope to live by?” Levin told the 1,300 freshmen crowded into Woolsey Hall.
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Levin’s words were not inspired by Plato, Homer or Herodotus. They came from Sterling Professor of Law and former Law School Dean Anthony Kronman.
Kronman’s book “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life,” an ode to what he believes is a loss of the humanistic tradition in higher education, was recently published by the Yale University Press. Since its publication in September, the book, which cites Yale’s year-long freshman Directed Studies program as the ideal college curriculum, has sparked debate about the traditional works of the “Western canon” and their place in college classrooms.
At Yale and on campuses across the country, students and professors are grappling with the argument at the heart of “Education’s End,” — that despite recent trends toward a focus on pre-professional learning, the canon is still central to a liberal-arts education. Kronman writes that the study of the humanities, while centered on the past, can actually help students move forward in a rigorously professional world.
Kronman said he was inspired to push the academic world back to its classical beginnings during his tenure as dean of the Law School, when he said he began to worry about “shifting fashions and sensibilities within higher education.”
When he stepped down in 2004 after 10 years on the job, Kronman decided to “return to his roots” and teach philosophy — a subject he majored in as an undergraduate at Williams College. Kronman joined the faculty of the Directed Studies program, which appealed to him because of its focus on humanistic inquiry.
Director of the Yale Press Jonathan Donatich said “Education’s End,” which garnered over a dozen reviews in national publications, has received unusual publicity for an academic work.
“Tony has hit onto something here,” Donatich said. “A lot of people feel very strongly about what he’s talking about.”
It is almost impossible for students to encounter writers in the Western canon such as Homer and Plato without asking questions about the meaning of life, Directed Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Jane Levin said.
“We’re reading these books about some of the people who have thought most deeply about what it means to be a human being and what it means to live a flourishing life as a human being,” Levin said.
Kronman expresses the same sentiment in “Education’s End,” in which he writes he discovered that “the meaning of life is a subject that can be studied in school.” According to the book, political correctness and an increasing emphasis on empirical research have banished the search for answers to fundamental questions facing humans from the classroom.
The reading of the canon is at the basis of understanding all fields of inquiry, Kronman argues, and programs such as Directed Studies are integral to a comprehensive education. While Directed Studies is not the only setting in which students can grapple with the larger questions of life, it is particularly effective in exploring such issues, Kronman said.
About 10 percent of the freshman class participates in Directed Studies, which rejects roughly 50 percent of students who apply.
In his defense of dusty tomes, Kronman has received support from some of his colleagues.
Although a student majoring in English may engage in a wide breadth of work outside the Western canon, inquiry into any literature mandates an understanding of the Western tradition, English DUS Lawrence Manley said.
“You want to understand the non-canonical writers? [They] have read the canonical writers,” he said. “We need all the pieces of the puzzle, not just some.”
Several colleges across the country mandate that all students participate in programs similar to Directed Studies, which administrators believe to be the best way to encourage personal inquiry and a inculcate a stronger sense of purpose in life.
At St. John’s College, students’ entire studies are based on the Great Books Program, a systematic study of the western canon. Jonathan Coppadge, a St. John’s graduate who works in the school’s admissions office, said he does not think a classics-based education limits a student’s academic trajectory to the humanities. Seventeen percent of St. John’s alumni go on to work in business, he said.
“Graduates find that this kind of critical thinking and creative questioning that is nurtured in St. Johns is exactly the kind of critical thinking that is required in the business world, in the political sphere and in special education,” Coppadge said.
But heavy emphasis on the most traditional texts of the Western tradition has encountered resistance among some Yalies. Earlier this semester, Directed Studies students Elisa Gonzalez ’11 and Rhiannon Bronstein ’11 formed a group called Diversified Studies to facilitate discussion of feminist and multicultural issues in Directed Studies texts.
While she agrees with Kronman that the texts in the Directed Studies program raise fundamental questions, Gonzalez said it is important to look beyond the traditional interpretations of classical works as well.
“Yes, you’re talking about the meaning of life, but life is more complicated than that,” she said. “Reading these great works of the Western canon gives you this rarefied opportunity to talk about things like the meaning of life, but for some people — at least for me — I feel like certain things in life have gotten more complicated as time has progressed.”
Others with experience with Directed Studies question the value of universalizing an education like that the program offers.
Michael Holquist, who has taught in both Directed Studies and Columbia University’s similar Core Curriculum program, said he does not think the study of classics should be required. Maintaining Directed Studies’ status as an elective is crucial to preserving the program’s intellectual vigor, he said.
“The crucial difference is that the core is required of Columbia undergraduates,” Holquist said in an e-mail. “As a result, many of the students not only lack motivation, they are downright resentful of the time many of them feel they might better use taking something more relevant to their career after graduation.”
Although Kronman argues in “Education’s End” that great questions of life should follow students throughout their academic careers, political-science major and Directed Studies alumna Janet Xu ’08 said she thinks these questions become less relevant after freshman year.
“I think one of the reasons that D.S. should remain a freshman-year thing is that you’re only naive for so long,” Xu said. “You can only contemplate the meaning of life for so long before you realize you need to get an internship, or a job.”
But Xu said she thinks Yale needs to revive its waning dedication to classics. She said she found her Directed Studies classes particularly exciting because of their willingness to delve into humanistic inquiry.
Jonathan Bregman ’10, who was in Kronman’s Directed Studies philosophy section last year, said Kronman’s teaching style as well as the texts the students read allowed the class to delve into personal questions, particularly while reading “Fear and Trembling,” Soren Kierkegaard’s famed essay on faith and moral philosophy.
Kronman, who will return to campus this spring after a one-semester leave of absence to teach one section of Directed Studies, said he wants to see the humanities rise to their former prominence not only among freshmen but among students at all levels of academia.
“I think there is a residual interest in and appetite for a sort of generalized humanistic study,” he said, “but it needs to be liberated.”