The Magazine

College Daze

The 'great conversation' is now the sounds of chaos.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By LIAM JULIAN
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But modern universities are no longer places where secular humanism rules. Today, higher education, including the humanities, responds to the research ideal, which prizes originality of scholarship and specialization above all else.

Participating in the research ideal is something that all instructors on campus now do. Professors-in-training find it impossible to resist the forces of specialization in graduate school. We've moved away from using facts to deduce larger lessons and toward using facts to uncover even more facts, which makes it necessary to specialize in pinpointed topics. For example, professors of English, while they may teach several different courses within a general topic area, spend the bulk of their time researching and writing about one author or one piece of literature. (One of my English professors, whom I very much liked, has written extensively on Br'er Rabbit; he is known as something of a Br'er Rabbit authority.)

The research ideal has produced much good work, especially in the sciences, where specialization has yielded an unprecedented amount of new knowledge, and continues to do so. But according to Kronman it has forced the humanities to reject Oakeshott's "conversation" by championing all new paradigms and rejecting all the old. Thus, instead of interacting with Aristotle, students learn to overturn his modes of thinking, to derive their own ways of making sense of life. These new worldviews do not seek to build upon the foundations of history but to tear down those foundations and replace them. This may seem individualistic--graduate students, especially, are encouraged to chart new territory, to make a name for themselves by revealing new knowledge--but in reality the research ideal is collectivist. The voracious pursuit of new knowledge marches forward, indifferent to those who fuel its progress and ignorant of its own ends.

Perhaps this approach works for the sciences--although, as science begins to push into uncharted territory where ethical implications grow complicated, one wonders how well. In the humanities, though, it simply does not work. The purpose of reading great books is not to derive minutiae about their authors but to explore the facets of the human experience--to make oneself wiser and better able to answer the meaning-of-life questions that are so basic and important. As Kronman points out, the research ideal is ambivalent about the basis of humanity: life and death.

It's safe to say that university humanities departments are more irrelevant now than ever before, the subject of much mockery and derision outside the ivied campuses. In the feverish search to create new ways of viewing the world, professors have constructed their papers and books and courses on the flimsiest of intellectual bases (deconstruction, diversity studies, etc.). Undergraduates ingest this stuff--sometimes willingly, sometimes not--and the ones who can stomach it go on to graduate school, someday to create schemes of their own.

For American higher education, it's no longer worthwhile to investigate the essential questions that have puzzled humans for thousands of years, most basic among them: What is living for? Curious 20-year-olds will have to look outside their college classrooms for answers.

Liam Julian is a writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.