The Meaning of Life

Anthony Kronman writes in the Boston Globe (9/16), hand-wringingly:
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country's selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.

The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.

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.

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

It's a shame Mr. Kronman didn't do a google search on college courses about the meaning of life. If he had, he would have discovered mine, aptly named "The Meaning of Life". It is precisely about "what we should care about and why."

I suspect this article may have been written a priori. As in--aren't we a crass and consumerist society? And don't all these kids go to school and learn nothing deep? And mustn't it be true that nobody's teaching anything profound any more?

It sounds right but I think it isn't true. There are philosophy departments everywhere, and lots of courses on ethics, and even courses on the good life, or the meaning of life, or ultimate values. Google "the meaning of life" and "syllabus" and you'll find plenty of "meaning of life" classes, including mine. Sheesh!

Thanks to enigman for the reference.


Unknown said...

It is true though that the whole university education is not the same as it used to be. My grandfather always touts this. When he went through college, it was precisely about learning what was important in life. Nowadays what takes precedence is career goals. It's not that the classes aren't there, it's that the bulk of the students aren't focused on them. Universities, especially in the fields of math, science, and engineering, are increasingly becoming more like technical schools.

That's why I couldn't go to a place like UC Berkeley for my engineering degree. I instead went to a school that was committed to educating the whole person. And I was lucky enough to take a few wonderful classes in my philosophy minor about the meaning of life...which totally changed my understand and awareness. Now that I'm out of college and in the "real world" I've continued to ask questions and read whatever I can get my hands on.

Also, btw, I randomly found your blog because a friend of mine goes to your school and I was searching through the class schedule to find classes to tell him to take. :)

Jean Kazez said...

Mr. Kronman wrote a whole book about this, which I haven't read--so no doubt I've been unfair. It never really dawned on me my class offered something unusual, as the things we cover are more or less mainstream ethics issues. But I don't have a bird's eye view of the campus curriculum. I do think college is a good time to think about the big questions--after all, you have to set sail in some direction when you graduate. Besides, it's actually fun.

Unknown said...

You'd be surprised by how little people in general know about, say, existentialism.

In fact I've noticed that even philosophers are (or perhaps were) shrinking away from the topic, as the class that I took in college was sort of looked down upon by the philosophy majors and some of the more mainstream philosophy professors. It seems like people are drifting towards specialization so much that they miss the whole picture. And they start doing philosophy for the sake of discussion and argument instead of for the sake of figuring out how best to live one's life.

Jean Kazez said...

Well, you really can combine clarity and rigor with Big Questions. Those folks probably had the wrong idea...and they missed out!