From the December, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Teaching on Purpose by Phillip E. Johnson

Teaching on Purpose

On September 16, 2007, Yale Law Professor Anthony Kronman published an essay in the online edition of the Boston Globe, provocatively criticizing today’s elite colleges for neglecting to address the most fundamental question of all. This is, Kronman wrote, “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, colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life’s most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom.”

“In doing so,” continued Kronman, “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, of course, is something that critics of modern liberal education have been saying for years, and it’s refreshing to hear it from a Yale professor. This is not just an academic question, a matter of what students study, but a critical, blameworthy failure.

Kronman also is worried about the consequences for society as a whole. He warns, “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.” I understand this to mean that the development is disturbing and dangerous because Kronman is worried that religiously motivated people will not accept the naturalistic worldview that is mostly taken for granted in the classrooms of secular universities like Yale.

Kronman thinks that colleges do not address life’s most fundamental questions because 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.” Consequently, the humanities, “the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connections to this question,” have been “badly weakened,” and are now left “directionless and open to being hijacked for political ends.”

Hunger to Explore

Kronman is encouraged that today there seems to be “a growing hunger among students to explore the big questions. As questions of spiritual urgency—abortion, creationism, and the destruction of the environment—move to the center of debate in our society,” Kronman writes, we need “an alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”

He does not speculate on what might happen if teachers at Yale began to take disputes over abortion, creationism, and global warming seriously, without ensuring that the answers were both politically correct and satisfactory to the powerful scientific organizations that define scientific correctness in our institutions.

I think it is all to the good if the dominant metaphysical assumptions in our universities are being questioned, whether the questioners are religiously motivated or not. Nevertheless, I am sure that college teachers hesitate to address the meaning of life, not because they must do research, but because they are confined by the assumption that, in a world created by purposeless material forces, life has no inherent meaning, or at least no meaning of which we can have knowledge. Thus, on this subject there can be nothing more than subjective preferences, unsuitable for rigorous analysis.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend Kronman’s essay for pointing the way to a much-needed rejuvenation of undergraduate education, and also to a reconsideration of the assumptions of the research university. To raise the question of the purpose of life implies that life may well have a purpose, and this premise poses an implicit challenge to the naturalistic worldview, which has for too long been allowed to define rationality in the research universities that dominate our intellectual life.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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