Daniel Webster Program hosts lecture
By Michael Coburn, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 7, 2008
The research culture of the modern university has kept important questions -- such as those surrounding the meaning of life -- from being discussed in the classroom, Yale Law professor Anthony Kronman argued to an audience primarily composed of Dartmouth faculty members on Friday. Kronman's speech was the first ever in the Daniel Webster Program's Janus Lecture Series.
As academics are increasingly rewarded in funds and prestige for their research, humanities professors have been forced to abandon the larger questions of life because these questions are too broad and personal to be answered by the scientific method, Kronman said.
Emphasis on research has relegated the humanities departments to the bottom rungs of the university hierarchy, according to Kronman, because it is difficult to objectively prove anything in the humanities compared to the natural and social sciences.
"It is a competition in which we will always come in third," he said. "In due course we began to realize, 'What are we contributing?'"
As research became more prominent, humanities professors unwisely focused their disciplines around issues of political correctness to justify the humanities' importance, he said. Kronman commended these professors for the righteousness of their causes, such as civil rights and anticolonialism, but said their involvement in politics made them look "ridiculous."
"They dug a pit and threw themselves into it," he said.
Kronman advocated the return of the humanities to its former role in education, which focused on the student's education and the purpose of their lives rather than research and the advancement of knowledge. He did not want to simply return to the Western canon of works taught at universities in the early twentieth century, he said, and added that any new core curriculum must include the great books of Eastern cultures and feminist thought.
"We should not kid ourselves that we can find there an answer to life's meaning," he said. "Yet if we can approach again with loving attention the question of life's meaning we will have begun to educate ourselves in a truly human way."
Kronman believes there is a growing backlash within the study of humanities against research and political correctness, he said.
"The tide of political correctness is beginning to recede," he said. "There is a growing sense of boredom if not disbelief in its central tenets."
Students at the lecture interviewed by The Dartmouth said they supported Kronman's philosophy.
"I feel like the story of my life has just been told," Elise Waxenberg '08 said. "I'm the regretful senior. I was an [economics] major, and migrated to the humanities. Only after four years I realized I haven't learned anything about what the meaning of life is."
Waxenberg is a former member of The Dartmouth Senior Staff.
The lecture was hosted by the Daniel Webster Program, an initiative recently created by Dartmouth government professor James Murphy. The program aims to create an optional core curriculum and hold lectures and conferences on the intersection of classical thought and the modern world.
Murphy believes the Daniel Webster Program would fulfill Kronman's vision for higher education and go even further, bringing classical learning to the social sciences, natural sciences and religious studies, he said.
Dartmouth has neither supported nor denied the creation of the Daniel Webster Program because the College has already set its funding priorities for the duration of Dartmouth's capital campaign, Murphy said. Without college recognition, the program cannot directly solicit alumni for support and funds, he said, and no alumni have officially or monetarily supported the program.