Role of Humanities Debated

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Chelsea Y Zhang

Yale Law School professor Anthony T. Kronman discusses what he called the declining commitment of universities to liberal arts education at the Barker Center yesterday.

Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, defended his controversial new book, “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On The Meaning of Life,” before a panel of professors in the Thompson Room last night.

Kronman spoke at Harvard as a part of the Humanities Center’s series “20 Questions,” in which professors from a wide range of disciplines question notable intellectuals who have written provocative books.

“The real idea is to introduce the widest range of perspectives through the questions as possible, to open up the terrain for discussion,” said Steven Biel, the executive director of the Humanities Center.

Kronman reasserted the main themes of his book, arguing that the humanities’ initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life.

However, because of the influence of what he calls the “modern research ideal,” Kronman said that the humanities have sacrificed this pursuit.

“It seems to be an undeniable fact of the research that the benchmark of one’s standing...largely depends on the volume and quantity of your scholarly work,” Kronman said.

Kronman’s opinions were strongly opposed by all of the questioners.

English Professor James Engell said that students today may no longer be seeking the same end result to their educations.

“Thirty years ago 80 percent of students wanted to get a philosophy of life, compared to only 20 percent today,” Engell said. “Today, the reason given by most students is to be well-off financially.”

Director of the Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha disagreed with Kronman that research interferes with teaching.

“I don’t divest myself of my critical ideals before I go to the classroom,” Bhabha said. “The research ideal doesn’t cramp me, it allows me to translate.”

Another issue Kronman addressed is the increasing need to be politically correct, imposing limitations on both students and professors in the humanities.

But James Kloppenberg, a professor of American history, questioned the origins of this argument.

“There is almost always a lively disagreement in the classes I teach. I would be troubled if there weren’t,” he said.

Although no compromise was reached on either side of the argument, the event ended on a positive note about the value of asking questions.

“We need to put the question at the center of education,” Kronman said.