Essentially, it talks about the failure of universities to provide a true humanistic education to the students passing through its gates, and what that means for society's spiritual (but not necessarily religious) investigations. The article acknowledges that those studying the sciences fare better, though I believe that anyone in any discipline could benefit from humanities courses taught well. The difficulty, the writer posits, is that when the humanities left a secular but still spiritual pursuit of the questions Why are we here? and What is the meaning of life? to pursue narrow, specialized research fields, they lost their power, prestige and the interest of their students.
What I'm interested in is the obviously deep curiosity people have for the big questions, and how they go about trying to find their way toward insight, even without guidance or organization. After all, this curiosity is what led me to stumble upon Joseph Campbell, and then embrace him as a teacher. As Kronman, the writer of this essay, says:
Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school.
So maybe we got screwed in college. So maybe we should have been studying Plato, but we were (somehow, in my case) studying Madonna. What do we do now?
For me, I couldn't agree more with Kronman--the answer isn't in the unique inflection of a religious tradition, but in the larger, more universal explorations of human mythos, consciousness, philosophy. So, we go and we find like-minded people, and we teach ourselves. I know that this is suited for avid readers--and while I am one, I recognize not everyone is--but again, starting out with Joseph Campbell's accessible The Power of Myth book or DVD could be the beginning of a direction.
Then, as we progress, we can follow Kronman's suggestion, which begins by discussing the similarities of programs devoted to these larger questions. He writes: (emphasis mine)
That notion above--"that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength"--obviously speaks to me as a writer of fiction. But I see it as an exhortation to those of you who may not always see the potential art has to be more than be an elegant and decadent luxury.
These programs differ in many ways, and inevitably reflect the culture of their schools; some are mandatory and others, like Yale's Directed Studies, are elective. But despite their differences, all rest on a set of common assumptions, which together define a shared conception of humane education.
The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.
This is pretty heady stuff, but here's my main message on this Language Day: Read fiction. Study a painting. Read philosophy. Watch a really great film. Get to know Art. Get right up next to these big, huge, ginormous ideas--yes, it may make you uncomfortable, yes, it might be difficult at first. But if you're serious about finding your bliss, you first have to find out what your life means to you, what you have to contribute, what the purpose of your life is.
To me, there's no better, more fun way to do that than to cozy up to some art.