Berkowitz in Policy Review: What is a University For?

Liberal education, says Professor Peter Berkowitz, serves liberal and democratic ends by remaining true to its highest ideals, protecting the classroom from politicization.

Berkowitz' comments appeared in his book review of Anthony T. Kronman's "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life" (Yale University Press), which appears in the December 2007/January 2008 edition of Policy Review.

Berkowitz calls Kronman's book "a compelling reconstruction of the moral and intellectual sources of the culture of political correctness, coupled with an incisive analysis of the severe damage political correctness has visited upon the humanities."

What is a University For? Policy Review, December 2007/January 2008. By Peter Berkowitz.

"For more than two centuries, from the founding of Harvard College in 1636 to the decades following the end of the Civil War, American colleges saw their mission as providing instruction in the ends of human life. Since colleges thought they knew what the best life was, and since instruction proceeded on dogmatic assumptions grounded in Christian faith, Kronman calls this period 'the age of piety.' The curriculum derived from the 'classicist tradition.' It was fixed from beginning to end and drew heavily on the Greek and Roman authors. By the early part of the nineteenth century, colleges had introduced into the curriculum astronomy, geology, chemistry, political economy, and Enlightenment philosophy, but the spirit in which professors conducted their courses remained steady. Faculty regarded themselves first and foremost as teachers and saw no sharp separation between classroom studies and moral education.

"In the years following the end of the Civil War, a new understanding of higher education took hold in the United States. Under the influence of the modern German university, long-established American colleges and newly created American universities alike increasingly embraced 'the research ideal.' Instead of putting the education of students at the center of the university's mission, the research ideal gave pride of place to original scholarship and the production of knowledge. This shift shook the intellectual underpinnings of the classicist tradition. For the research ideal assumed that knowledge was progressive, valued creativity over devotion to tradition and, through the explosion in scholarship it set off, undermined the old belief that a single individual could master the main areas of human learning. These changes, combined with the growing sense in nineteenth-century America that the ends of a human life were plural not singular and that reasonable people could differ about the role of faith in a good human life, transformed higher education. Faculty increasingly wished to teach courses and design curricula that reflected their specialized research interests. And this desire fit conveniently with the increasingly common belief that students were in the best position to choose those among the proliferating variety of courses offered by the university that best suited their interests and ambitions.

"The advent of the research ideal put pressure on the study of the ends of human life but did not banish it altogether. For almost 100 years, such study found refuge in the humanities. There it was protected, but also revised, by another new ideal that emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War. Kronman calls it 'secular humanism,' and his book is devoted to rescuing it. This ideal overlaps considerably with Mill 's high modern liberalism — and so will be familiar to readers of Isaiah Berlin's writings on liberty — but in the end it owes most to Max Weber, particularly in the rigid strictures Kronman advances about the unreasonableness of faith and the disenchantment of the world."

Read the review