Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Teaching the Meaning and Meaninglessness of Life

Academic journal article Michigan Academician

Teaching the Meaning and Meaninglessness of Life

Article excerpt


Anthony T. Kronman, in his book Education's End, both critiques the current teaching trends in the liberal arts and argues for a return to teaching "the meaning of life in a deliberate and organized way " (2007, 74) ? While I will use Kronman's work as a springboard, I will diverge significantly from his work as well. First, I will discuss some of the key distinctions that need to be made in order to even start to address something as substantial as the meaning of life, including an examination of the possibility that life is meaningless. I will look at the work of philosophers, literary works, and other disciplines to aid in this examination. Reflecting on the likes of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures, I will argue that the liberal arts/humanities provide the best means for truly making sense of the meaning/meaninglessness of life. Finally, it is only the liberal arts/humanities that can provide the narrative structures, the creativity, and the collation of other disciplines, including the natural sciences, necessary to address such a substantial issue.



Studying something as grandiose as "the meaning of life," in this day and age, seems absurd on its face. Surely the question is either too vast or too personal to be studied in the way one might study, say, math or biology. On the other hand, and in a very real sense, the meaning of life is studied, at least implicitly, in many different disciplines. Whether it is through an attempt to map the various areas of the brain, figure out an economic model that really does make reliable predictions, develop a realistic character in a novel, or make sense of the work of Heraclitus, there is at base an assumption that these studies contribute to an understanding of human life. It is only when the suggestion to study the meaning of life is made explicit that one balks.

Historically, when the meaning of life was overtly studied, it was studied in the humanities or, more broadly, the liberal arts, through engaging classic works. If there is to be a return to explicitly studying the meaning of life, I believe the liberal arts (understood as: natural science, social science, and the arts and humanities) are still best suited for this endeavor. Three recent books, Anthony T. Kronman's Education's End (2007), Jerome Kagan's The Three Cultures (2009), and Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit (2010), provide a departure point. In the following, I will look at the diagnoses as to why colleges and universities stopped teaching the meaning of life. Additionally, I will look at some of the suggestions for teaching the meaning of life and provide my own analysis, including the corollary to the meaning of life--the potential meaninglessness of life. I will end with a brief defense of why the liberal arts are still the best equipped for taking on that task.


While I am concerned with the liberal arts in general, my focus will primarily be on the humanities. The division of the liberal arts into the areas of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities is entangled and complicated, especially in relation to the topic of "the meaning of life." In order to enter that discussion, I choose to start with the humanities, since that is the area most under attack, as being unnecessary or useless. However, I do believe all three areas are ultimately essential in order to achieve any clarity when addressing the meaning of life. I will briefly return to this point toward the end of the essay.

The divisions just mentioned are the three cultures of Kagan's title. Kagan is updating C.P. Snow's famous lecture, The Two Cultures (1959), which presented a division between the natural sciences and humanities. Snow claimed that each culture lived in virtual ignorance of the key ideas, texts, and terminology of the other and that the gulf was getting worse. …

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