Universities and the Big Questions

December 24, 2021 Updated: December 25, 2021


Christmas is usually a time to celebrate with friends and family, indulge in food and drink, and spend more than we can afford buying gifts. But the new COVID restrictions mean that we will, yet again, be denied the usual festivities and celebrations with our loved ones. Perhaps this is a year to stand back and reflect on the nation’s spiritual state.

Like many Canadians of a certain age, I have witnessed the remarkable decline of the Christian Church as a significant social force throughout the industrialized, democratic nations. Yet Christmas and the Christian ethos are woven into the fabric of western civilization. As Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher of science, wrote, “our Western civilization owes its rationalism, its faith in the rational unity of man and in the open society, its faith in its scientific outlook, to the ancient Socratic and Christian belief in the brotherhood of man.”

But the rituals and symbols of Christianity that once carried enormous and powerful public significance have been stripped bare of their profound truths. It is difficult not to see this as a decline and loss. It may be challenging to state the precise nature of this loss, but at its centre is a corrosion of the spiritual dimension of life, a loss that is both profound and unsettling.

Perhaps this sense of loss is nothing more than a romantic nostalgia for an earlier, simpler way of life, the fabled Golden Age of yesteryear, where all was right with the world, God was in his heaven, and one knew where one stood in the great chain of being. But we know too much to return to such absolutist pieties. Pascal’s formula about knowing too little to be dogmatists, and too much to be skeptics, perfectly captures our human dilemma. Nevertheless, when surveying our contemporary society and culture, there is a real enough sense of decline. However we might struggle to define it, and as elusive and imprecise as it might be to categorically state it, something important has been lost.

In his superb book, “The Malaise of Modernity,” Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out that by any material index, western peoples are better off than any society in history. Their well-being, he says, is primarily due to the western embrace of science.

Yet such material comfort has been purchased at a high cost. According to Taylor, we have instrumentalized reason, confining it exclusively to the service of science. Whereas every previous age stressed the importance of rationally deliberating about how best to live, we now insist that reason only addresses existence’s means, never its ends. In the realm of values, human reason is mute. Choices are arbitrary. Does one prefer chocolate or vanilla? Fundamentalist faith or philosophy? Fyodor Dostoevsky or Paulo Coelho?

For moderns, the questions of value, whether moral, political, or aesthetic, are merely a matter of individual choice, of idiosyncratic preference. Beyond the scientific and empirical, we no longer recognize objective truths, nor even the idea that such truths might exist. We are, each of us, self-validating centres, and the values we happen to embrace are legitimate only insofar as we have freely chosen them.

The slide to subjectivism is attested to by the proliferation of so-called “self-care” books. Self-fulfillment, self-realization, and various like-minded nostrums are the holy grail of modern life. We are becoming a society of narcissistic self-absorption, a society where, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously remarked, each is “enclosed in his own heart.”

Taylor is undoubtedly correct that humans seek something more than material well-being. They seek access to a transcendent, more comprehensive whole, some guide to what makes life worthwhile and meaningful.

Regrettably, our public universities have given up on addressing how we should live, what living is for, or what one should care about. These are the most important questions a person can ask, yet universities have expelled such questions from their classrooms, judging them unfit for disciplined study.

In his passionate polemic, “Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,” Anthony T. Kronman, former Dean of Yale Law School, writes, “I have watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities.” He asks, “Why is it that the question of what living is for has disappeared from the roster of questions our universities ask in a disciplined and deliberate way?”

This truncation of the educational mission represents a failure of the first order. A gap needs to be filled, and universities need to forthrightly and unapologetically address the question of how we ought to live.

Perhaps the best summation of education is given by Leo Strauss: “Education consists of learning to read with accuracy and precision what the best minds have said about the most serious questions.” And it is difficult to conceive of a question more serious than how one ought to live.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Patrick Keeney, Ph.D., is an academic and columnist.