Meaning of Life 101

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

These days as high school students all over the country tour colleges and scramble to complete their admission applications, one professor says that when they arrive on campus they won’t get the spiritual nurture young adults need. No, he isn’t a dean at Patrick Henry College

In his new book Education’s End, Anthony Kronman — a Sterling Professor of Law at Yale who teaches humanities to undergrads — accuses humanities departments in U.S. universities of dodging their responsibility to help students engage in a time-honored adolescent activity: discovering the meaning of life. Today’s students are so driven, he says, that they are missing the opportunity to consider the future “from a point of view outside the channels of their careers.” Kronman calls for universities to remind students that a job or profession does not equal a life: “For a young person on the threshold of a career,” he writes, “nothing could be more disturbing or helpful.” It’s time to put humanism back into the humanities, he says, and encourage each student to engage with the books they read as steps on the journey to becoming a whole person.

Instead of encouraging students on a personal exploration of meaning, Kronman says, departments of literature and philosophy are approaching great works of literature and philosophy through the prism of a quasi-scientific, highly specialized “research” model. Academicians, he adds, trapped in “the modern research ideal” borrowed from science by way of social science, believe that “the question of the meaning of life is not a professionally respectable subject. It is not a question that a research specialist can pursue without appearing to be a self-absorbed dilettante…”

So far, so good. What college student doesn’t think all-night bull sessions in the dorm mean more than most of what happens in a lecture hall? As I drove home after dropping my daughter off at college and listened to an interview with Kronman on NPR, his comments certainly hit home with me. They brought me back to my own days as a budding Ph.D. in literature, when I happily immersed myself in timeless books, eager to ponder their words and wisdom. After a few years, I’m sorry to say, I concluded that we were spending more time dissecting texts than digesting them, and I dropped out of the program. Fortunately, my love of literature didn’t go away. Today, as a pastoral psychotherapist, I often find that the words of Dante or Sartre come to mind as I’m listening to someone suffering a loss or grappling with conflict or simply yearning for something more in life. Sometimes I speak those words aloud and people respond in different ways: they frown, nod, smile, shake their heads, and sometimes quote them again later on, playing with the words and ideas — cherishing as well as questioning them. We’ve all had intense experiences like these with books. It’s the difference between living and breathing literature and merely developing a critical expertise.

Eager though I was to get my hands on Kronman’s book, when I sat down to read it I was surprised and disappointed. Although he speaks of a contemporary “crisis of spirit,” he portrays religion as uniformly dogmatic and fundamentalist. “[T]he humanities’ loving but unsentimental study of the mortal facts represents a more honest and honorable response to the crisis than either the churches or their critics offer,” he writes. He calls for colleges to “reclaim their commitment to the human spirit without the dogmatic assumptions that religion demands.” The humanities, he says, should “reclaim the tradition of secular humanism as a confident and credible alternative to the fundamentalism of the churches.”

Why paint religion with such a broad brush? Far from being fundamentalist or dogmatic, it’s not exactly news that we Episcopalians find plenty of room for intellectual discussion, heartfelt inquiry, and passionate disagreement. For us, a spiritual journey demands living the questions, as Rilke wrote. Great literature, music and art offer nurture and challenge along the way. (My own adult return to parish life took root in the context of an Episcopal congregation’s lively adult education class on Hugo and Pascal.) That Kronman ignores Christian humanism is especially puzzling in light of the fact that the assigned readings for his own course at Yale include Dante, Kierkegaard, and Eliot. A church is not a university, of course, but that need not be an obstacle to mutual respect and common dialogue.

Kronman’s message is important for all of us who care about young people and especially for college faculty, whose students, coming of age in a time of competition and change, too easily forget that a college education is much more than career preparation. We can all hope that humanities departments sit up and listen. In the meantime, we in the progressive religious community who share Kronman’s concerns — chaplains, parents, parishes — will stand right beside our young women and men, encouraging them to struggle with the tough questions and walk an authentic path.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at

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