Kronman’s description of the researcher’s judgment of the liberal arts teacher as “unprofessional” and “self-absorbed” implies a moralistic strain. Unfortunately, his language eclipses the intellectual trick with which the researcher must delude himself. Of course the individual researcher is concerned with his own mortality. All human beings have an irresistible desire to question life’s meaning. But the researcher does not look to his research to answer or confront that mystery. He looks to his family, his community, or his church to address this mystery.
Or does he? Academics are notoriously non- or anti-religious. They are not terribly active in their community. And many of them sacrifice the well being of their marriage and children for their career. So it seems they do seek to address their mortality in their research. Perhaps this is why the pomposity of many is based on a fragile ego: they need praise to compensate for the incoherence and meaninglessness of their lives which are this way because the research ideal is incoherent. Yet, perhaps in their waking moments, they recognize the incoherence of looking to their research to give their lives meaning. After all, what better way to face the impasse of one’s existential condition than to bury oneself in one’s work? This is the advice deans frequently offer their faculty members who suffer misfortune or tragedy in their lives. Without making the effort to resolve this impasse, research as an answer to one’s mortality becomes a form of escapism, or what Pascal might have called a divertissement. The heroic spiritualism Max Weber attributed to the scholar has become a form of escapism.
Or perhaps the heroic spiritualism has become a form of libido dominandi. The moral case for adding to humankind’s storehouse of information is that this knowledge better enables human beings to control their environment, or to enact the “relief of man’s estate” as an early slogan of modern science attests. But science on its own cannot answer what human good it can do. It dogmatically asserts “relief of man’s estate” is the human good without questioning whether this is really so. Modern science prohibits the same question that Marx prohibits. Weber states bluntly the inability of science to answer what good it does: “Whether life is worth while living and when – this question is not asked by medicine. Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.” The “answer” science seems to give when it tries to answer the question of life’s meaning is to control our world. Yet it cannot answer why one would want to do that, and scientists, who tend to promote the beneficial uses of science, tend also to shy away from asking hard questions concerning the destructive aspects of science, including the potential for worldwide destruction and tyranny. They seem to ignore Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument that civilizational progress does not in fact walk hand-in-hand with scientific progress.
Kronman’s analysis of the research ideal makes it difficult to determine how it can coexist with the liberal arts. No wonder the liberal arts are in such straits in the modern university. Yet, things are not totally bad. The majority of researchers are genuinely curious and intellectually honest. They are not intellectual swindlers. Rather, it seems it is the research ideal, under which researchers and nearly any academic in the Western world, operates and has established a set of incentives for modern scholars (as evidenced by the misery of academics whose calling is to teach instead of to conduct research).
By illuminating this swindle – or call it an impasse if one wishes – is to address not an end-point, but the beginning-point of an intellectual conversation.
It is identifying this beginning-point of the conversation of mankind that the liberal arts can make its mark in reforming the modern university.