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Seeking salvation at Salisbury Forum

SALISBURY — Anthony Kronman began his talk on “The Humanities in the Age of Disenchantment” by quoting Max Weber talking about “disenchantment” in 1917. He wound his way around to poet Walt Whitman and the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the course of an unusual talk at the Salisbury School Friday, Dec. 2, as part of the Salisbury Forum lecture series.Kronman, a former dean of the Yale Law School and currently teaching in that university’s Directed Studies Program, said that Weber, speaking to students in Munich aganst the backdrop of Germany’s impending defeat in World War I and rising social unrest, was concerned that academic life in the modern university was increasingly disconnected from the spiritual foundations of Christian Europe.Weber, according to Kronman, saw a problem in that academics were increasingly concerned with adding to the world’s accumulated store of knowledge in their particular disciplines, knowing all the while that any unique contribution was certain to be superseded in short order, and thus ephemeral.Kronman said that Weber felt that God had been exiled from public institutions and cultural life — “stripped of a connection with the divine and eternal.”As the emphasis in academia and modern life shifted from its religious foundation, humanity took over the role of God. “Humans became masters of their future; and their endeavors were increasingly “defined by their transience.”He said the American tradition of higher education began with small colleges dedicated to turning out “young Christian gentlemen.” Students learned a core curriculum of classics, sciences and mathematics, taught by polymath professors who could and did teach any subject.The faculty of those colleges (almost all of which had a specific religious affiliation), understood their purpose as the “transmission of old knowledge, not the creation of new knowledge.”But as the modern research university evolved, and separate departments were established, the emphasis shifted to adding to the store of knowledge.Kronman pointed to the growing secularization of American life, the growing diversity of society with the waves of immigration in the latter half of the 19th century (and into the early 20th century), the subsequent reinforcement of “consumerist ambition” and the work of Charles Darwin as factors that resulted in the de-emphasis of God.Kronman then took an unexpected turn, arguing for a new kind of academics that moves between a rational, Aristotelian view of the world and what he called “the God of Abraham.”Using Whitman as a starting point, Kronman spoke of the individual as “an unduplicable reflection of the divine,” and then connected to Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish writer, and his particular view of faith as a means of reconnecting the modern university student’s work “to something invulnerable to time, and thus save it from the meaningless.”Or, as Kronman unapologetically put it, to seek salvation.

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