“Old words that used to mean something—ideals, meaning, character, self, soul—have come to seem mere floating signifiers, counters in a game played by commencement speakers and college catalogs. Vague and variable as their meanings may have been, there was a time when the big words of the humanities still carried weight. They sustained yearnings and aspirations; they sanctioned the notion that the four-year transition from adolescence to adulthood might be a time of exploration and experiment.
This idea has not disappeared entirely, but the last time it flourished en masse was forty years or so ago, in the atmosphere pervaded by the antiwar counterculture. Indeed one could argue that the counterculture of the 1960s and early ’70s involved far more than the contemporary caricature of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It was in part a creation of young people who wanted to take college education seriously, to treat it as more than mere job training. Beneath the slogans and excess, the counterculture contained a probing critique of the instrumentalist mentality that managed the Vietnam War—the mad perversion of pragmatism embodied in the American major’s words: “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Writers like Albert Camus, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been more often cited than read by young people in the 1960s and ’70s, but those writers’ presence in countercultural discourse suggested the urgent question at its core: How can we live an ethical life amid the demands of illegitimate power?”