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The closing of the American mind.

The Closing of the American Mind.

One night before my recent graduation from college I was standing in the library with some classmates, talking about our final papers. One friend explained that the was writing an essay comparing Outrageous Fortune to Desperately Seeking Susan for a popular lecture course called "Women and Film.' Another said she was on her way home to finish a paper on Max Headroom. I can't honestly say anyone was writing about Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Kant.

How did this state of affairs come about? How was the traditional concept of liberal education supplanted by the anything-goes attitude of today's academy? Allan Bloom tries to explain what has happened.* And as hyperbolic, meanspirited, and fuddy-duddyish as he occasionally sounds, his book is an essentially sound analysis of the mess our universities are in and the consequences for our country. Yet Bloom errs by blaming all our intellectual woes on the potent messages of Neitzsche, Heidegger, and Mick Jagger, rather than providing sound histories of what actually happened to colleges. Just as important, he assumes our disease has advanced beyond hope of a cure. Higher education is indeed in a state, but as the enormous sales of Bloom's book--a number one bestseller--testify, a consensus for necessary reform is already in the making.

* The Closing of the American Mind. Allan Bloom. Simon & Schuster, $18.95.

Bloom begins with the argument that the classics are the best materials for grappling with the eternal questions. He thinks that those authors generally accepted as "great' have survived because of their success at forcing generations of readers to think about the permanent issues, questions like: How should I lead my life? What is the best kind of government? The universities' purpose, he argues, is not to train biologists, or help us compete with the Japanese, but to enable the young to enter into dialogue with the great minds of the tradition.

To Bloom, universities are in a state of crisis because they have abandoned this mission, considering it naive, even misguided. Their retreat has had disastrous consequences for college students and the nation, as indicated by Bloom's mouthful of a subtitle: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. As for democracy, today's universities have reduced it to an unthinking prejudice. Without taking seriously either the ideas upon which our government is founded or the undemocratic alternatives, students cannot really believe in the justice of their system.

Bloom does not suggest that we have given up reading the great works of our tradition altogether. But we read them less, and in the wrong way. The supermarket approach to higher education has assured that the classics comprise an ever-diminishing part of college experience. "And there is no official guidance, no university-wide agreement, about what he should study,' Bloom writes. Most universities insist upon only lame "distributional requirements,' in which students sample the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Bloom recognizes that early specialization assures a head start on a career, but denies that the jump is worth the cost. A student who chooses chemistry as a freshman misses "the charmed years when he can, if he chooses, become anything he wishes,' as he puts it. In America, college is "civilization's only chance to get to him.'

Fist-waving radicals

Why does Bloom think our universities stopped asking about the good life? Not surprisingly, he sees the transformation taking place solely in the realm of ideas. Bloom sketches the decline in an intellectual history of education that begins with Socrates, hops to Hobbes, and rambles around Rousseau before coming to a dead halt at Heidegger--all in the course of a single chapter. According to his version, higher education had its heyday in Hegel's Germany during the early 1800s. Soon thereafter, the notion of liberal arts caught on in the United States. Then trouble began brewing on the continent. Nietzsche and Heidegger signaled rationalism's demise. Bloom's emblem is the Rektoratsrede, the pro-fascist speech Heidegger gave upon ascending to the rectorship of the University of Freiburg in 1933. As usual, America was 30 years behind the curve. "As Hegel was said to have died in Germany in 1933, Enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the sixties,' Bloom writes.

He takes the parallel quite seriously. At Cornell, where Bloom taught at the time, administration and faculty capitulated to the demands of radical students in the face of threats, intimidation, and violence. Student revolutinaries waved guns, took professors hostage and threatened their lives. But rather than expel the offenders, the craven Cornell administration agreed to fire an unpopular professor and abolish rules. "These students discerned that their teachers did not really believe that freedom of thought was necessarily a good thing, that they suspected all this was ideology protecting the injustices of our "system,' and that they could be pressured into benevolence toward violent attempts to change the ideology.' The intimidation and violence tapered off at Cornell, but the university continued to respond by destroying itself, removing requirements and acceding to demands for "relevance.' In serving social goals like integration, the university lost sight of its true purpose and relinquished any vision of what an educated person should know.

Bloom hasn't quite sorted out the sixties; he still thinks of the decade as a synonym for rot. Apparently his experience at Cornell was so awful that he cannot distinguish valid demands for relevance from what was immoral, infantile, and destructive about student radicalism. The country was, after all, at war, and the struggle for civil rights was not yet won. Decent people found it impossible to shut the blinds, plug their ears, and read St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet this seems to be Bloom's recommendation for troubled times. Had he been at the University of Freiburg in 1933, I imagine Bloom would have tried to find a quiet library, safe from the clamor of the Nazis and their opponents.

The kind of irrelevant university Bloom recommends does in fact exist. Although he does not mention it, St. John's College in Annapolis and Santa Fe embodies most of his preferences. Its curriculum consists of a chronological reading and discussion of the great books, conducted with undeniable rigor. Several years ago, when I was choosing a college, I visited St. John's Annapolis campus for a few days. I chose not to attend for the reason I imagine Bloom does not teach there. The attitude that permeates the campus is "in the world but not of it.' There are no school newspapers or nerdy student government leaders. No football team and no political activism. Students lead contemplative lives, which they fail to integrate with their active ones.

Bloom ought to realize that a school like St. John's College eliminates the right sort of relevance along with the wrong kind. Higher education must be preoccupied with the meaning of books for life, with the actual consequences of ideas. If you agree with Locke about natural rights you must act accordingly, not just ultimately, but tomorrow. Elsewhere Bloom seems to recognize this, but when he hears the buzzword "relevance,' he sees fist-waving radicals and stops making distinctions. As a connoisseur of higher learning, I expect he does understand that the greatest teachers are those able to tap the contemporary significance of a classic text without slighting its historical meaning.

For a book about the "American Mind,' Bloom says little about how higher education was actually transformed in the United States. He does not sully his account of Nietzsche and Heidegger with an explanation of how their ideas trickled down into practice. Certainly Nietzsche's writings did signify the end of rationalism in some ultimate sense, but how did Beyond Good and Evil bring us Native American Literature, one of the courses Amy Carter recently flunked at Brown?

What's even less convincing is Bloom's opinion that this philosophical evolution has caused a fundamental change in students. Before the revolution, "students were better, more highly motivated.' They studied languages, their lives were shaped by important books, and they had heroes. He has conveniently forgotten the rocket scientists who gobbled goldfish and sat on telephone poles through their college years. No, students back then burned to know. Today, students have "lost te practice of and the taste for reading.' In what is perhaps the ultimate over-generalization in a book not given to understatement, he says they are "in general nice' but without passion, and have become too self-centered for deep love or genuine friendship.

For this he blames Mick Jagger. Bloom doesn't see rock music as an epiphenomenon but a root cause of our malaise. "I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education,' he argues. Because it induces premature ecstasy, the big beat makes it impossible for its initiates to hear the quieter harmonies of Shakespeare. "As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say,' Bloom writes. "And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.' Rock music is closely allied with drugs, which Bloom refreshingly opposes not for moral reasons, but because they make it impossible for students to get excited about books, which provide less intense stimulation.

There is something to his analysis. When no more serious stimulation is available, kids do tend to apply their imaginations and intelligence to whatever is within easy reach--rock, TV, sports, what have you. But bright students almost always put these adolescent fascinations in better perspective when something better is laid at their doorstep. Like most of my male friends, I wasted inordinate amounts of time listening to bands and analyzing rock lyrics. But I don't anymore. Now I waste inordinate amounts of time watching "The McLaughlin Group' and reading the Style section of The Washington Post, but I doubt any permanent damage was done by those lengthy analyses of Boomtown Rats lyrics. Pop tunes may diminish attention spans, but Bloom's portrait of glazy-eyed metalheads who can't focus their eyes on a printed page is a caricature worthy of a Tipper Gore.

Early sexual experience, he supposes, has a similar dulling effect. Having already lost their virginity, many teenagers have seen it all. Worldliness stunts their intellectual and emotional growth. The "erotic' element, the sense of universal mystery that drives students to learn, is missing from their lives. Thus they lack the inclination to ask profound questions. "They may become competent specialists, but they are flatsouled,' Bloom writes. Again, it's refreshing that Allan Bloom isn't a moralist. But all that from intercourse too early? Whatever happened to just going blind? Although there are plenty of good reasons why adolescents shouldn't have sex, I don't think that distracting them from reading is one of them.

When he compares students then and now, Bloom gets confused about the makeup of his sample. At times he sounds as if he is writing about all institutions of higher education, not just our "20 or 30 best universities,' as he claims. At the University of Chicago, where Bloom studied and where he now teaches, the average freshman may or may not be as intellectually curious as his counterpart 30 years ago. But a case could be made that standards have risen at top universities, which once weighed wealth and family heavily in their admission decisions and are now attempting to be more meritocratic. Bloom should be appalled at the Yale and Princeton of 50 years ago, where students accepted "gentleman Cs' and spent the semester skiing.

Instead of following one institution over a period of years, Bloom offers generalized snapshots of before and after. In the forties, when he was a student at the University of Chicago, ideas were taken seriously. Beside this picture we have the debased, unnamed university of today, where relativism reigns supreme. Bloom calls the University of Chicago in the forties "a great university at one of its greatest moments.' Under the leadership of Robert Maynard Hutchins, Chicago was guided by Bloom's vision of higher education. Yet he uses it as a yardstick to measure all other institutions of higher learning. I am not saying that our standards shouldn't be higher. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that University of Chicago's shining moment was typical of what universities were like before the sixties.

Bloom's argument about education failing democracy is somewhat more complicated. In democracies, it is the majority and not a powerful elite that threatens to tyrannize the life of the mind. Even though our society accepts the principle of freedom of expression, the dominance of public opinion in America tends to constrict the range of ideas, censoring them in a way comparable to authoritarian suppression.

Because of this tendency, democratic societies have a special need for enclaves where the free play of ideas can continue unhampered by public prejudice. Thus America needs universities, where anything not only can be said, but is. "The universities never performed this function very well,' Bloom admits. "Now they have practically ceased trying.' In attempting to serve a myriad of social goals, like integrating the races, abolishing sexism, and teaching professions, the colleges, he argues, became mirrors of the larger society, rather than oases from it. Bloom likes it when the university inculcates a belief in democracy, but he objects to its promoting specific democratic values, like racial equality.

His assertion that higher education fosters disbelief in liberal democracy does not stand up. If nothing else survives, one sees a firm insistence on pluralism and free expression among today's students. When a Yale student was disciplined for putting up an anti-homosexual poster last year, most students were dismayed at his views but outraged that he should be prevented from expressing them. Student pressure helped to overturn his conviction. Bloom ought to see this kind of incident as a sign of democratic health.

Where he does have allies, Bloom curiously ignores them. Chicago still retains a commitment to the great books and recently voted to make its requirements even tougher. Nor does he mention Columbia, which would seem to exemplify the curriculum and approach he prefers. I am not sure why he ignores this counterexample. Like many neoconservatives, he seems to prefer posing as a besieged underdog even when he's winning.

These bastions of great books are in fact the exceptions that prove the rule. My alma mater, Yale, is fairly typical. Despite the recently departed A. Bartlett Giamatti's ear-bending platitudes about the liberal arts, Yale retains only a vestigial distributional requirement and allows students to take courses on a pass-fail basis. Although it recently instituted a foreign language requirement, Yale does not require the study of great books. There exists, however, the option to study them in a year-long course called Directed Studies. This sort of alternative is common, comparable to the honors program at the University of Michigan, and the Freshman Integrated Program at Wesleyan. At Yale, less than 10 percent of the student body participates in Directed Studies.

At minimum, a Directed Studies-type program ought to be required for all freshmen. But like most schools, Yale is unwilling to declare that the great books constitute the foundation stones of higher learning. The university refuses to tell students that Plato is more essential than linguistics, which Amy Carter also flunked at Brown. In so doing, it abdicates its central responsibility. Bloom articulates this simple point forcefully.

Despite a lot of noise about bringing back rigor, there is little sign of improvement. Many of the highly touted "new requirements,' are in fields like "gender studies,' and "technology,' instead of literature, history, and philosophy. Bloom is skeptical too of the sort of bromides offered by Secretary of Education William Bennett. "Now, it may be possible, with a lot of effort and political struggle to return to earlier standards of accomplishment in the three R's, but it will not be so easy to recover the knowledge of philosophy, history, and literature that was trashed,' he writes. "Calming the universities down, stopping grade inflation, making students study, all of that may be salutary, but it does not go to the heart of the matter. There is much less in the university to study now.' Bloom doesn't think we can undo what Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the sixties did to the university.

Like the neoconservatives whose company he keeps, Bloom seems contemptuous of any more realistic analysis of our trouble. He succumbs to the easy lure of locating the problems in the exclusive realm of ideology. This prompts him to depict our plight as beyond any remedy other than a national reversion to an earlier way of thinking. But there are many more mundane explanations for why our universities are stuck in a rut. "One cannot and should not hope for a general reform,' Bloom writes. But why not? The biggest obstacles to curricular rehabilitation are merely bureaucratic. Imposing as those may be they don't require us to reverse the course of intellectual history.

The enemies are the tenure system and the power of university departments. Tenure has so many faults, it's hard to know where to begin. But most important, it denigrates teaching in favor of specialized research. Junior faculty members don't become full professors by giving inspiring lectures or preparing for seminars in the great books. As all know well, their time is more wisely spent researching monographs and scholarly articles that will make the case that they are leaders in their fields. Once teachers receive tenure, competitive pressures evaporate; they don't have to teach or publish. Although students generally like great books programs, tenured faculty avoid them like the plague. They lack prestige, and require a great deal of preparation that doesn't double as research for a teacher's next monograph.

The increase in the number of college departments is equally pernicious. At most schools, the number of accredited fields of knowledge has doubled or tripled over the past 50 years. Some of these disciplines have more merit than others. But under the present arrangement, every newly ratified academic field is born with a lobbyist attached at the hip. The department protects the subject's full equality. If a university allows one of its teachers to offer a spurious course like "Feminist Frameworks'--another Amy Carter near-miss--it can be abolished with great effort. But if the school recognizes it as a major or department--Women's Studies--with an office and staff, forget ever getting rid of it. Since the rising power of departments has coincided with a decline in the power of university presidents, no one is in a position to refuse citizenship to the new subjects banging on the door. The entire framework bears remarkable similarities to party politics, in which pressure groups representing special interests undermine the public good. In academia the public interest being overridden is that of the students.

Statesmanship at today's university means arbitrating between essential and inessential. We need deans and presidents with the courage (and power) to abolish the journalism majors, decertify the semiotics departments, and find some better use for the film studies centers. None of this will be easy. But there is no reason why we shouldn't retrace our steps. Bloom is right that the great books are still the best way to examine our lives. Why not just get back to them?
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Author:Weisberg, Jacob
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1987
Words:3231
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