I recently read that Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, c. 1987) was the most significant educational treatise published in the past 25 years, so I was prodded to re-read it. It was, of course, a surprise best-seller when published.
Bloom wrote the book as “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education” (p. 19). They need teachers to serve as midwives–above all helping students deal with “the question, ‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs” (p. 21).
Today’s students, Bloom says, “are pleasant, friendly and, if not great-souled, at least not particularly mean-spirited. Their primary preoccupation is themselves, understood in the narrowest sense” (p. 83). Disinterested in the nature of human nature, they’re preoccupied with personal feelings and frustrations. Not “what is man” but “who am I” is the question! They illustrate “the truth of Tocqueville’s dictum that ‘in democratic societies, each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself'” (p. 86). Indeed, “the self is the modern substitute for the soul” (p. 173).
This Bloom believes, results from today’s pervasive, relativism, a philosophical dogma espoused by virtually everyone coming to or prowling about the university. Under the flag of “openness” and “tolerance,” no “truths” are allowed and everyone freely follows his own feelings. This, students think, constitutes a “free and democratic” society. So even the brightest of our young people know little about history, literature, or theology, for such knowledge resides in books, which remain largely unread, even in the universities.
Minds shaped by films, rock music and television have little depth, and “the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency–the belief that the here and now is all there is” (p. 64). A variety of special interest groups (gays, feminists, Marxists) have eliminated the “great” books (e.g. the Bible, Shakespeare, Plato) from the schools.
Complicating the picture, today’s non-reader lives in what Rousseau described as “his own little separate system.” Thus Bloom says, “The aptest description I can find for the state of students’ souls is the psychology of separateness” (p. 117). The divorce of many of their parents has plunged them into an abyss of alienation, for “To children, the voluntary separation of parents seems worse than their death precisely because it is voluntary” (p. 119). More than anything else, divorce is destroying us, yet our social planners and politicians studiously ignore it!
Having witnessed their parents’ divorce, many young people shy away from any commitments, particularly marital commitments. So they rarely “date,” preferring to hang around in “herds or packs” which require no loyalty. They enjoy “relationships” rather than intense “love affairs” which demand energy and risk.
Thus Bloom concludes the first part of his book, entitled “Students.” While his wide-ranging assertions cannot be applied to all college students, they do provide revealing glimpses into the minds and lives of many of them. We who teach, forever trying to better understand the students entrusted to us, can profit from perusing Bloom.
The book’s second section, “Nihilism, American Style,” takes us in different directions. Here Bloom tries to diagnose the philosophical roots of today’s educational malaise. He begins with “the German connection,” preeminently Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger. An enormous intellectual earthquake has shaken our culture to the foundations. It is “the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time,” the “attempt to get ‘beyond good and evil'” by substituting “value relativism” for Judeo-Christian absolutism (p. 141).
Bloom’s concern for Nietzsche’s influence in today’s universities is well-grounded. Much that marches to the beat of “deconstructionism” comes straight from Nietzsche. Yet for all the erudition displayed, all the enemies assailed, “Nihilism, American style” leaves one wondering if our students’ problems, our universities’ confusion, stem as singularly from Germany as Bloom suggests!
PART THREE of the book turns to “the university.” Here Bloom at times turns nostalgic, remembering the classical studies of his youth at the University of Chicago. He clearly loves the life of the mind which he thinks is endangered in today’s universities. He surveys the history of education in a chapter entitled “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektorastrede,” lamenting “Rousseau’s radicalization of the German university” which transpired in the 19th century.
Consequently, action preempted thought. Rather than absorbing culture, creating a new culture became the ideal. Thus when Martin Heidegger espoused Nazism, urging involvement in the creation of a new political system, he brought to a culmination the politicization of the university. From Heidegger, Bloom moves to American universities in the 1960’s, which easily capitulated to the demands of radical students and continue to appease various strands of “political correctness.”
Consequently, Bloom laments, the liberal arts have virtually disappeared in higher education. Students browse through a salad bar of “subjects,” taught by professors trumpeting a variety of ideologies, without encountering a well-designed program of general education rooted in classical texts and questions. “A good program of liberal education feeds the student’s love of truth and passion to live a good life. It is the easiest thing in the world to devise courses of study,” he asserts (p. 345). All you need to do is read the Great Books! Much that Bloom says makes sense. He opens a window through which to gaze at today’s university scene. Unlike the “classics” he admires, I doubt this book lasts as a “classic” of educational philosophy, but it still deserves careful reading.
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Some of Bloom’s concerns are updated by Martin Anderson’s Impostors in the Temple: American Intellectuals are Destroying Our Universities and Cheating Our Students of Their Future (New York: Simon & Schuster, c. 1992). Anderson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and served as an adviser to both presidents Nixon and Reagan.
One of Anderson’s contentions is that two groups of intellectuals exist in America, but they rarely interact. One the one hand there are “academic intellectuals,” unanimously “liberal” on most issues, protected by tenure and accountable to virtually no one. Their only constituency is fellow professors, who largely share their worldview. For example, at the University of Colorado, less than 7% of the professors in the College of Arts and Sciences are Republicans; no Republicans have been hired in the past decade, and the English department, with 57 professors, has no Republican at all! So much for the vaunted “pluralism” of today’s university!
On the other hand are “professional intellectuals,” working in various media, government agencies, private think tanks, etc., far more equitably balanced between liberal and conservative.
Primarily, Anderson argues, academicians should teach. In fact, they don’t! Ernest Boyer’s 1990 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching report, “Scholarship Reconsidered,” indicts professors for failing to profess, failing to give students what they should get, scholarly instruction. Teaching, counseling, grading papers all take time. Time invested in such is time wasted for academic intellectuals tracking tenure via “scholarly” publications–virtually none of which are read, even by others “scholars” in the same discipline.
Taking the professors’ place in the classrooms are graduate students who serve as “teaching assistants.” In elite schools such as U.C. Berkeley, such “assistants” teach upwards of 75% of all classes. The same graduate students frequently must do the research their professors use to advance their own careers. Thus the Ph.D. degree, which should take three or four years to obtain, now takes many graduate students five to ten years.
Anderson urges the universities to radically revise their priorities and programs. “The main business of higher education should be teaching and learning” (p. 121). Teaching, not research, should be lauded and rewarded. To this end he urges the abolition of both teaching assistants and tenure, plus serious action to curtail such things as sexual harassment, political discrimination, and corruption in athletics and finances.
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Whereas Anderson writes as an outsider, Richard M. Huber has long worked within the academy (professor at Princeton, now dean at Hunter College). His book, despite a rather bizarre title, How Professors Play the Cat Guardiner of courses their counterparts handled 50 years ago? Why has tuition increased much faster than inflation for more than a decade?
Pursuing such questions, he discusses the typical issues one expects in such books: curriculum; multiculturalism; affirmative action; teaching vs. research, etc. He brings knowledge, balance, and depth to the discussion, and his endnotes refer one to solid sources for further study.
Most valuable, in my view, are his final two chapters, entitled “Doables,” which offer seven suggestions for quality improvement. They are: 1) “demand meaningful accounting” to bring under control financial practices which would bankrupt other institutions; 2) “encourage early retirement” to eliminate professorial dead wood as well as shrink faculty payrolls; 3) “require teacher training,” since too few professors really understand how to teach; 4) “encourage growth compacts” which rely heavily upon student evaluations; 5) “modify peer review” shifting the initiative for tenure from departments to administrators; 6) “use technology” such as videotapes more effectively; 7) “mandate differential faculty workloads” so that only professors who are vigorously engaged in demonstrable research enjoy reduced teaching loads.
Huber has some sane suggestions. He understands the multiplied “ironies” of higher education in America–the list of such in an appendix is itself worth pondering. Ask yourself, for example, why “The more expensive the tuition, the more likely a campus concern for America’s ‘oppressed victims'” (p. 148). Or consider: “An increasing endowment does not reduce tuition but inflates it.” Then too: “University teachers hired to teach do everything they can to get out of teaching, even though a strong percentage like to teach” (p. 149). As Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, “so it goes.”
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To hear from those about whom Bloom et al. complain, one need only turn to The Politics of Liberal Education, edited by Darryl J. Gless and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, c. 1992). This book publishes papers presented by professors from America’s elite institutions who gathered at Duke University to discuss the university’s role in the life of our nation.
In the book’s first essay, Stanford University’s Mary Louise Pratt sounds the battlecry which is frequently repeated by subsequent writers: the “Killer B’s” (Allen Bloom; William Bennett; Saul Bellow–plus a non-B, E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) want to strap education back into an outdated and undemocratic straight-jacket of classical studies.
In the process of attacking her foes and arguing for “multi-culturalism,” she quotes, with apparent approval, the discoveries of a “student” who had been prevented from learning such “facts” as follows: “I was never taught in Western Culture the fact that the Khemetic or ‘Egyptian’ Book of the Dead contained many of the dialectic principles attributed to Greece, but was written three thousand years earlier, or that fact that Socrates, Herodotus, Pythagoras, and Solon studied in Egypt and acknowledged that much of their knowledge of astronomy, geometry, medicine, and building came from African civilizations in and around Egypt” (pp. 26-27). Amazingly: “I read the Bible without knowing St. Augustine looked black like me, and that the ten commandments were almost direct copies from the 147 negative confessions of Egyptian initiates, or that many of the words of Solomon came from the black pharaoh Amen-En-Eope” (p. 27). “Fact” has apparently been re-defined as whatever makes one feel good about one’s ancestry!
In place of historical studies which would demolish the inanities of the above paragraph, Professor Pratt describes a course she’s designed which “adopts a comparative perspective–Haitian Vodun and Greek Dionysus are brought together, for instance, in a section on religious syncretism and ecstatic cults; a section on representations of the self juxtaposes the extroverted, historicized self-representation of a Navajo oral history with the confessional modes of St. Augustine and Freud” (p. 28). Now I know a bit about Navajo culture, St Augustine, and Freud–and I’m unable to even imagine “juxtaposing” them!
To argue with the “cultural literacy” advocated by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Duke University’s Barbara Herrnstein Smith denies there is a national culture; indeed, any “tests” for “cul-lit,” as she calls it, are inevitably biased in favor of one’s own elite. Her discussion sounds like a sustained sneer, full of statements such as this: “Cultural Literacy promises practically everything, costs practically nothing, and is produced, packaged, and promoted in a form quite familiar to Americans, whose share of national culture consists as much of media hype and 4th of July speeches as it does of anything on Hirsh’s List” (p. 89).
After quoting Hirsh’s conclusion, which calls for traditional general education, Smith replies: “Wild applause; fireworks; music–America the Beautiful; all together now: Calvin Coolidge, Gunga Din, Peter Pan, spontaneous combustion. Hurray for America and the national culture! Hurrah!” (p. 89). Sneers and more sneers!
Henry A. Giroux, Professor and Renowned Scholar in Residence at Miami University, joins Smith in assailing Hirsh et al. for their undemocratic, anti-utopian fixation on the past. He argues that the universities should encourage “dreaming about democracy,” something which can only happen when students are freed from the arbitrary limits of the literary “canon.” As a spokesman for the people, an advocate of democracy, this “professor and renowned scholar” prods us to ponder such dreamed-up projects as this: “a ‘pedagogy of difference’ needs to address the important question of how representations and practices that name, marginalize, and define difference as the devalued Other are actively learned, internalized, challenged, or transformed” (p. 136). He seems to mean we should learn from outsiders.
Another Duke professor, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, urges us to re-read literature, forever vigilant to its “homophobia,” as well as revise the literary canon to include advocates of gay and lesbian sexual activities. A Princeton professor, Alexander Nehamas, urges us to watch more TV, such as Dallas, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere which “reward serious watching” (p. 164).
In “From Ivory Tower to Tower of Babel?”, Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich assails the “exclusionary” biases of America’s “Founding Fathers” who, “following the Greco-Euro-Anglo male tradition, created a singular, apparently general (if not universal abstraction–the people–which, because it was faulty, not because it was an abstraction, nor because it was a general term, functioned to privilege similarity of a particular kind, similarity to a particular group of men, over difference” (p. 189). (Such tangled prose litters this collection of essays, illustrating the demise of simple English in the academy!) One assumes she means the U.S. Constitution instituted an oppressive regime of, by, and for men!
Another villainous male, Augustine (in Minnich’s view) espoused an “invidious monism” which, by denying the metaphysical reality of evil, resulted in “Woman” being “defined, not as Man’s equal opposite, but as a failed man (Aristotle),” all of which illustrates the “Cyclopean thinking” which Kant considered akin to madness (p. 194). Frankly, wrongheaded reading of giants such as St Augustine is even more maddening!
Stanley Fish, one of the gurus of “deconstructionism,” weighs in with an essay on “The Common Touch, or, One Size Fits All,” arguing there are no “commonalities” which could unify higher education as Bloom and Bennett suggest. In fact, there are so many “dizzying” differences that “it is difference all the way down” (p. 247). Thus the jeremiads contained in “ethicist” books lamenting the loss of tradition can simply be ignored.
Perhaps the most insightful article in this book is that by Richard Rorty, professor of humanities at the University of Virginia, entitled “Two Cheers for the Cultural Left.” Summing up the conference, he noted the “participants” embraced deconstructionist axioms derived from “Nietzsche: truth is a matter of useful tools rather than of accurate representation, the self is a nexus of relations rather than of accurate representation, the self is a nexus of relations rather than a substance, truth and power will always be inextricably interlocked, . . . there is no such thing as ‘rationality’ other than that contextually defined by the practices of a group, etc.” (p. 238).
Conferees, Rorty, continues, applauded such shibboleths as “‘subversive readings,’ ‘hegemonic discourse,’ ‘the breaking down of traditional logocentric hierarchies’ and so on. It chortled derisively at mentions of” the Killer B’s “and nodded respectfully at” references to Nietzsche et al. (p. 233). Rorty actually rises to Hirsch’s defense, suggesting that unless students know something about Shakespeare, for example, it’s a bit difficult to “deconstruct” his work!
If representatives of the “cultural left” gain control of America’s universities–and they seem to have triumphed in some–the concerns of Bloom, Anderson, and Huber seem well-grounded!