Now twenty-five years old, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987) remains a timely analysis of the demise of liberal education in America. Despite the impact his controversial appeal for educational reform made upon the academic community, it’s difficult to argue that in the quarter century since the book’s publication we’ve made significant progress towards addressing the problem. What were in the Eighties emerging signs of disarray among the university’s three major divisions of learning – the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities – are now established patterns of dysfunction, more the rule than the exception. Having just left a graduate program in humanities, I can attest to that discipline’s ongoing struggle to secure for itself some foothold of prestige within the university, a battle which is complicated at every turn by the demoralizing reality that, no matter how hard it tries to hide the fact, the humanities will never match the natural sciences’ ability to provide humankind with material benefits. The disparity between the three divisions of learning is the result of natural inequalities existing among those distinct intellectual pursuits, but the inequalities are grossly exaggerated by our society’s insatiable lust for utility, a myopic preference which favors the natural sciences above all other forms of knowledge. The net result of this narrowmindedness, Bloom argues, is that the social sciences, to achieve status, abandon their proper role and pretend to possess scientific rigor while the humanities, hopelessly bereft of method or practical utility, become the irrelevant preserve of ancient, dead texts. The natural sciences, meanwhile, rule the nest, forcing all other departments to conform or retire.
Bloom witnessed this transformation at Cornell, and his book diagnoses the crisis with astonishing acuity. The university has, he claims, become too embroiled in the affairs of culture and been deprived of the necessary isolation from society which ensures its academic freedom. Susceptible to the political whims of a democratic society, the university can no longer provide students with a truly liberal education, one that presents a whole host of intellectual alternatives to the status quo and which effectively counters the culture’s obsessive preference for scientific practicality. For the university to thrive, Bloom says, it must remain autonomous. How did it succumb to cultural forces in the first place?
In a chapter entitled “From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektoratsrede,” Bloom lays out an impressively erudite intellectual history detailing the shifting ideological developments that gradually eroded the healthy separation between culture and the university. The Enlightenment, he contends, made reason the organizing principle of society, and drew the university into the rational ordering of things, thus making it vulnerable to the volatile currents of politics and culture. “Enlightenment rejected that moderate Socratic compromise between society and philosophy, poetry and science, which had governed intellectual life for so long,” Bloom argues. “Unlike pre-Socratic philosophy,” he continues, “which had no interest in politics at all, this science wished to rule and could rule.” The tremendous advances made by the natural sciences legitimated, in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers, the dominance of reason as the sole instrument of governance. The university, as a result, became more and more integrated into the homogenized, rational order of society, eventually mirroring the narrow Enlightenment conception of knowledge by privileging the natural sciences over all else.
The trouble, Bloom claims, is that reason alone ultimately fails to provide an account of all things human, and as the unique problems of late modernity and postmodernity emerged, the university was ill-equipped to address them. Fast forward to the nineteen-sixties, when a swarm of bewildering ideas, having percolated just beneath the surface for half a century, suddenly burst out across the American social landscape. Reason, in the form of science, could provide no guidance concerning these radical new questions of equality, truth, and purpose and the university scrambled to steady itself amid the social upheaval. So enfeebled were the human sciences, the only division of the university which might have prevailed against the onslaught, that the university succumbed without a fight to the tide of politicized reforms that swept through its halls and which ultimately refashioned higher education in its image. Bloom pinpoints the steady import of German philosophy by the American education system during the first half of the twentieth century as the root of the counter-cultural disaster. Having secured key allies in popular thinkers such as Freud and Weber – who were sensationally popular in the United States – the more subversive elements of the German intellectual tradition slipped in under the radar. The seemingly innocuous influence of Nietzsche in particular made it almost impossible for the university to mount a persuasive defense of its core liberal ideals against the value relativism of the Sixties. Without ever realizing it, the American university had swallowed nihilism whole and paid for it dearly.
The damage however was not confined to that decade, and we are the inheritors of the crisis. The university remains adrift, Bloom contends, without clearly defined purpose. Independent of and indifferent toward the other branches of knowledge, the natural sciences remain dominant, but its isolation from the other disciplines betrays the disorder of the whole. The question “What is the university for?” remains unanswered. If it exists not solely for the perfection of science or the procurement of specific vocational training, then what?
Bloom proposes that the university ought to equip students for careers as human beings by exposing them to a wider range of human experience and potential than current educational fashion dictates. This means discarding the limited notion of efficacy promoted by the natural sciences and restoring courses in literature and philosophy that earnestly seek answers to our greatest questions. “Man,” after all, “is the problem, and we live with various stratagems for not facing it,” Bloom writes. If we truly wish to confront the question of man we must discover him again in the great works that reveal his nature and best frame his problems, works whose authors still believe that answers can be found. Bloom hopes that we might once more pick up old books, not to impose a postmodern, relativistic reading on them that ignores their original intentions, but to consider soberly whether they might hold answers to our pressing concerns. He writes:
“Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students’ souls.”
Here lies the university’s noble task, to instruct students in the pursuit of truth and beauty, an impossible chore until one acknowledges that such things exist. The natural sciences and the postmodern school have no place for truth or beauty of the sort which might illuminate the question of man, and so by turning back to reliable sources of inspiration such as Plato and Shakespeare, Bloom hopes that we might still ignite in students a curiosity about eternal things. The Great Books, while they do not necessarily hold all the answers, are the best proof that we are in need of them; they confront us with inexplicable beauty and so demand answers.