THE ALLAN BLOOM BOOK AND MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT LIBERAL EDUCATION TODAY

By George Anastaplo

While both are dear, it is sacred to honor truth above friendship.
–Aristotle,
Nicomachaean Ethics, 1,4

I.

I have been asked to provide the keynote presentation for this conference on College Education Today, using Allan Bloom’s bestseller as my point of departure.  We will be talking on this occasion about what is wrong with education at this time.  Tomorrow morning we will consider together what might be done to begin to remedy the ills we see.

I understand that copies of the Bloom book have been made available to you.  The merits of the book are suggested by the description of it provided on its dust jacket:

The Closing of the American Mind is a powerful critique, by a distinguished political philosopher, of the intellectual and moral confusions of our age.

Allan Bloom, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago and a noted translator of Plato and Rousseau, argues that the social and political crisis of twentieth-century America is really an intellectual crisis.  From the universities’ lack of purpose to their student’s lack of learning, from the jargon of liberation to the supplanting of reason by “creativity,” Bloom shows how American democracy has unwittingly played host to vulgarized Continental ideas of nihilism and despair, of relativism disguised as tolerance.

What we see today, according to Bloom, is young people who, lacking an understanding of the past and a vision of the future, live in an impoverished present.  And our universities, entrusted with their education, no longer provide the knowledge of the great tradition of philosophy and literature that made students aware of the order of nature and of man’s place within it.  Higher education fails to arouse or to nurture the self-knowledge that has always been the basis for serious, humane learning.

A sweeping analysis of the intellectual currents of our century, The Closing of the American Mind is essential to an understanding of America’s spiritual malaise.

I understand as well that copies of my two public discussions of the Bloom book have also been made available to you.  One of these appeared as a review in the 1988 volume of Great Ideas Today (an Encyclopedia Britannica publication), the other was a talk given at the June 1988 annual meeting of the Canadian Council of Learned Societies.  Both of these discussions are scheduled for inclusion in a volume to be published this summer by the Chicago Review Press, Essays on The Closing of the American Mind.

I will assume on this occasion that most of you have read my  critiques of the Bloom book.  I indicate in those critiques that the book is not well written, that it is wrongheaded in several critical respects, and that it may not be in itself worth the considerable effort required to read it carefully.

Even so, it is prudent to notice at the outset that much of the criticism one encounters of this bestseller is ill-tempered and ill-informed, moved all too often by envy.  But, it should at once be added, envy can also be aroused by any review of the book which points out failings that others have been either too partisan or too careless, if not even (in certain quarters) too politic, to notice publicly.

II.

The significant thing about Professor Bloom’s book is not what he says, for that is often either mistaken or banal when it is not simply derivative from a great teacher of his who happens to be unacknowledged in the book.  Rather, the most significant thing about the book relates to the response it has evoked as a bestseller.  That it is a bestseller is due in large part to accident, as often happens in such cases.  This is not to deny that Mr. Bloom, whom I have known ever since we were graduate students at the University of Chicago, is a gifted man with intriguing perceptions about the character and failings of college students in recent decades.

Mr. Bloom is gifted as well in his ministering to what he detects to be a malaise in the land.  This malaise, which the determined optimism of the Reagan Administration merely covered over, is in part generated by a general sense of public unease, if not even resentment, about the state of education in this country.  Underlying all this may be concerns about the overall meaning and worth of our life as a people.

Are the fundamental problems here primarily “intellectual” or are they primarily “political”?  If these problems are political, and hence moral, Mr. Bloom is not likely to be of much help, not least because he knows relatively little about the United States and its institutions.  He is, in his accounts of American life, very much in the European tradition, more comfortable in Paris than in Chicago.

III.

The fact that the deeply-flawed Bloom book has been responded to as it has suggests how uncertain our grasp of reliable intellectual standards may be.  The saving element here, however, is that fashions readily rise and fall among us.  Americans go in for periodic breast-beatings, especially when they are challenged by prestigious “foreigners.”  (The book has done well in France also but not, I understand, in Germany–in France, perhaps in part because the French like to bash Americans, but not in Germany because the Germans may not like to be told that America is being corrupted by German metaphysics, albeit metaphysics in a vulgarized form.)

Mr. Bloom’s critique of American intellectual life has something to be said for it.  After all, American intellectuals, and the people they help shape, have not been able to notice properly what is faulty or inadequate in the Bloom book.  Besides, Mr. Bloom has never been stupid, however wrongheaded he may sometimes be–and so there is likely to be something to his critique.

I have indicated that the Bloom book is difficult to read, and this despite its reputation of its being well-written.  I personally have found it very hard going–and I doubt I would have made myself get through it with some care if I had not been asked to do a review of it.  Even so, I had to return to it several times in order to finish it.  It is hard to imagine that most purchasers of the book have gotten much more from it than confirmations of various prejudices they already had about college student life and about the shortcomings of academicians.

One serious danger here lies in the appeal in the Bloom book from the Academy to citizens outside with money, political influence, and votes.  All too many “readers” of the book will be tempted to support misguided efforts to take away control of the Academy from academicians.  The last such efforts of this character were during the McCarthy Period (the 1950s), which, curiously enough, Mr. Bloom does not recall as having done much damage to American higher education.

IV.

The fact that the Bloom book has been responded to as enthusiastically as it has is in large part our fault as educators.

We as educators have helped produce professional critics, as well as a public, who are not equipped to deal properly with seductive arguments.  We should not have permitted education to get into the condition it has.  Rather, we should have ourselves provided popular critiques of education which were soundly based, beginning with assessments of schools of education and what they have been doing for generations to elementary education in this country.  And, of course, we should have been able to produce authoritative critiques of the Bloom book, assigning it to its proper (and properly limited) place as a highly rhetorical memoir.

Mr. Bloom himself would have profitted from proper critiques–and even more from an anticipation of proper critiques, for this would probably have moved him to write with considerably more care than is evident in this book.  Certainly, those of his friends who had an opportunity to read his manuscript before its publication should have questioned this most impressionable of writers much more than they evidently did.

Still, it can be argued, whatever the deficiencies of the Bloom book, it has inspired conferences such as this one.  But academic conferences do take place anyway–and is it not often a matter of chance what is fashionable in any particular season?  Besides, is a temporary preoccupation with the Bloom book going to leave, for a decade or so, the illusion of sufficient compliance in all too many colleges with the continuing demand for a proper examination of liberal education?

Be all this as it may, we much now consider what the harms flowing from the Bloom book are, harms that outweigh the good done by Mr. Bloom in raising as he does the banner of liberal education.

V.

These harms can be conveniently gathered, for our immediate purposes, under three categories.

First, there are the harms that come from teaching the young, especially the more gifted among them (who include some of Mr. Bloom’s more devoted students)–from teaching the young and others the wrong lessons about what is and should be successful in the world of education.

Glamor is made to seem more important than it is, as well as connections and publicity.  The Saul Bellow-connection is itself revealing with respect to the Bloom phenomenon.  (See note 12 of my Great Ideas Today review.)  It is instructive how Mr. Bellow is spoken of by Mr. Bloom in the Closing book–and how Mr. Bellow in turn can speak of Mr. Bloom, as may be seen in the excerpt reproduced on the dust jacket of the book:

To me, this is not the book of a professor, but that of a thinker who is willing to take the risks more frequently taken by writers. . . .  It makes an important statement and deserves careful study.  What it provides, whether or not one agrees with its conclusions, is an indispensable guide for discussion, not a mere skimming of the tradition, but a completely articulated, historically accurate summary, a trustworthy resume of the development of the higher mental life in the democratic U.S.A.

I mention in passing that I have not noticed that non-academic writers are more prone to take risks than academic writers.  If anything, the non-academic writers (who are not apt to be protected by anything comparable to tenure) tend to be more cautious.

Much of the appeal of Closing depends upon its obvious sensibility–upon what there is in Mr. Bloom’s soul which “resonates” with the troubled souls of would-be intellectuals in the country at large.  (See note 40 of my Great Ideas Today review.)  But, the young are apt to be taught, however bad things are, you can still advance yourselves, using Mr. Bloom’s career as a model.  The risk here, of course, is that one becomes a caricature of oneself, with one’s “image” and one’s effect becoming more important than a careful examination of the enduring questions with which liberal education should be concerned.

One consequence of the “success” syndrome I have been diagnosing is that there tends to be a neglect of what is going on in many small colleges in this country, where teachers are interested in good books and are routinely introducing their students to them, with the students coming out as quite decent human beings with a capacity (and sometimes a desire) to learn even more.  These schools are lost sight of when the prestigious schools are made as much of as they are by Mr. Bloom.

But, it will be said, the “best schools,” which are in some ways corrupted, are shaping the future.  Are they?  Or are they being left behind?  My own, no doubt limited, experience with the smaller schools has been encouraging:  I find again and again, upon visiting one unfamiliar campus after another, pockets of teachers and administrators interested in providing their students with useful introductions to the best of Western thought.  Would it not be unduly self-centered of me to dismiss these observations as unreliable for the simple reason that these happen to be the schools which have had the good judgment to invite me to their campuses?

It should be recognized, however, that the faculties in the smaller schools are apt to lose their self-confidence, that self-confidence which it is necessary for them to have in order to continue to do the good work they do, if they should pay too much attention to the jeremiads of the New York mass media crowd and of the pundits who happen to make this or that educator into a celebrity.

It is important for college faculties everywhere to be reminded that if their students read the best books properly, the education provided them can be on its way to being as good as the best education of old.  A very good education was once provided students with far fewer resources than are available to most colleges today, a fact which is both sobering and reassuring to notice.

VI.

We have been considering the harms that come from making much of “success” in education.  I turn now to a second set of harms that can flow from the Bloom book.

The way Mr. Bloom has made his case for liberal education, working as much as he does from his traumatic and somewhat unrepresentative Cornell University experience in the Sixties, tends to identify the cause of an old-fashioned liberal education with the conservative political movement in this country.  (The Allan Bloom-William Bennett alliance here is revealing.)

The “conservative” thrust of Mr. Bloom’s approach may be seen in the virtual closing of his mind and soul to the nobility of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Vietnam War resistance among the young in the Sixties.  It is reflected as well in his evident hostility to feminist aspirations among us, aspirations which are as much entitled to respect as they are in need of firm correction.

What happens to a liberal education effort intimately linked to the conservative political movement if that movement should come to be generally repudiated as insensitive, unjust, or ineffective?  We have already seen what can happen to that movement as we have watched it, for the sake of political expediency, accommodate itself to huge national deficits, to secret arms deals with terrorists, to callous race-relations policies, and to revelations of sophisticated draft-dodging a generation ago by now-eminent political figures who were in their youth gung ho for American (but not for their personal) participation in the war in Vietnam.  (A pale reflection of these accommodations may be seen among those “conservatives” who deride the Bloom book in private even as they publicly put on a brave front in support of it as “useful.”)

I do not mean to suggest that liberals have not contributed to the tendency to identify old-fashioned education with the conservative political movements.  For one thing, liberals have foolishly permitted conservatives to take over the causes in this country of moral decency and of simple patriotism.

Still, the liberal political movement must be reckoned with, especially among the faculties in small colleges who will do much of the work needed in liberal education during the next decade.  I and others have had the repeated experience of having to assure college faculties disturbed by the Bloom book that one need not be, or appear to be, a political conservative in order to promote liberal education.

In any event, liberals as well as conservatives very much need to be challenged, instructed and refined by genuine liberal education, an education which usefully opens the mind to some things and properly closes them to other things.

VII.

We have been considering the harms that come from making much of “success” in Academia and the harms that come from identifying the cause of an old-fashioned liberal education with the contemporary conservative political movement in this country.  I turn now to a third kind of harm that can flow from the Bloom book, the harm that comes from misconceptions about what liberal education is and does.

It certainly will be no recommendation for liberal education if it should permit itself to be associated with insensitivity, vindictiveness, and meanspiritedness.  For example, what is likely to be make of liberal education if someone as inadequately trained as Tom Haydon (one of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial defendants) can now exhibit himself as more generous and more self- critical than Allan Bloom and his cohorts?  Thus, Mr. Haydon can say, in his recently-published memoirs about the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War resistance, “Our cause was both just and rational, even if all our methods were not.  Our values were decent ones, even if we could not live up to them.”  (See Reunion, p. 324.  See, also, ibid., pp. 505-506, for Mr. Haydon’s summary of the sacrifices made by young people in their radical efforts in the Sixties.  It is instructive that his account includes in its index no reference to the Cornell University disturbances, so little did they seem to him to figure in the overall struggle in which he was immersed.)

We need do no more here than touch upon the misconceptions promoted by the Bloom book about philosophical discourse and hence liberal education itself.  I have addressed this issue in some detail in my Great Ideas Today review.  You, as the faculty of a conscientious Lutheran College, are much better equipped than I am to assess one facet of Mr. Bloom’s approach–and that is what he says about the nature, and the place in education, of religion.

I have provided, in my discussions of Closing, reviews samplings of Mr. Bloom’s carelessness in drawing upon our greatest authors, a carelessness particularly distressing when exhibited by someone who has been as careful as he has been in his most helpful translations of Plato and Rousseau.  The history of ideas that Mr. Bloom provides his readers, and that he seems to depend upon, is superficial and all too often unreliable.  Thus, not enough is made by him of the grandeur, if not the awesomeness, of the influential scientific endeavors of recent centuries.  On the other hand, far too much is made by him of the supposed influence in the United States of Germans such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, something which I believe I have discussed at sufficient length in my reviews of the Bloom book.

Such can be the harms, in their various aspects, flowing from the Bloom book.  The best corrective, in response to the book, is found in liberal education itself.  A sober citizen body led by soundly-educated men and women would confidently assign The Closing of the American Mind to its proper place, an assignment which Professor Bloom himself would in principle have to endorse.

____________________

Presented at:

Lenoir-Rhyne College
Faculty Retreat
Lutheridge Camp
Arden, North Carolina
May 22, 1989

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