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The book that drove them crazy

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Allan Bloom

Celebrating the release of a new 25th anniversary edition of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Andrew Ferguson argues in The Weekly Standard that Bloom’s diagnosis still holds true–that America’s colleges are still not preparing their students for lives well-lived as citizens.

After recounting the initial and entirely unexpected commercial success of the book upon its release in 1987 (“The best best minds in American publishing were boggled. Never in their experience had a book about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger outsold memoirs by Patty Duke, Shirley MacLaine, and Sam Donaldson–combined”), Ferguson turns to describing the world that Bloom railed against:

It’s useful to recall the world Bloom and his book broke into and riled so. In material ways, the United States of America of 1987 seems as remote as Republican Rome. Our national wealth has more than tripled in the last 25 years. The digital revolution, with its upending of commerce, communication, and the habits and patterns of everyday life, was just getting underway. Music lovers delighted in the portability and convenience of their book-sized Walkmans, never imagining the tiny wonders they would be slipping into their shirt pockets a decade hence. Cars, on the other hand, seem to have been roughly half their present size, at least in memory. You couldn’t carry around a telephone unless you yanked it off the wall. Atari was as sophisticated as gaming systems came. And nobody used the words “gaming system.”

According to Bloom, by pointing students to the study of deeper truths and to the appreciation of the good and the beautiful, the liberal arts were to serve as a protection against the distraction of bread and circuses (or mass-marketed rock music, he notes) and prepare them for lives as citizens. Unfortunately, higher education had drifted from this mission:

The purpose of a four-year liberal arts program​–​defended by Bloom as an exploration of the big questions that life presents to the fully conscious human being​–​became confused. What was the point of a bachelor of arts degree? Was it to plumb the depths and origins of Western civilization, which had after all invented the university, and to develop the student spiritually and morally? Or was it to set the kid up for a cushy job? Humanists in our universities lost confidence in the traditional answer. By the time Bloom’s book was released, the crisis in the humanities was acknowledged by everyone except the people who worked in the humanities. Parents wondered why their college-age children were taking classes called “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” and coming home after four years with degrees in “Peace Studies” that cost $100,000. State legislators wondered about political indoctrination at tax-funded universities. The most casual observers noticed that teachers of philosophy or literature could no longer describe their disciplines in plain speech, favoring a professional language that was no more intelligible than Esperanto, and much less useful.


The crisis was​–is​–​a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America​–even Jerry Springer​–​had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.

“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”

He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company. In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.

Read the rest of Ferguson’s review here.