Thinking about various recent events and spectacles in higher education—the Ward Churchill fiasco, the shameful dismissal of President Larry Summers at Harvard, affirmative action marketing to the GLBT community at my own alma mater, Yale admitting as a student a former ambassador-at-large of the Afghan Taliban, and the deliberations of the Department of Education’s higher education commission—led me back to a classic of almost twenty years ago. Allan Bloom stunned the academic world in 1987 with his The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, not just because of its sweeping indictment of our elite institutions of higher learning, but also because of the unusually resounding commercial success of a scholarly work by such an intellectual.No doubt it is an extraordinary analysis of the state of the American university and the mind of the students who populate the most elite of the institutions. It is also an in depth survey of the intellectual history leading to the present condition, which is difficult slogging, but very instructive and rewarding for the effort. Essentially, the crisis of liberal education and American intellectual life, according to Bloom, who was certainly no right-wing reactionary, is that no one is prepared to ask or answer the big questions about the nature of man and of good and evil. We have so “closed” the mind of the American student to these philosophical pursuits that we have impoverished their minds as well as their souls and rendered them incapable of determining the nature of man and moral truth. The result is that the large majority of students are “unified only in their relativism and their allegiance to equality, and their greatest fear is not error but intolerance……….
Openness, and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth, is the great insight of our times, and the true believer is the real danger.”The American system of higher education is the envy of the world in engineering, business, and professional education but, in the humanities, where we pursue the answers to the question, who are we?, there has clearly been a relentless hollowing of our core. According to Bloom, more than a century of evolution in higher education standards brought us to this point, but the great ungluing came in the late 1960’s, when university governance completely capitulated to the forces of postmodernism, “openness” was victorious over natural rights, civic education turned away from concentrating on the Founding and the result was the denigration of the core curriculum and the pursuit of philosophical truth. The trend since then, which no one save groups like the Association of College Trustees and Alumni and the National Association of Scholars are doing anything to change, has been anything but encouraging and Bloom, who died about five years ago, would say he told us so. A great read, but not for the beach.