Rescrutinizing the American Mind

November 30, 2007

 

Kalman P. Bland

Kalman P. Bland. Les Todd

Twenty years ago, Allan Bloom published a turgid polemic called The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. The book's subtitle is misleading; the text blames democracy for ruining higher education.

Bloom condemned democracy for its "lack of respect for tradition and its emphasis on utility." Replete with lengthy expositions of the "Great Books," Bloom's text chronicled the betrayal of classical Greek philosophy by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its latter-day disciples, today's liberals. He proclaimed categorically that all "premed, prelaw, and pre-business students are distinctively tourists in the liberal arts." He described the establishment of the M.B.A. degree as a "great disaster," and he indicted the discipline of economics for "overwhelm[ing] the rest of the social sciences and skew[ing] the students' perception of ... human things." Exploiting ambiguous rhetoric, he implied that secular reason was supreme and locked in timeless conflict with "fanaticisms and interests," including religion.

Bloom's misanthropic book enjoyed astonishing success. It sold millions of copies, not because his arguments were understood but because his gripes were popular. In 1987, the seventh year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, when bashing liberals was fashionable, Bloom apparently struck the right chord. His book was co-opted by lazy readers and less-than-astute friends. Sexist defenders of patriarchy, for example, undoubtedly found Bloom's vehement antifeminism comforting. It also didn't hurt sales that Saul Bellow wrote the foreword. Neither did it hurt that Bloom gave voice to stodgy elders who were dismayed at their children's tastes in music, sex, and popular culture.

Between 1987 and 2007, America changed. Owing to factors such as the disastrous war in Iraq, the health-care crisis, growing income inequality, widespread disregard for scientific fact, and mismanagement of Katrina, liberal-bashing is less robust. In the late 1980s, it may have seemed plausible to denounce higher education for failing democracy. Today, Bloom's misguided attacks ring more hollow than ever, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is the politicians in government and not the professors in universities who compromise truth and threaten democracy. Still, Bloom-like attacks against academe from the right have not subsided, with new rounds of criticism ridiculing moral relativism, identity politics, global literacy, and popular culture.

We need embrace neither Bloom's values nor endorse the conservative agenda to be critical of higher education. Progressives, moderates, and traditionalists do share some common ground—including questions about the educational trajectory of our students.

In the May 21 issue of The New Yorker, writer Louis Menand noted that "the biggest undergraduate major by far today in the United States is business. Twenty-two percent of bachelor's degrees are awarded in that field. Eight percent in education, five percent in the health professions. By contrast, fewer than four percent of college graduates major in English, and only two percent in history. There are more bachelor degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all the foreign languages and literatures combined."

At Duke, the cohort of undergraduates majoring and minoring in economics (648) exceeds the students majoring and minoring in philosophy (117) by almost 600 percent. The number of students seeking the certificate in markets and management is staggering: 411. Bloom and Menand would likely grimace.

For every student majoring or minoring in English (252), there is roughly one specializing in a foreign language (266)—perhaps indicating the growing impact of global awareness. The numbers in the sciences, notably the sciences associated with a pre-medicine curriculum, are larger: 434 for biology, 388 for chemistry. Since Bloom, a genuine Platonist, was both envious and suspicious of the natural sciences, it is difficult to guess his likely opinion of Duke's profile.

But like many of us, including Menand, Bloom would certainly lament rampant pre-professionalism. We might all be appalled at the miniscule number of majors and minors in art history (76), religion (69), music (47), physics (47), theater studies (46), literature (34), and classical languages (three who concentrate in those languages, though larger numbers major in classical studies).

That so few students specialize in women's studies (20) or African and African-American Studies (51) would surely please Bloom's elitist heart. But not Menand, since for him the significant part of education "is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything…. We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days."

In 2007, our democratic institutions seem to be withering. We can hope that Bloom's disciples aim their formidable fire at the culprits of the interlocking crises in liberal education and liberal democracy—politicians who promote an arrogant disregard for the perspective and the welfare of others. Even Bloom might agree that hubris is capable of failing democracy, impoverishing souls, and closing minds.