The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

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Higher Education and the Liberal Arts

The most stinging indictment of contemporary trends in higher education came from Chicago political theorist Allan Bloom’s surprising 1986 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, provocatively subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom had been a young professor during the 1960s at Cornell, the scene of some the decade’s most egregious offenses against common academic decency. But although students had the wrong enthusiasms then, in the 1980s he found their minds were so dulled by popular culture—especially Dionysian rock and roll—that they were utterly incapable of experiencing the love of learning in what ought to be the “charmed years” of their education. Apathy had replaced fervency.

The Closing of the American Mind

This was in part a consequence of the rise of multiculturalism, which explicitly denied the superiority of Western civilization, uncritically celebrated non-Western cultures, and promoted philosophical and moral relativism. Such relativism impoverished students’ souls by fostering a kind of indifference, preventing the possibility of coming to love the search for wisdom. After all, if every culture has its own “truth,” incommunicable to other cultures, then why spend any time in the quest for truth? True wisdom does not need to be sought if it does not objectively exist; that would be like setting out to hunt for unicorns. Bloom lamented the fragmentation of the academic disciplines—the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences lacked integration. It seemed that the only path to any resembling real knowledge lay exclusively through the natural sciences.

But Bloom did not call for a restoration of theology. Philosophy was his queen. Bloom claimed that the university was fundamentally a product of the Enlightenment, intended to be a safe haven for the unconstrained exercise of speculative reason by philosophers. Since he believed that America was also a product of the Enlightenment and founded on reason alone, the decline of Socratic philosophy in the university bode ill for the future of American democracy. As had many other thinkers before him, beginning with Plato in his Republic, Bloom affirmed an intimate connection between the quality of citizens’ education and the health of a republic.

Though admitting shortcomings, Bloom recommended a Great Books curriculum (effectively meaning the Great Books of the Western tradition) as the best solution to the vacuity of contemporary higher education. The Great Books, he thought, would expose students to the best that has been thought and said in the world. By introducing students to the finest minds in Western history, and letting them have unmediated, open-ended dialogue with them, the Great Books would sharpen students’ intellects for their own ongoing philosophic quest.

Bloom’s book was a success because it exuded a love for the philosophic life and touched raw nerves in academia and in America more generally. Not surprisingly, Bloom was condemned as a reactionary crank by establishment liberals in universities and the media. But more traditional conservatives were also critical. They applauded his diagnosis of contemporary ills, but expressed strong reservations about his prescriptions. Students could not just pick up the Great Books and understand them without knowledge of the historical and intellectual context in which they were written. Many doubted that a Great Books approach would teach students anything beyond how to read and interpret texts. Simply reading and interpreting texts would not teach philosophic habits of mind. It would produce students who were oversophisticated, seeking sophistication for its own sake, but not believing that there was any real truth to grasp beyond the play of interpretations. These solitary philosophers would lack Newman’s gentlemanly wisdom and the true love that gives rise to philosophy. Finally, conservatives rejected Bloom’s claim that the United States, and the modern university, were fundamentally products of the Enlightenment and dedicated to perpetuating it. Instead of being a safe place for philosophers to exercise unconstrained reason, they pointed out that the university was a product of medieval Christendom, rightly concerned with training philosophic reason to function within a tradition of faith.

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In spite of conservatives’ penetrating criticisms of American higher education, the forces arrayed against defenders of the liberal arts—entrenched administrative bureaucracies and tenured radicals—have frustrated reform efforts. Just as when God and Man at Yale came out, university administrations still take money from alumni and use it to fund programs that subvert the religious and political beliefs alumni and the American people generally hold dear. A vast array of institutions have been established to expose the ideological imbalance of faculties and the sheer inanity of much that goes on in American institutions of higher education and to protect students against persecution motivated by political correctness. Another way conservatives have responded is by forming alternate institutions. New liberal arts colleges have been founded to transmit liberal learning, some with curricula based on the Great Books, others rooted the scholastic tradition. New institutes have also been founded within existing universities to carve out programs in which students may pursue a liberal education. Alternative associations of academics like the National Association of Scholars and the Historical Society were formed to promote free inquiry and genuine scholarship unprejudiced by ideology. Summer institutes offered by private educational organizations like ISI help students fill in the lacunae in their higher education. Guides for students in schools that have little or no core requirements have been written to help students cobble together a liberal arts curriculum for themselves.

All these conservative initiatives serve both William F. Buckley’s and John Henry Newman’s purposes. When a young person is able to imbibe deeply of the Western tradition, he is able practically to defend our civilization in the cultural and political realms, yet he is not a mere cadre for the culture wars. The current massive decline in students’ civic literacy—knowledge of basic American principles, texts, and institutions—is a symptom of a larger loss of concern for objective, knowable, and valuable truth, the traditional end of a liberal education. The liberally educated man or woman has been formed by the pursuit of truth with the foundational texts of the West informing all his thinking, and so he possesses a natural allegiance to truth in all realms of human endeavor. The ordered course of a liberal education produces two fruit from the same tree: a love for truth itself, and a love for the ordered liberty that is our Western heritage.

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