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Sunday, November 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: The Closing of the American Mind

Astoundingly, a very learned and difficult book about the state of higher education in the United States has been holding Number One place on The New York Times nonfiction best~seller list. And just as astonishing, a book detailing what should be done to repair our deficiencies in general knowledge has been running Number Two or Number Three.

The first book is The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students by Allan Bloom, with a foreword by Saul Bellow (New York: Simon and Schuster, 392 pp., $18.95). The second book is Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 251 pp., $16.95).

If people are really digesting and approving what Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor, has to say, it signals a remarkable change in our mental climate. It also tells something about reader persistence. Bloom develops his subject in a most roundabout way, and it is not apparent until he reaches page 336 of his book that we really know what he is after. He begins with a charge that, in the mid-1960s, our universities were offering students every concession other than education. There was a “great spiritual bleeding.” When Bloom talked to his students about books, he got an impression that there was no printed word to which they looked for counsel, inspiration, or joy. There was always the girl who mentioned Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. or the boy who had read The Catcher in the Rye. But the students had “nothing like the Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision.” If the students lacked both books and heroes, however, they did have music.

At this point Bloom takes off on a most wrathful denunciation of rock music. “Rock,” he says, “has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.” The real issue here with Bloom is that rock “ruins the imagination of young people and makes it difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.”

Bloom’s long chapter on “Relationships” laments a number of things that have a bearing on the failure of the universities to provide a unified education. Our discriminatory laws are now ancient history, and there are plenty of blacks now in college. But they don’t share any positive intellectual or moral experience with white students. Generalizing from his days as a teacher at Cornell, Bloom notes that blacks insist in eating by themselves. “Integration,” he says, “was just an ideology for whites and Uncle Toms.” Black militants “had to threaten—and to do—bodily harm to black students with independent inclinations” to found a separatist system. Affirmative action in the colleges, says Bloom, “is the source of . . . a long-term deterioration of the relations between the races in America.”

In this chapter on “Relationships” Bloom talks about love. “When I see a young couple who have lived together throughout their college years leave each other with a handshake and move out into life,” he says, “I am struck dumb,” But Bloom is not too dumb to perceive that such a couple could have little comprehension of Shakespeare’s Othello, who killed for love. And Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would have little meaning.

Before getting down to the subject of course content in education Bloom has first to settle a lot of things about “value relativism.” He assumes that his readers must know all about Hegel, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud, and Max Weber as well as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. He also assumes that his readers must have an appreciation of Woody Allen.

There are long sections on what Rousseau and Kant did to improve upon the theories of the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment. Locke and the French philosophes had established the domain of natural science. But they left out of account such things as “community, virtue, compassion, feeling, enthusiasm, the beautiful and the sublime.”

After some 300 pages of general philosophy, which is always interesting, Bloom returns to what he has touched upon at the beginning, which is failure of the universities in the Sixties to stand up against the “pick and choose” fragmentation of the curriculum. “About the Sixties,” he says, “it is now fashionable to say that although there were indeed excesses, many good things resulted. But, so far as universities are concerned, I know of nothing positive coming from that period; it was an unmitigated disaster for them. . . . The old core curriculum—according to which every student in the college had to take a smattering of courses in the major divisions of knowledge—was abandoned.”

Bloom is not very hopeful that the old-time curriculum can be restored. The trouble is not with the natural scientists or with the champions of the humanities at the two extremes. They could agree on the issue of sharing core time. It is the social scientists in the middle that make a good compromise impossible. Social science, says Bloom, “is a series of discrete disciplines. . . . There is no social science as an architectonic science. It is parts without a whole.”

That is where Bloom more or less leaves us. E. D. Hirsch, in his Cultural Literacy, is just as critical of “cafeteria-style education” as Bloom, but he is rather more hopeful that strong disciplines in math, science, the humanities, history, and literature can be reestablished. There can be a return to core teaching without sacrificing flexibility. “A common extensive curriculum,” says Hirsch, “would ensure that students have some information about Romeo and Juliet, but in their intensive curriculum they might study The Tempest or Twelfth Night in detail•”

Hirsch concludes his book with a 63-page list of dates, names, phrases, titles, and snatches of song and poetry that literate Americans know or should know. Rousseau is there along with Rube Goldberg, and immanuel Kant is not too far away from King Kong. Woody Allen, however, seems to be missing, which could make Alan Bloom feel that he is one up on Hirsch•

The two books admirably complement each other, and it is a tribute to American readers that they have recognized this in putting them high for many weeks on the best-seller lists.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.