If you are very smart and well education and inclined to write an old man’s rant about how everything is going to hell, then you would write The Closing of the American Mind. At its worst, it is a parody of what happens to people when they forget what life was like when they were young. It is also a parody of an old college professor who just can’t understand why his students think he is boring.
Although the book is extremely biased, it deals with an issue that is very important to me: social cohesion through shared cultural touchstones. This is why I think everyone should know Shakespeare and the Bible. It isn’t because I think that as literature goes these are especially great collections. But they are so important to our culture that not knowing them tends to marginalize an individual.
The problem with Bloom is that he hangs on too tightly to an absolutist philosophy. I will admit that the adoration of Shakespeare has something to do with the quality of his work. But it has far more to do with history and the development of the British empire. I take a more moderate view: there is no absolute values but it is a convenient social illusion. The books we know are largely a reflection of who we have been.
As a result of this, I agree with Bloom about the needs for standards. But this must be combined with a commitment to inclusiveness. One of the purposes of education (and higher education most of all) should be shaping what our cultural touchstones are. As a result, I would like to see things like “Chicano studies” courses taken out of the academic ghetto and placed more centrally into the curriculum. At very least, students should get a good introduction in foreign language literature in translation. The focus of literature on British and American writers does us great harm.
There is a bigger problem, however. The very idea of a liberal education is dying. Now the focus of education is on specialization and how it will make the student a more attractive employee. This is a sure way of destroying a civilization. And it is interesting that The Closing of the American Mind got its start as an article in National Review. Because the whole conservative movement is about destroying the idea of liberal education. Providing education as something intended only to enrich the learner is something that is supposed to be limited to the rich. Knowing multiplication and how to read technical manuals is enough for the prols.
So like everything, the closed American mind is yet another result of inequality. And it is a problem that starts before we learn to walk. There are those who are taken to museums and given other intellectually stimulating experiences as young people. And there are those who are not. And that affects everyone for their entire lives. What’s more, it cuts the “have nots” off from the cultural touchstones of our society. Those touchstones become yet another thing that cuts off poor from rich.
So Allan Bloom may think that everyone should read Plato. And I agree! But the reason they don’t has very little to do with relativism and a lack of interest on the part of students. Rather, it is a direct result of the centuries old efforts to keep the poor excluded from all parts of the lives of the rich. And that problem starts long before young people make it to college.
Allan Bloom was right to bring up the issue. It is important and worth discussing. But as usual with conservative thought, his book works the margins without ever coming close to the central issue. But in this age in which Education Reform has come to focus mostly on destroying the liberal nature of education, we dearly need to think about this stuff.
Happy birthday Allan Bloom!