It must have been around 1960 when my father told me that during the 1930s, while a graduate student in Ann Arbor, he forwent eating for a week in order to purchase a sport coat—a piece of clothing that he believed one must wear in order to show appropriate respect for the university and one’s teachers. A romantic and passionate young Englishman, my father was deeply appreciative of this place that not only took seriously his longings but promised a suitable response to them. In 1967, he returned to campus for a visit, only to encounter the jeans, irreverence, and unruliness that had, in just a few short years, become the norm. He never again spoke of “U of M,” with which he had for decades nostalgically been in love. Something majestic had been defiled.
What on earth happened? Is it possible to recover what has been lost? The first of these questions is the explicit focus of Bloom’s book. The second question is not so clearly addressed by Bloom, but the stimulating essays that constitute this symposium help clarify our thinking on that troubling issue.
Nathan Schlueter wonders if The Closing of the American Mind is a great book. In my estimation, it is not. Yet it surely qualifies as near-great (a “masterwork,” according to Paul Rahe), spawned by appreciation of what is great. As our contributors have shown, Bloom dwells on an impressive number of significant human themes while interpreting the university’s decay in terms of the perennial problems that define political philosophy. Among these themes are the eclipse of Nature (at the center of Peter Lawler’s analysis), along with the decline of Reason and hence the West (an important focus for Schlueter). In addition, all four of the commentators note Bloom’s alarmed recognition of the ascendancy of “nice” boys and girls and the utter collapse of proper character formation, as well as its impact on higher education and the American regime as a whole.
Although it may be surprising to some, given Closing’s emphasis on reason, Bloom’s most important contribution is his continuing illumination of the vital role played by imagination. Bloom’s depth of insight on this matter makes perfect sense, given his grounding in both Plato and Rousseau (he is the translator of the Republic as well as Emile—a prodigious achievement).
Imagination and the Purpose of the University
Imagination is central to our understanding of the fundamental purpose of the university. Charles Taylor reminds us that “every person, and every society, lives with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: what constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would we most admire people for?” Even more to the point, Bertrand Russell observes, “We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.” What Bloom forcefully shows is that the diminished higher education he describes is the product of an ever-shrinking conception of human flourishing on the part of faculty and administrators. Accordingly, as the subtitle of Bloom’s book indicates, his central indictment of contemporary higher education is that it not only does little or nothing to cultivate the “soul,” it systematically operates to obscure its very existence.
With this last statement, we encounter an ambiguity at the heart of Bloom’s book. For example, in his notorious critique of rock music, Bloom speaks of both “the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul” and of “preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason.” One’s choice of music is a response to the existing state of his soul, but the music to which one attends is also capable of refining the soul. (The popularity of rock is an illustration of the first principle and is fully at odds, according to Bloom, with the second.) We can see, then, that “soul” for Bloom refers to an essential element of a human being as well as the completed condition of that element (a normative ideal).
Both the bitter criticism and the noble aspiration that characterize Closing are inspired by the life well-lived, as imagined by Bloom. This vision animates Bloom and at least some of his readers. Yet the soul exists whether it is elevated or not. Actual human beings reside somewhere on a continuum, and any location on that continuum can be understood as a condition of the soul. Bloom’s “impoverishment of the soul” makes sense only with respect to an imagined ideal.
It was inevitable that Plato’s cave, as well as the pit beneath the cave (signifying entrapment by historicism and relativism), should play a central role in Bloom’s account. What will our emerging young elites understand, at the level of presupposition, to be necessary or possible, beyond the pale or beautiful? If one is concerned about the future, then imagination in this second sense (what Bloom refers to as “horizons”) is the most important thing, for how persons act is necessarily subservient to their deep and typically tacit convictions with respect to such matters. Rahe is correct in noting that our nation today reaps what it has sown for the past fifty years.
Yet the third and fourth arenas for the imagination are those of (1) the media and (2) the popular culture that is largely formed by them. In their ubiquity, these forces decisively shape how many of our fellow citizens (within their caves) view the world. In recognizing their role, we are led to an important question raised by Closing and highlighted by Schlueter: In regard to the university vis-à-vis the world at large, in which direction does the influence flow?
While for Bloom the university has, for the most part, been contaminated from the outside, Schlueter wisely adds that what happens to future elites during their years on campus has everything to do with the cultural influences that pound away on the soul beginning at birth. Indeed, Bloom himself laments that many of his students are already incapable of genuine education by the time they arrive on campus. The university has been corrupted. But—and this is the immediate point—in its depraved state, higher education is itself now among the most significant agents of corruption. Whatever the direction of the influence, Closing makes it clear the contamination of higher education shapes the imagination of students. So too must any remedy for that corruption. Given the current condition of higher education, correction must come from without: prophylactic measures in the homes of future students and faculty (including home or private schooling, in conjunction with strong spiritual guidance) are a necessary condition for the resurrection of the genuine university.
Bloom is bitter and angry because contemporary higher education is woefully effective in destroying the conditions that permit the moral and intellectual possibilities that make life worth living. The very reality of these possibilities is in jeopardy. Like C.S. Lewis and Michael Polanyi, Bloom recognizes that preservation of the most important things is a matter of education, broadly understood. It is simple, really. Everything depends on keeping the possibilities we treasure urgently and imaginatively alive in the young who follow us. To the degree we succeed, what is vital is safe (but for no more than the next generation); to the degree we fail, the chain is interrupted and those treasures may be lost, possibly for good. Alas, the institutions created precisely for the preservation of the tradition have now become the agents of its undoing.
Is There Hope for the University?
What hope do we find in the contributors to this symposium? Platt closes his essay with the observation that if only literature professors had followed Bloom in his critique of mindless jargon and, through the study of great books, had led the university to employ the language used by Shakespeare, the Founders, and the King James Bible, the past thirty years might well have been a time of recovery. While rectification of the university’s vocabulary is certainly a prerequisite for its rehabilitation, Platt’s remedy seems unrealistic. His analysis appears more penetrating when he notes that “the way of philosophy” is “probably tragic.” A significant reason that the rhetoric of higher education is shallow is that the pedagogical ideal envisioned by Bloom, not least its tragic dimension, is so demanding and hence uncongenial to so many students and faculty that they flee via empty words to a comfortable mindlessness. Without mentioning the matter, Platt thus points to the anti-egalitarianism (what Bloom elsewhere calls his “elitism”) at the core of Bloom’s critique. As Joseph Epstein recently remarked, “the realm of art and intellect has little or nothing to do with equality.”
We were alerted to Bloom’s complex relationship to the indiscriminate, open-to-everything contemporary university by Schlueter’s query regarding “Bloom’s ultimate sympathies,” and Lawler’s commentary leads us into the depths of the matter. Bloom’s educational program is an expression of his philosophical anthropology. To him, a vital feature of human health is a certain kind of longing that can define a life. This longing, so important to Bloom, is in itself wondrous. That it is incapable of more than fleeting satisfaction makes it tragic. Bloom’s disenchantment follows from the recognition that such wonder has been eclipsed as higher education has grown ever more intolerant of the prospect of perennial tragedy, in whose company alone the wondrous longing can emerge. This is a flattening, indeed.
Lawler, reminding us of Schlueter’s emphasis on Nature, asserts that the squashing of human possibilities can last only so long. The springs from which the longing emerges will not be denied. Still, even if this is true, might not the return to health require several decades, if not centuries? This dismal prospect calls for faith and hope, qualities on prominent display in some of our contributors. As Rahe highlights, those virtues are not so evident in Bloom, for whom there is little prospect of a renaissance of “authentic liberation” (“perfection of soul”) within the existing mass-oriented institutions.
The flattening of soul documented by Bloom and reaffirmed by Lawler is celebrated by Richard Rorty. In his philosophical anthropology, the elimination of a longing marked by never-ending conflict and disappointment yields “nice” boys and girls who are uninterested in troubling deep questions, the raising of which seems to them an act of cruelty. For Rorty, this is a great victory over a regime of sadomasochism masquerading as allegiance to principle. Bloom’s adversary is therefore the conviction that acquiescence to and stimulation of longing as the central objective of higher education is circular: were one not already in the grips of this perversity, he would certainly not call for its accentuation. The advent of nice young people and the desuetude of controversy regarding capital-letter concepts is the great accomplishment of the twentieth century.
Lawler believes that Bloom, in his disenchantment, goes beyond the evidence. Nature will assert itself. Here are faith and hope. Might wishes give rise to reality? On this question, each of us must decide. To his credit, Lawler admits that his comparative optimism follows from his Christian vision. Which of these perspectives—Lawler’s Christian aspiration or Bloom’s desperate appeal to the philosophic spirit—is more capable of prompting a recovery in higher education remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that neither can succeed. Yet concern entails responsibility. What more can our devotion mean?
Jon Fennell, professor emeritus at Hillsdale College and author of essays ranging from Rousseau to Rorty, has, in recent years, written extensively on Michael Polanyi. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.