Why Joe College can't think: a hard look at soft education

AT a Bard College parents' reception last week, a troubled father cornered Bard president Leon Botstein to say he'd been ``staggered'' by Allan Bloom's best seller, ``The Closing of the American Mind.'' Professor Bloom's ice-pick analysis of the weightless courses, confused values, and lack of student commitment on campus ``confirmed'' the parent's suspicions about college today.

``What,'' he asked Dr. Botstein, ``are you guys doing about this?''

The question is being repeated across the country. Students go back to college this month in the midst of a growing discussion about the state of their souls and of the intellectual infrastructure of American higher education.

A sweet stupor, an indiscriminateness posing as ``free thought'' has crept from popular culture into the academy, Bloom says - leaving students unable to discern and articulate time-honored issues: reason, revelation, tragedy, freedom, illusion, eternity, city, man.

More and more critics, however, say Bloom overstates the problem and confuses the issue.

The debate has been building for years. Last fall, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett spoiled Harvard University's 350th birthday party by saying that colleges have ``failed students'' while being ``pious, self-congratulatory, and suffused with the aura of moral superiority.'' A month later, the most comprehensive study ever made of undergraduate colleges (by the Carnegie Foundation) found them ``troubled'' - lacking in coherence and sense of mission.

But Bloom's provocative jeremiad (first titled ``Souls Without Longing'') has raised the volume of the debate. The loud critique from the distinguished University of Chicago philosophy professor is the kind of thing heretofore only whispered in faculty dining rooms:

``Openness is the great insight of our times ... it means accepting everything and denying reason's power.... Openness to closedness is what we teach.

``Young Americans have less and less knowledge of and interest in foreign places.''

In America today, ``Selfishness becomes indignation and then transforms itself into morality.

``The family spiritual void has left the field open to rock music, and parents cannot possibly forbid their children to listen to it.''

As one Bloom colleague says: ``This guy has the gall to tell us what he thinks.''

And the public is buying it - literally. At last count, 325,000 copies are in print, making it No. 2 on the nonfiction charts. ``A timely sign of the high level at which many Americans can be addressed,'' columnist George Will counseled presidential candidates.

Intentionally or not, say analysts, Bloom's ideas are a kind of post-Reagan synopsis - giving intellectual distinction to the forces President Reagan's eight-year mandate represents.

``After the 1960s, everyone retreated from public-political issues,'' says Botstein. ``In the '70s, there was a deafening silence. Bloom represents a re-emergence similar to Reagan's simple view that America's lost its way.''

At the root of Bloom's criticism is ``value relativism,'' a sacred ethos in the academy (and larger culture) that assumes all ideas to be of equal worth and asserts that the real enemy is ``conviction.''

Relativism brought the untutored search for ``relevance'' to schools in the 1960s, Bloom says - a search that has cut students off from the great ideas and events of the West. Already pummeled with images of the perfect body, students never hear of Plato's ``perfect soul.'' They lack the tools to judge where their ideas come from - opening them to nihilism in the guise of virtue. They don't know what they don't know. ``Public opinion'' becomes ``reality.'' Good and evil, Churchill and Hitler, become abstractions. Language gums up, loses meaning: ``I'm OK, you're OK.''

Relativism, Bloom says, marks ``a profound change in people's articulation of the world ... a change in our view of things moral and political as great as the one that took place when Christianity replaced Greek and Roman paganism.''

Because Bloom's thesis is so powerful and popular, many educators are reappraising him - and finding something lacking. Liberals and conservatives alike agree that academic disciplines need firmer grounding, and that there's a loss of philosophic spirit on campus, but feel that Bloom's analysis is too ... relative.

While his grasp of philosophical tradition goes unquestioned, his understanding of today's students - and America - is under fire.

Bloom yearns, for instance, for a return to the time when undergraduates sat in sidewalk caf'es and discussed Sartre and Heidegger and agreed about truth, beauty, and heroism. But statistics show that during those golden days of moral consensus, only 5 to 10 percent of all Americans went to college. Today, more than 50 percent do.

Says Michigan State president John Diabaggio: ``We forget that for the first time we are holding up a liberal arts education for everybody. No country ever has done that.''

There is also evidence of new awareness among students today. ``The area Bloom underestimates most is the new generation of students,'' says University of Massachusetts chancellor Joseph Duffey.

Bloom's analysis is based on secular European philosophy; yet the American mind can't truly be fathomed through Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Rousseau, say critics. In an American Spectator review, ``The Closing of Allan Bloom's Mind,'' political scientist Charles Kesler says Bloom scarely refers to the Founding Fathers, seminal influences on the mind Bloom says is closing. Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson are treated as inferior stepchildren of Hobbes and Locke.

``He writes as if we were completely at the mercy of bright Europeans occasionally washing up on these shores and telling us where the ideas came from,'' says philosopher Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia.

Furthermore, many scholars say the social contract in America was always held together by the simple decency in the Judeo-Christian ethic and the promise of democracy - not a dialogue about the Great Books (Bloom's prime solution to the soul's decay).

Where's the appreciation of the role sports play in shaping the American character? one scholar asks. What about religious ideas in America? They aren't mentioned. Says sociologist Robert Bellah: ``Bloom seems colorblind to the religious streak in the US.''

Even Bloom supporter William Bennett remarks, ``For someone who worries so much about distinctions, I wish Bloom knew the difference between good and bad rock 'n' roll. On Rousseau, he knows his stuff - but not on the merits of Buddy Holly vs. The Police.''

Perhaps the last word comes from Bard's Botstein, who says Bloom is ``right about the academy, wrong about the kids.

``Who is really closing the American mind?'' Botstein asks. ``Is it Mick Jagger, schools - or the materialistic values of Wall Street and American corporate heads who care little, and know less, about the products they make?

``Who are the villains?''

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