The Implosion of the Universities

On Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind

Widespread student protests against Israel’s Gaza war have again put the quality and character of higher education in the spotlight. The issue is not the basic moral concern over civilian deaths or the pangs of conscience that accompany feelings of complicity. Protest, activism, and a sense of social justice are not in themselves markers of a crisis of higher education any more than apathy, passivity, and indifference are of its success. It’s what the protestors do and say that raises eyebrows, particularly in the case of Ivy League universities that once — but when? — stood for intellectual excellence, the aristocratic principle in a democratic society.

Interviews and other videos show a hollowness to the protestors’ commitment to the cause of the Palestinians. In the spirit of intersectionality, that commitment is united with the additional host of predictably leftist grievances: protestors are against not only Zionism as Israeli state power but also Americanism, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, male chauvinism, whiteness, heteronormativity, and much else, symbolically embodied, to some extent, in fraternity counterprotests. In theory, not to attack any of these nodes is to be complicit in the structural violence of the entire network; in practice, the Palestinian cause serves particularly well as a lightning rod through which to channel the full force of the aggrieved.

Despite their passion and even despite any legitimate moral qualms one could have about state power and its corollaries, student protestors themselves come off as overly ideologized automata, chanting without understanding, and evincing a commitment that combines two fundamental shortcomings: that of the universities and their professors, on one hand, who, together with earlier educators, have indoctrinated students into these false doctrines, i.e. into the worship of the seemingly oppressed and hatred of the seeming oppressor, and, on other hand, that of the students themselves, who lack the insight to know when they are bloviating.

If Socratic education — always a meaningful reference point for the university’s ideal aspirations — starts with an awareness of our own ignorance, then what can be said about the education of the protestors? Militant belief is good for soldiers: thus it looks as though their education has been designed to produce culture warriors against the West, not well-formed souls. (And in response to the crisis of the university, it should be an open question whether producing culture warriors for the West represents the highest aspiration of a good education).

The most famous book on the crisis of American universities as a place ideally meant to shape students’ souls is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom experienced militant student-soldier protests at Cornell in 1969 that led him to resign from the faculty there after the administration capitulated to the radicals’ demands. “The professors,” Bloom later wrote, “the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations, were fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble; publicly confessing their guilt and apologizing for not having understood the most important moral issues, the proper response to which they were learning from the mob; expressing their willingness to change the university’s goals and the content of what they taught.”

Our best traditions and highest aspirations, Bloom was saying, have been swapped out at the universities for rabble fodder by spineless administrations and weak faculty, simultaneously fearful and admiring of young activists. Reflecting on the “spectacle” of student protests and administrative capitulation, it occurred to Bloom that, the American university of the sixties was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the thirties. No longer believing in their higher vocation, both gave way to a highly ideologized student populace. And the content of the ideology was the same — value commitment. The university had abandoned all claims to study or inform about value — undermining the sense of the value of what it taught, while turning over the decision about values to the folk, the Zeitgeist, the relevant.

Universities no longer concerned themselves with the fundamental questions of God, man, and nature, and no longer sought to find the truth about these things. A strong prejudice had set in that there is not the truth but various “truths,” that what matters isn’t which so-called values are good, or whether it is even defensible to think about human affairs in terms of values, but rather to have values and to be committed to them, or to discover them and pathologize them – for instance by checking your privilege.

Following in his own way his teacher Leo Strauss, Bloom meticulously and memorably traced the shift that had occurred in the American university as a result of the influence of older German thought, connecting the contemporary culture war issues of his time (and ours) to deep transformations in how we understand human nature and human knowledge.

Since the question has again arisen of where things went wrong with the universities, and since Bloom’s account of their crisis is arguably the most profound and influential one penned in the past fifty years, now seems like a natural time to revisit his analysis of “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students,” to give the full subtitle of the Closing. We could even ask based on its original title, “Souls Without Longing,” whether it is true that today’s protestors lack longing: don’t they long for a world without oppression, violence, injustice, whites, Zionists, and all of that?

But there are reasons to doubt that we need Bloom. First, does it really matter to our basic moral instincts what German philosophers said about being and knowing a hundred years ago, to say nothing of what older thinkers thought? And are Bloom’s other culture war concerns, like his comments on gender, sex, and Mick Jagger still the big deal they once were? As someone commented on my recent video reading of an essay by Bloom, “Students going from gender theory to protesting the most televised genocide is a big win”; maybe Bloom misses the mark of these protests. So students don’t know Weber, Nietzsche, Plato, Rousseau, or Heidegger… well — to channel a second criticism — maybe Bloom (like Strauss) is just a Jewish ethno-narcissist, and anyone who invokes him at this time against students protesting Israeli atrocities is complicit in genocide.

Cornel West, who stood with the protestors at Columbia, argued in his book The American Evasion of Philosophy that America’s native philosophical tradition is pragmatism, and his own form of pragmatism, which explicitly opposed Bloom’s analysis of the spirit of our times, is a prophetic pragmatism that stands with the oppressed and marginalized in the name of justice and liberation. Isn’t talking about Bloom and his distinctly non-pragmatic philosophical concern in relation to the protests just signifying that one is part of the general problem the protests are meant to address, that one is an anti-progressive, bookish European Jew at heart, and thus among the enemies of the young student radicals?

This second criticism extends from the Left to the Right: there are conservatives, paleocons, BAPists, and other young right-wing radicals who distrust Bloom for some of the same reasons the Left offers, though the more serious among them have recourse not to his ethnicity (or sexuality) but to his arguments. Bronze Age Pervert himself has opposed Bloom’s diagnosis of the campus crisis in terms of nihilism and relativity, writing that: “the problem on campuses isn’t any kind of nihilism or relativism but very strong, fanatical cretin moral convictions,” while suggesting that the errors of Bloom’s analysis have “led the intellectual right in America into a dead end.” Is Bloom part of the solution or part of the problem?

Allan Bloom

Just what was Bloom up to, and why does his approach to education still matter so much today? To answer this question, I’ll rely in part on a personal anecdote. I started my university education at the University of Winnipeg with a professor of philosophy to whom I give a lot of credit for the fact that I remained enamored with philosophy for the rest of my life. Here’s what was on the syllabus in his introduction to philosophy class: we read — or at least were assigned — Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s Confessions, Descartes’ Meditations, Machiavelli’s Prince, Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, as far as I can recall. Not excerpts, not summaries. Whole books. And when the professor taught them, he didn’t teach them through a Marxist lens, with an eye to themes of race, gender, and oppression. He didn’t teach them in a postmodern way that emphasized the impossibility of assigning any stable meaning to them while playfully deconstructing them. He taught Plato like Plato was true, Augustine like Augustine was, and so on through the syllabus, taking every author seriously and presenting each of them as giving serious answers to fundamental questions concerning human and political life.

Something about this class was so special that I spent years trying to reengineer what it was. Things clicked for me when I recognized that some of the names of the translators of the books we read were mentioned together in other sources as students of Leo Strauss, including Harvey Mansfield, whose translation of the Prince we read, and Allan Bloom, who translated the Republic. Strauss and his students were never discussed in the course as members of a school of thought. To repeat: I had to re-engineer the influence of Strauss (and Bloom) on this instructor by trying to discover what made his course so distinctly memorable. As it happens, the professor in question also wrote a book in the field of philosophy of education wherein he contrasts two approaches to education. His basic argument is immediately helpful in showing just what Bloom can still mean to us now.

In The Legacy of Socrates and a Platonic Alternative: History, Political Philosophy, and the Value of Education, James R. Muir develops the idea that there are two basic approaches to education in the history of Western thought: the Isocratic and the Parmenidean-Platonic ones. The Isocratic approach is characterized by what he calls “doctrinal conditional deduction (DCD), by which the goals and value of education are deduced from an axiomatic political doctrine which defines justice.” Education, in this view, is “an essentially subordinate enterprise, in the sense that it is a means to attain the goals of (purportedly) more important enterprises such as politics.” Education is regarded, and valued, as a means to attain non-educational goals, “conditionally deduced from political doctrine (including economic and theological-political doctrine).” In other words, education serves some pre-given, non-educational “axiomatic political doctrine,” like, to use Muir’s example, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, conservatism, or some theological-political doctrine. The DCD method is then applied and there is a transmission of knowledge, skills, and moral disposition from teacher to student, whether in a state school or by some other mode of delivery.

How is the Parmenidean-Platonic approach different? It does not take its starting point from an axiomatic political doctrine. Rather, it “uses an anthropological-phenomenological inductive method in which the starting point is given by human experience and self-knowledge of ignorance rather than by doctrinal commitment and conditional deductive logic.” It doesn’t go down from some “ism” to ideologically confirming content. It goes up from some givens to the search for higher truths, or, stated differently, it uses induction to formulate general questions that are more foundational than the political axioms themselves. For instance, from the fact that socialists, liberals, and conservatives differ about what is justice, and passing through self-knowledge of our ignorance, it formulates the question, what is justice, “a question about which all have an opinion, which none of us can answer in a manner we can prove to be the truth.” In this approach, education does not commit us to serving an ideology or other pre-existing political axiom. Instead, it is the approach that truly fosters and values “freedom of thought… about justice, the gods, nature and the good life as its primary goal.” It is what Muir calls “autonomous education.”

Muir applies these models to the case of Bloom near the end of his book, arguing that Bloom is an example of the second approach, the philosophical approach to education. From the perspective of someone who adheres to the first, narrowly ideological approach, since Bloom “does not deduce the value of education from ‘progressive’ (liberal, Marxist, feminist, etc.) political doctrine,” therefore, “he must be deducing the value of education from anti-progressive political doctrines such as conservatism or patriarchy or neoliberalism,” — or fascism, we can add. Comically, Bloom’s conservative critics used the same approach to argue “that Bloom ‘must be’ deducing the value of education from radical Marxism and feminism.” Neither side understood that “Bloom was rejecting… the very premise of the entire argument” by defending autonomous education of the Platonic kind. “In the end,” Muir writes, “Bloom was bemused to find that conventional educational critics had declared him to be a conservative, radical Marxist, liberal, socialist, capitalist, misogynist, feminist, fundamentalist Christian, atheist, conservative, neoliberal, nihilist: each ideological constituency, finding that he opposed the subjection of education to their political doctrine, and assuming that he must be deriving the value of education from a political doctrine, tried to push him as far as possible into the opposing political camps so that he could be more easily dismissed with ideological recrimination rather than argument.” “It never occurred to educationists,” he continues, “… that Bloom was opposed to the Subordination Idea of Education, and therefore opposed to the subjection of education to any and all political doctrines.”

What the campus protests, and in some cases the counterprotests, give us are various examples of political activism, passionate commitment to a political idea (however confused), and education in the service of political outcomes, “the pedagogy of the oppressed.” Bloom is a reminder that education ought to be more than a pedagogy of oppressor or oppressed. It is on point that Muir recalls Nietzsche in connection with the truly Bloomian approach to education: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions,” Nietzsche writes; “rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.” The universities and the culture of the West will die a loud, disgusting death if they cannot find a place in themselves that fosters education as an “autonomous enterprise, valued as preparation for freedom of thought rather than doctrinal commitment and habituation, and valued as the activity of a human community for which moderation and the search for truth are the primary values.” Universities can still be something more than assembly lines for the construction of political propaganda and political propagandists. They only need to recognize the possibility of a different approach to education, one that privileges thoughtful questions, well-founded argumentation, and genuine freedom of thought. You can expel nature with a pitchfork — but only for so long before it no longer returns.

Interested in learning more about Plato, Strauss, Heidegger, Dugin, and esoteric thinkers alike? Check out one of Millerman’s many courses at millermanschool.com: on Mysticism, LawEducationTech.

Michael Millerman is a scholar of political philosophy. He’s the author of “Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political“. He can be followed @M_Millerman.


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