This commentary originally appeared in Forbes, on September 23, 2014.
If, as Whitehead observed, all European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato,” all contemporary critiques of higher education are addenda to Allan Bloom’s 1987 blockbuster, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Scoring big with the public, Closing was clobbered by the academy. But recently, two academics, William Deresiewicz and Steven Pinker, have been battling publicly over turf Bloom already plowed. But neither of them seems to know it.
In July, Deresiewicz penned The New Republic’s most-read article ever, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” His experience teaching at Yale convinces him that today’s Ivy Leaguers suffer a “stunted sense of purpose.” They are “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” Theirs are lives of “emptiness, and aimlessness and isolation,” due to an inordinate focus on “affluence, credentials, and prestige.” Because higher education should “mitigate the class system, not reproduce it,” his solution is “high-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all.” This would produce elite campuses that better mirror the income distribution nationally and, in the process, fill students’ emptiness.
But will it? Had Deresiewicz consulted Closing, his quasi-economic-determinist framework might have yielded to deeper questions. Why should we expect anything other than “aimlessness” from today’s students, “income inequality” notwithstanding? From where in today’s elite academic institutions, he might have asked, are students going to find “purpose”? Why criticize students’ nihilist streak when it merely shows that they practice what professors preach—moral and cultural relativism, according to which all purposes are equal in being equally groundless, “subjective preferences,” rather than possible divinations of transcendent truths? For the academy, the moral world is an abyss of infinite, unsupported because unsupportable, choices. Choice is today both sovereign and groundless.
Closing argues that an education grounded in relativism cannot but lead to the indifference Deresiewicz decries, but for which he blames economics. Instead, might students’ focus on careers also be an effect, not merely a cause, of the emptiness of today’s academic world? “Relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life,” writes Bloom. As a result, “what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing. No longer is there a hope that there are great wise men in other places and times who can reveal the truth about life.” Relativism thus destroys genuine openness, “which used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” There is no longer any possibility of ascending from culture’s cave through liberal education. “Culture, hence closedness, reigns supreme.” Today, “openness to closedness is what we teach.”
The currently taught “openness of indifference,” Bloom argues, looks to humble our “intellectual pride” while promising to allow us “to be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don’t want to be knowers.” This alleged dependence of freedom on nothingness we find in a book by former UC-Berkley chancellor, Clark Kerr, who sums up nicely, though unintentionally, the crisis Bloom identifies. Says Kerr of today’s universities: “There is less sense of purpose,” but “there are more ways to excel. There are also more refuges for anonymity—both for the creative person and the drifter.” In this celebratory account, emptiness nurses excellence: the abyss never lackslebensraum. For Bloom, precisely this loss of an authoritative conception of what an educated person looks like constitutes the collapse of higher education recently discovered by Deresiewicz. Given the decapitation of human possibilities announced by universities themselves, it is unremarkable that many students in our commercial republic should now find no purpose to embrace higher than “affluence, credentials, and prestige.”
Bloom also demonstrates why we should have expected a phenomenon that Deresiewicz deems so counterintuitive as to constitute an “indictment.” Writes Deresiewicz, “Religious colleges,” and “even obscure regional schools” often “deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.” Religious schools, by and large, still adhere to and seek to inculcate an authoritative vision of the good life. “Obscure regional schools,” precisely due to their lower rankings in U.S. News, are less likely to prove attractive enough to recruit professors on the cutting-edge of the latest scholarly salvos against the possibility of objective truth.
Pinker’s rejoinder to Deresiewicz purports to be “more specific” about the highest goals for higher education. In place of Deresiewicz’s hollow aim to aid students in “building a self,” Pinker argues that students “should know something” about biology, physics, history, cultures, “major systems of belief,” democratic politics, and literature, the study of which should produce “habits of rationality,” clear writing and speech, logical and statistical reasoning, thinking “causally,” and with an awareness of “human fallibility.”
True enough, but Pinker also would be helped by Closing, specifically, by Bloom’s argument for a return to a curriculum whose content is guided by the conviction that “there are certain kinds of things one must know which most people don’t want to bother to learn,” that is, a return to a required core curriculum, which is not to be confused with its present-day impostors, “general education” and “distribution requirements.” For the sake of relevance and the new openness—and in an effort to accommodate the influx of students resulting from the rise of the “college-for-all” vision—required core curriculums were defenestrated beginning a half-century ago.
Might we ever get back to a required core curriculum? Not on the terms of the current debate. So long as traditional higher education’s authoritative end, the good life, is deemed but one more groundless value treading water in an endless sea of equally baseless choices, how could we justify it? Liberal education in the past was guided by the vision of a flourishing soul, by whose light we could identify the subject matter and disciplines required for its development. Students were required to study the sciences and liberal arts on the view that each discipline reflects, and, in turn, seeks to perfect, the elements constitutive of human nature at its highest.
Forget all that now. As evidenced by a recent Harvard committee report, the humanities at elite universities today, far from taking their bearings from an authoritative vision of the good life, rest content instead with “unmask[ing] the operations of power,” exposing how “domination and imperialism underwrite” texts previously deemed classic explorations of what constitutes the good life for human beings.
In a last-gasp effort to find land in the academic abyss, Pinker recommends that elite universities in the future admit applicants primarily on the basis of merit, as measured by standardized tests. This would be better, or at least less bad, than the current arrangement. Test-based admissions would restore somewhat the now-discredited notion of objective criteria and, with it, natural hierarchy. While Pinker should be lauded for recommending this first step toward rectifying the admissions process at the Ivies, the deeper problem of our soulless schools remains. That problem will not be addressed by standardized testing, but by testing our relativistic standards.