Now that commencement season is over, Americans can temporarily breathe a sigh of relief. In the last few weeks they have witnessed the culmination of a year of angry campus protests — from the attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s talk at Berkeley to Secretary Betsy DeVos being booed by Bethune-Cookman graduates and Notre Dame students walking out on Vice President Pence.
For a few months at least, we are granted a reprieve. And summer vacation presents us with an excellent opportunity to reflect on the significance of these events — how those institutions most dedicated to free inquiry and the pursuit of truth are increasingly becoming bastions of angry intolerance, and what this means for the future of liberal democracy. As we seek to answer these questions, we should carefully consider a book that in its thirtieth anniversary is as relevant now as it was upon its original publication: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.
In Closing Bloom, a professor of philosophy and translator of the two greatest books ever written on education, Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, traced the deep philosophical causes and consequences of the deterioration of liberal education in America. As Bloom insightfully and eloquently shows in the first part of his book, those consequences affect every aspect of our lives, our music, our reading, our sexual lives, our families and ultimately our political life.
Bloom’s concern grew out of his own experience of the violent campus protests at Cornell University in 1969, which resulted in Bloom’s departure from Cornell for the University of Toronto. Bloom’s basic argument is worth highlighting here. (For a more thorough treatment of Closing, see this symposium at Public Discourse, which includes three Hillsdale College professors).
Bloom connected the campus protests to a loss of confidence in the power of reason to discover the truth and of nature to guide human action. This crisis of reason and nature is also a crisis for liberal democracy, which is founded upon the claims of reason, and on trust that debate and discussion can lead to the truth. This crisis of reason is heralded and exemplified by the influential 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In these respects, Bloom’s argument coincides closely with that of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man and Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue.
Bloom noted a close connection between reason and anger: “Indignation may be a most noble passion and necessary for fighting wars and righting wrongs,” he wrote. “But of all the experiences of the soul it is the most inimical to reason and hence to the university.” When confidence in reason disappears, what remains is endless conflict between various subjective beliefs and value systems, with no single standard by which to assess and compare them.
Today we see this kind of conflict playing out on our college campuses, with the booing, the walk-outs, and the vitriolic tone of social media. Interaction has become far less a matter of persuasion and far more an exercise of petulant self-assertion and power. Alarmingly, we see this same pattern in the public square, where our political leaders show little more appreciation for reasoned debate than twenty-something students. Bloom warns his American readers that the collapse of liberal democracy in Germany was preceded by the same source of ideas that animates the modern American university, and by the same hostility to reason and nature.
So — what is the solution? For Bloom, it lies in the recovery of liberal education, which trains the powers of the soul — reason, appetite and imagination — to discover truth, goodness and beauty in the natural order, and so prepares people for the great and noble challenges of citizenship and statesmanship. As the American Founders, themselves products of liberal education, well understood, political liberty cannot survive without liberal education.
Be warned: The Closing of the American Mind is not casual beach-reading. But if you take the time to digest its rich and sometimes difficult arguments, you may have the best summer of your life, and you will at least be prepared to make sense of things when next year’s protests begin.
Nathan Schlueter is professor of philosophy and religion at Hillsdale College.