This series is designed to explore the world of education in a more ideological (and so necessarily generic) manner. By acquainting ourselves with a number of key ‘Prophets of Education’ – men and women who have contributed big ideas to education’s history – we might get to grips with the means by which education, particularly at university level, has arrived at its current state and also better understand the arguments that are likely to shape its future.
It starts this week with Allan Bloom, a former philosopher at the University of Chicago, who authored what might be the twentieth century’s most famous book on higher education. Published in 1987, ‘The Closing of the American Mind‘ rocked the educational (and political) circles at which it was immediately aimed, and its influence subsequently trickled down the decades to profound effect. At heart, the book was a reaction against cultural trends that had engulfed American universities, and that Bloom thought might eventually threaten the very integrity of western civilisation.
His points principally touched on the emergence of cultural relativism, and the many ways in which he witnessed it invert (some might say pervert) the priorities of the students around him. The passion and precision with which Bloom’s treatise was penned points to how personally the unprecedented changes affected him. Not having come from a privileged background, it was precisely the influence and instruction of ‘dead white men’ that elevated Bloom into the dizzying academic heights he was to ascend. His mentors, both dead and alive, were being scorned and marginalised.
As he saw it, the central problem that had appeared in the sixties and taken root in the following two decades was the reduction of truth to a relative concept. With the growth in influence of Marxist doctrine, and the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault, veiling the classical notions of truth, beauty and goodness in the garments of ideology, subjectivity and personal preference became the academic norm. Yet in opening their eyes to new cultures, students became unnecessarily blind to their own, and instead of judging others by their own standards, ceased to believe in standards altogether. Bloom saw the immediate danger of abandoning the literary greats, writing that ‘… as the awareness that we owed almost exclusively to literary genius falters, people become more alike, for want of knowing they can be otherwise.’ The decline of culture – broadly defined as a society’s self-awareness – was exacerbated by a rising secularism, and though Bloom was not nostalgic for the faith, he insisted on the importance of a shared canon, stating that ‘the Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity … it will remain unfurnished.’ He was an avid believer in the ‘Great Books’ theory of education, encouraging students to read the authors who had survived the centuries.
Bloom disliked relativism not because it conflicted with some particular tradition that he sought to protect, but because it enfeebled students’ vision, and rendered their chosen aspirations meaningless because they were ultimately indistinguishable from others. ‘People no longer believe in a natural hierarchy of the soul’s varied and conflicting inclinations’, he wrote, fearing the blind pursuit of unfettered passions as the only likely residue to survive such a mentality. One of the book’s best known passages recounts Nietzsche’s purported opposition to Socrates, and the means by which he condemned him for having elevated reason above the passions. Bloom advocated a combination – a harmony – of both, but forcefully wrote that ‘what defines man is no longer his reason, which is but a tool for his preservation, but his art … there he brings order to chaos … the greatest men are not the knowers but the artists, a man who can generate images of a cosmos and ideals by which to live is a genius …’ For him, education was in the business of giving students a chance at such an ordered life, by instilling in them ideals – standards. Instead, all he found around him was an emerging chaos of impressions and desires, with no public arena of criticism through which to tame and inform them. Just as Socrates declared the unexamined life not worth living, so Bloom did not believe that a mind with no peak by which to aspire, but only hills over which to wander, was not worth attaining.