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Allan Bloom's famous critique of higher education still speaks despite weak assumptions

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

When I started college, some idea of what an "educated" person looks like ruled the curriculum. The literature, survey, and introductory courses were meant to stretch our minds and plant a shared notion of what it took to make a civilization.

Unbeknownst to me, the ground was shaking under my loafer-clad feet. At Cornell University, Professor Allan Bloom experienced the quake firsthand. In the spring of 1969 he went to see the university provost about a black student whose life had been threatened by a black faculty member because the young man refused to take part in a campus demonstration.

The provost clucked sympathetically but insisted nothing could be done at the moment, with tempers so high. Best to stand down for now: Once the students had vented their frustration the way would be clear for better communication. "This," Bloom wryly noted, "was a few weeks before the guns emerged and permitted much clearer communication."

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In short, the black students and faculty got their way. So in time did the Hispanic students, the gay students, and the female students: Every group got their grievance counseling in the form of "studies" courses. Even white males got something out of the mayhem-that is, the freedom to write their own ticket. Administrators abolished all the core requirements, and replaced them with lists of "field" courses to choose from. The entire university system turned upside-down, leaving students basically in charge of their own education, self-ticketing their way through four (five, six, seven) years of increasingly dubious value at higher and higher prices.

Bloom's experience at Cornell, and the degeneration that followed, became the theme of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the most controversial book of the year. I've been rereading it, and while most of his insights are as relevant today as they were then-or more so-his weaknesses show in the underlying assumptions.

One assumption: that the modern university is a product of the Enlightenment. But no, the modern university took root in the medieval world, based on the idea that all truth is God's truth and all knowledge is unified in Christ (Colossians 2:3). From the beginning its doors were open not just to the privileged, but to ordinary boys who showed promise and aptitude. In time, more and more people could take advantage of a university education, and shifting ideas altered its mission from training clergy to providing a liberal education for inquiring minds.

Leading to another assumption: that the university is, or should be, the bedrock of civilization. A young person fortunate enough to attend a four-year university is looking at one golden opportunity: "In this short time he must learn that there is a great world beyond the little one he knows, experience the exhilaration of it and digest enough of it to sustain himself in the intellectual deserts he is destined to traverse," Bloom wrote. "[These years] are civilization's only chance to get to him."

Bloom was writing about himself-a son of immigrant parents, plucked out of lower-middle-class obscurity to have his mind blissfully opened by the University of Chicago. But even then, higher education had abandoned the idea of absolute value. The citadel later sacked by '60s radicals (many of whom were within its walls) had already lost confidence in itself. A "bastion of civilization" that collapses in ignoble dust when the yelling gets loud enough is hardly worthy of the name, much less of Bloom's reverence.

The real bedrock was back in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, where few had read Plato but most knew there was a God to whom they were accountable. Simple, eternal verities are what civilization rests on: industriousness, commitment, faith. The university owed its life to the absolute truth it did so much to tear down. Now its walls surround nothing but noise; its mission is hopelessly confused. Bloom knew what was wrong but not how to fix it. His book is less a diagnosis than a funeral oration.

Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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