As an epithet for the university, “alma mater”—nourishing mother—has proved unfortunately apt. Like modern-day mothers, universities are subjected to impossible expectations and draconian judgment. Professors assiduously avoid administrative work but rail against the overhiring of administrators and encroachments on faculty self-governance. Students expect expansive support services and state-of-the-art recreational facilities but express outrage over the fees that help pay for them. Politicians wax indignant over everything from professors’ teaching schedules to admissions policies and the university’s defining pursuits, such as inquiry not tied to practical aims. Journalists proclaim that resistance to change has made our universities obsolete, when they’re not complaining that they’ve changed too much, too fast. But as long as the American university has existed in its modern shape, one lament has stood out—that of the melancholy mandarins.
Relying mostly on anecdotal evidence, and writing in accessible, simplifying prose, an insider-outsider figure—almost always a male humanities professor with solid academic credentials—condemns the culture of specialized research. He tells readers that as a result of this and other ills, alma mater has lost her way. Our once great institutions of higher learning have strayed from their mission of guiding young people through the process of building a soul, a failure that is both a symptom and a cause of a broader decline in our system of values. The lament culminates in a call for colleges and universities to rededicate themselves to the humanities in the right way. Pushing them to do so is the best chance we have to save ourselves from our malaise.
Bloom’s Crisis of Civilization
Mortimer Adler, a professor of law and erstwhile philosopher at the University of Chicago, was a virtuoso of this form. In 1941, for example, he maintained that his faculty colleagues at Chicago posed a more serious threat to civilization than Hitler. Three-quarters of a century later, William Deresiewicz asserted that elite higher education in the United States was bad for the soul. The Ivies were “turning our kids into zombies,” he wrote.1 But the greatest of lamenters was another University of Chicago academic, Allan Bloom, whose 1987 masterpiece of high-minded melancholy, The Closing of the American Mind, spent months atop the New York Times bestseller list. Nearly overnight, Bloom went from being a little-known political philosopher and translator of Plato and Rousseau to being President Reagan’s guest at the White House and Prime Minister Thatcher’s at Chequers.
Nor was there any shortage of praise from the press. The Times (London) Sunday Review hailed The Closing of the American Mind as “an extraordinary meditation on the fate of liberal education in this country.” In the Washington Post, George F. Will called it a “‘how to’ book for the few… who want to know how to be independent.” Newsweek ran several admiring pieces.2
Bloom’s timing was excellent, needless to say. He forcefully denounced “value relativism” at a moment when those likely to share his antipathy were energized and in power—Ronald Reagan, constitutional originalists, and the Moral Majority. Furthermore, academic literary theory, one of Bloom’s targets, was just then a source of fascination and dismay for lovers of high culture. “The Tyranny of the Yale Critics,” a New York Times Magazine article from 1986, mocked Jacques Derrida as “King Babar,” while also portraying him as a classically educated guerrilla fighter who might occupy the corner office but still spoiled for blood. Indeed, Derrida was quoted as describing his own method of analysis as “very dangerous.”3 Something, it appeared, had gone wrong in humanities seminar rooms.
Bloom told alarmed parents and observers of academia that they were entirely justified in their concerns. Those things that seemed suspiciously hostile to great works—deconstruction, for example—were bad for young minds. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The university’s failings, Bloom wrote, constituted not only an intellectual crisis but a “crisis of civilization.”
Of course, Bloom’s book elicited many critical responses, the bulk of them coming from his fellow academics. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for one, accused Bloom of being a symptom of the disease for which he saw himself as the cure. His aim was to reveal that what looked like a new openness in American society—the idea that one perspective is potentially as valuable as any other—actually represented a closing, because this outlook cut off the thinker from the reflective search for Truth. But with its dogmatic style, Nussbaum claimed, Bloom’s book was itself thoroughly closed.