Category Archives: Essays

What’s New In Diversity

Yale’s burgeoning diversity program has another announcement: it wants to “incorporate the role of ethnic counselor into that of freshman counselor, who will become responsible for providing enhanced community support for cultural affairs on campus,” according to the Yale Daily News.

What does that mean? Well, according to the News, which neglected to supply an English-language version of the plan, “students would become increasingly aware of extant cultural resources on campus, along with gaining knowledge of new support to be rolled out under the restructure.”

Okay, that clears it all up. There is, however, dissent. “This is unbelievable. It reads like an article from the Onion,” said the first reader comment on the News site yesterday. “Do these people realize they are becoming laughing stocks?” Apparently not. The feeling at Yale seems to be that most students lack sufficient diversity awareness and are in some danger of going mainstream instead of remaining in their identity cubbyholes.

Yale currently has 90 residential counselors in its 12 residential colleges and only 13 ethnic counselors, hardly enough by today’s diversity standards. The Daily News says the ethnic counselors have a “sometimes nebulous role within the college community,” but nebulousness seems destined to fade. The goal, as one ethnicity counselor told the News, is to change the culture at Yale so students aren’t afraid to talk about diversity and race and “really understand the way in which ethnicity plays a role in their life within the residential colleges.” To that end, the “intercultural educators” take a missionary position, planning speeches and intercultural events, and preaching the diversity gospel.

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Northwestern Makes The Cold War Disappear

In order to fulfill the requirements for a major in history at Northwestern University, my daughter took a course called “The Cold War At Home.” As one might imagine in the hothouse of the college system, left wing views predominate. The students read Ellen Shrecker, not Ronald Radosh. Joseph McCarthy has been transmogrified into Adolf Hitler. And victimology stands as the overarching theme of the course.

Communists in the United States are merely benign civil rights advocates and union supporters. The word espionage never once crossed the lips of the instructor.

An extraordinary amount of time and energy has been devoted to the “lavender persecution” – harm imposed on gay Americans. Presumably, this group was more adversely affected by McCarthy’s allegations than others.

Despite the recent scholarship on the period such as Alan Weinstein’s well researched book on Alger Hiss or Stanton Evanss biography of Senator McCarthy, views that do not fit the prevailing orthodoxy aren’t entertained. Pounded into students is the view that America engaged in “totalitarian practices” not unlike the Soviet enemy we decried.

Although the course is entitled the Cold War at Home, you might think the instructor would be inclined to ask who the enemy is, why was the Soviet Union an enemy and what tactics did this nation employ against us. But these issues are not addressed.

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Student Loans – Sequel To The Mortgage Mess?

A few weeks ago, I alerted readers to the threat of a tightening of the student loan market . Banks have been bundling student loans, like home mortgages, and selling them as securities. First Marblehead Corporation in Boston has been the nation’s biggest player in “securitizing” student loans, and just like home mortgage-backed securities, the student loan-backed bonds issued by First Marblehead contain a lot of loans of doubtful value.

These aren’t the loans that are guaranteed by the Federal government’s Title IV Student Loan program. When students have borrowed all they can in Title IV loans, they frequently need to borrow still more to meet the extravagant costs of college. They often borrow at relatively high interest rates from banks and other private lenders. These banks and lenders, in turn, act just like the sub-prime mortgage lenders did: they sell the risk to someone else. First Marblehead takes loans from many banks and bundle them together to create its bond issues.

As I reported, First Marblehead appears to have hit a major snag in October, when investors declined to buy the company’s new $1 billion student loan-backed bond offering. First Marblehead’s stock plummeted and a chill went through the whole student loan industry.

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The Adversarial Campus

Against repeated accusations of leftwing bias on campus, professors have mounted many rejoinders disputing one or another item in the indictment. They claim that the disproportion isn’t as high as reports say. Or that reports focus on small pockets (women’s studies, etc.). Or that party registration is a crude indicator. Or that conservatives are too greedy and obtuse to undergo academic training.

The denials go on, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether professors really believe in their own neutrality or whether they just hope to brazen out the attacks. One response, however, stands apart, precisely because it doesn’t deny a darn thing in the bias charge. Indeed, it concedes every empirical point – “Yes, left-wing people, left-wing ideas, and left-wing texts dominate,” but it adds, “And that’s exactly as it should be.”

It’s a refreshingly straightforward assertion. I heard it at an MLA Convention session awhile back when a young man in the audience talked about getting shot down by his professor when he voiced in class a conservative opinion. One of the panelists replied by telling him to quit complaining, then enlarged the rebuke to all conservative critics. “Look,” he grumbled, “conservatives have taken over every where else [this was before the 2006 election], and now they want the campus, too, the one place where liberal values can still prevail.”

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A Donkey At Berkeley

[a speech originally given at the University of Texas]

What is an appropriate curriculum for our students? What happened to the consensus on which the college curriculum once rested? Together these comprise two of the most urgent questions in contemporary American higher education. It seems to me that the criticisms of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind of a decade ago are symptomatic of the problems we are facing. High standards are described as elitism, a pejorative of scathing proportions. A call for the assertion of Western traditions is characterized as racist and anti-democratic. And Bloom’s critique of radical feminism as a virus let loose on the curriculum is greeted with cries of “phallocentrism.”

The college curriculum as the source of youthful enlightenment free of the impediments of bias and prejudice has unraveled. While Stanley Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, recently noted that “scholars are less politicized in the United States than in any country in the developed world,” he neglected to point out that a profound and revolutionary change has occurred on American campuses since the 1960’s, resulting in the institutionalization of a radical agenda.

For a generation students have been fed on the “studies” curriculum, whether it is women’s studies, gay studies, environmental studies, peace studies, Chicano studies that are designed to indoctrinate students about pathologies in contemporary American culture – specifically race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.

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First Mortgages, Now Student Loans?

Last week, First Marblehead Corporation, a Boston-based company, saw its stock plummet after cutting its dividend. The problem? First Marblehead is in the business of “securitizing” student loans. A year ago, this would have required some explanation, but the sub-prime mortgage mess has taught Americans – and people all over the world – the meaning of “securitizing.” It is one of those words that means the opposite of what it sounds like. A company bundles together some high-grade debt, some middle-grade debt, and some really doubtful debt and sells it to investors, who only think they are making a secure investment. As we learned with the securitized mortgages, no one really knows what these chimeras are worth. And a little bit of bad debt, like a little bit of ptomaine, goes a long way to making the whole meal undigestible.

First Marblehead isn’t saying exactly what happened, but Matt Snowling, analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey, told AP report Dan Seymour, that he believes First Marblehead “was trying to sell about $1 billion in bonds.” As Seymour explains, First Marblehead bundles student loans from numerous banks to put together its bond offerings. The deal usually specifies that First Marblehead has 180 days to sell the bonds, and failing that, has to buy the student loans itself.

Apparently, First Marblehead has been trying since October to sell $1.1 billion in these student loan-backed bonds – and found few takers. Meanwhile, banks keep issuing more student loans.

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Donors – Remember Princeton

The case of the Robertson Foundation versus Princeton University has not, after nearly five years of litigation, yet come to trial. But it’s already shaping up to be the most expensive donor intent case in history. Reports of spending by the Robertson family differ, but news reports indicate the family may have spent as much as $20 million trying to sever their foundation from Princeton University control.

As for Princeton, an article that appeared in the Daily Princetonian in October stated that the university had, so far, committed $22 million to defending itself. Princeton is so deeply committed that in June the university won a suit against its insurer, a subsidiary of the giant firm American International Group. The insurer, according to an article in the Newark Star-Ledger, balked at paying more than $5 million under Princeton’s policy. The courts ordered AIG to give Princeton another $10 million. (AIG, however, plans to appeal.)

The stakes are high because the Robertson Foundation constitutes around eight percent of Princeton’s endowment with a value of $850-900 million. But the case also involves the issue of what rights the donor has over whether his gift would be used or misused.

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The Unbalanced University

In my last essay for Minding the Campus, I discussed how faculty indifference may have contributed indirectly to the establishment of the University of Delaware’s now notorious residence hall re-education program. If so, we should consider this a crime of omission rather than a crime of commission. This perspective on the problem either differs from or supplements the claims of many critics of higher education, who blame ideological agendas among faculty as the major cause of campus politicization.

A panel discussion/debate in October between Stephen Balch and Harry Lewis at the Pope Center in North Carolina highlighted this disagreement. The panel dealt with the problems besetting liberal education, focusing on education’s aimlessness and failure to instill knowledge and respect for free institutions. Balch and Lewis agreed on several things, but offered two different slants on the ills of higher education. Comparing the views of Balch and Lewis can help us to clarify and refine the problem of politics in higher education today.

Balch, the distinguished president of the National Association of Scholars who recently was awarded the National Humanities Medal in the Oval Office, blamed the ills of liberal education on politicized faculty. According to Jay Schalin’s report of the panel, Balch argued that higher education is failing “because it has adopted a left-wing ideology that is at odds with our traditions. The university system, with its population of impressionable young people, is naturally attractive to people with ‘an inclination toward visionary and utopian thinking,’ and these utopians feel that the purpose of education is to ‘move people toward their visions.”

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J-School Propaganda

Nestled away in the heart of one of the most conservative Midwestern states is a publicly funded university radically at odds with its surroundings.

Universities are in theory, marketplaces for ideas and ideologies; centers for free expression as well as vigorous and informed debate; refuges for free and independent thought. But if the taxpayers who help fund this institution heard what certain professors in its school of journalism are teaching students, they might ask for their money back. To some extent, this is no surprise. Most universities and their journalism schools are notoriously left leaning in nature. However, the sheer ferocity of the indoctrination is astonishing. I know first hand. I spent much of the past year at this institution.

It was not a surprise that as a conservative, I was ideologically alone in journalism school. However, it did not seem like a gigantic leap to think that no matter their leanings, professors would keep their politics out of the curriculum and fellow students would be open to and accepting of dissenting voices.

Wrong.

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Where Was The Faculty?

A lot has been written about the details of the residential life program at the University of Delaware, and the ways in which it has bullied students and residential assistants to accept regnant orthodoxy. The nation’s collective hat should go off to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for exposing this program, and for compelling the university to back down – at least temporarily. The episode brings to mind last spring’s heated debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education over whether FIRE was too extreme in its attacks on higher education, and whether FIRE had outlived its usefulness. One case is not statistical proof, but the fact remains that without FIRE, this remarkably repressive program would still be in effect.

I want to address a broader issue in the Delaware case that has not attracted enough attention thus far: the role of non-faculty members in promoting the politicization of higher education. Kathleen Kerr, a mastermind of the Delaware program, is director of residential life for the University of Delaware. Interestingly, as John Leo has recently pointed out, she is also the chairperson of the American College Personnel Association’s Commission for Housing and Residential Life – a group with connections to universities across the country.

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Aestheticization of Relationality? Really?

The following is a call for papers to be delivered at the Society for Cultural Anthropology meeting next May aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Frankly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us, so as we struggle to understand, we ask you readers for help. This passage, we can all agree, is intensely felt and may well be packed with meaning. But what would that meaning turn out to be if the text is successfully rendered into English? To enlist your help, we are making this a contest. The author of the best (or most original) English-language translation of this passage will receive a prize, to be described at the end of this post. Ready? Here is the call for papers:

“Recent work in the human sciences has made questions of ethics and aesthetics central to the analysis of politics once again. Part of the impetus for this work comes from dissatisfaction with older paradigms that have often treated ethics and aesthetics as an ideological byproduct of the workings of capital and power politics. Recent developments within domains as disparate as the media, the bio-sciences, religion, and finance have forced the human sciences to rethink this older logic of cause and effect, content and form. Scholarly explorations have increasingly focused on how ethical concerns have at times helped spawn new forms of governance (such as truth and reconciliation commissions, novel auditing practices, social networks) and at other moments been the basis of imagining new forms of intimacy, publicity, secrecy, and relationality. Similarly, emergent aesthetic forms have given rise to unique communication regimes, sensory experiences, and politics of deliberation, critique, and persuasion. It is not surprising that anthropologists are at the center of such explorations given our discipline’s focus on existing and emergent forms of human action. The 2008 SCA annual meeting will focus on recent work produced around the thematics of ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Some of the questions and issues we want to explore are: What are the forms of critique implicit within contemporary ethical and aesthetic formations? How do these emergent practices reconfigure the classical schism between form and content so germane to the human sciences? How does the concept of “the political” needs to be rethought in light of the ethicization and aestheticization of contemporary politics? What, if anything, is left of culture in this debate? How do we rethink the notion of ‘practice’ in this moment beyond the dual axis of structure and effect? How might reflection on contemporary stagings of deliberation and debate help us rethink the relationship between affect and reason?”

The contest deadline is 6 p.m. November 25, eastern standard time. The prize will be a copy of The Location of Culture by Harvard’s hard-hitting but indecipherable post-colonial scholar, Homi K. Bhabha. The book contains this argument by Bhabha, which no one has even attempted to refute:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

The Spiraling Cost Of Higher Education

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed legislation (SB 190), authored by State Senator Leland Yee, which would require the governing boards of California’s two university systems – the University of California and the California State University – to determine future pay increases of university executives in meetings that would be open to the public. “This bill is simply intended to let a little sunshine into the process,” Yee has been quoted as saying.

Personally, I am convinced that the problem of rising administrative costs and the attendant escalation of higher education costs is going to require much more than a “little sunshine” to curtail it.

In good times and bad, there is one thing that is as certain as death and taxes: the cost of going to college will continue its upward spiral. There are many reasons for this circumstance, a few of which come to mind. But, anyone who is familiar with higher education can attest that the lack of “sunshine” laws is not one of those reasons; and the imposition of such laws, no matter how worthy that might sound, is not likely to have much effect on the problem.

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Educating for Citizenship at Brown University: An Essay In Honor Of Allan Bloom

Brown University has been described as providing “the worst education in America.” Brown’s New Curriculum, far from requiring that students read a list of Great Books, has no core of any kind. Brown students are free to “shop” their courses and take only the ones they like. Brown’s libertarian attitude toward curricular structure no doubt influences the sort of courses that wind up being taught at the place.

Consider the goings-on in a course that has become popular at Brown in recent years. On the first day of this course, the instructor informs the delighted students that it is fine with him if they never attend another lecture during the semester. He admits that he would like them to attend their weekly discussion sections, but he assures them that they need not worry about being lectured at there: the sections in this course are conducted as student-led seminars, with the graduate teaching assistants instructed to refrain from interrupting the student’s musings in any way. There are weekly writing assignments in the course, but students are always free to write about topics that happen to interest them rather than the topic that was assigned. The syllabus indicates that the course includes a midterm, but the professor hastens to set them at ease about that. To the sound of cheers, he tells them that they may adjust the details of the questions so as to better display their own strengths and interests. He promises them in any case that their exams never will be evaluated in terms of how well the essays they write happen to fit with the questions that he (the professor) asks on the exam. Instead, each exam essay is to be evaluated simply “on its own terms.” This course concludes with a final exam sternly stipulating that students compose an essay in response to one of three questions. But the last question turns out to be: “3. Write a question about any author you have read, argument you have heard, or any idea that has occurred to you during this course. Now, answer it.”

I first read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind twelve years ago, the year I began teaching at Brown. By the time I reached page 63 and read the sentence beginning “Education for our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion…”, I was enchanted. Bloom’s claim that there was a great wound lying unattended to at the soul of the university, a wound of emptiness endured without understanding by recent generations of students, resonated profoundly with my own earlier experiences as a professor at a number of what Bloom calls “the 20 or 30 best universities”. Perhaps because I had studied classics as an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Bloom’s prescription by book’s end – a return to “the good old Great Books approach” (334) – completed the spell. At last, someone had brilliantly grasped and confidently expressed worries that many of us had long but dimly harbored about the enterprise of education in America. Here was a champion worth backing.

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Who Will Stand Up For Campus Free Speech?

Troy Scheffler, a graduate student at Hamline University in Minnesota, thinks that the Virginia Tech massacre might have been avoided if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons. After e-mailing this opinion to the university president, he was suspended and ordered to undergo “mental health evaluation” before being allowed to return to school.

Punishment for expressing an opinion is not unusual on the modern campus. Neither is the lack of protest among faculty and students for the kind of treatment Scheffler got. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is defending the student, reports that it has failed to find a single Hamline student or faculty member who has spoken out in favor of Scheffler’s right to free speech. So far, no protest from has been reported in the student newspaper or in outside internet outlets such as Myspace.

Scheffler, it should be said, is something of a campus gadfly, with disdain for campus diversity programs and other policies. The university said Scheffler’s e-mails were threatening, but those messages, available on the FIRE web site, contain no semblance of a threat. Free speech was the core issue and still is.

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Do Rich White Kids Win With Affirmative Action?

Color and Money: How Rich White Kids are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action  by Peter Schmidt

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Exactly how important is a college degree from a prestige school? Many believe that having such a degree is extremely important – a virtual guarantee of success in life. The higher education establishment works hard at propounding the idea that without a college degree, a young person’s life will be one of almost Hobbesian misery and the elite institutions go a step further and portray themselves as the essential training grounds for the nation’s leaders. If you accept those views, the destiny of the nation is largely shaped by who goes to college and where.

Peter Schmidt has swallowed them hook, line, and sinker, which isn’t surprising for a reporter who has been immersed in higher education for many years. In his new book Color and Money he writes, “In modern American society, many of us assume – or at least desperately hope – that the people in leading positions in government, business, and the professions are our best and brightest… How do we decide who deserves such status? Generally, we rely on academic credentials. We entrust the task of identifying and training our best and brightest to our elite higher education institutions…”

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The State of the Faculty – A Liberal View

The study of professors’ views by Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons confirms much of what we already knew: there are more liberals than conservatives working in academia, and the ratio increases in the humanities and social sciences, as well as at more elite universities. However, the survey does show an important fact, that a substantial number of professors are moderates and independents, and no simple stereotype of college faculty exists. Certainly, conservatives like David Horowitz are dead wrong when they claim, “Our faculties are 90 percent to 95 percent people of the left.”

One common conservative refrain is that “tenured radicals” have taken over universities and hired only leftists. As Gross and Simmons point out, there hasn’t been a radical left-wing shift among faculty. In reality, the liberal tendencies of university faculty have a long history; William F. Buckley contended that the Yale political science faculty in 1948 supported Truman over Dewey by 23-0. Robert Bork was called by a Yale journalist in 1964 who could find only one other Goldwater supporter on a faculty of 1,000 professors. An analysis in Public Opinion Quarterly of the 1989 and 1997 Carnegie surveys of faculty even concluded that “the replacement of older, more liberal cohorts by younger, less liberal ones has helped to produce a less liberal faculty.”

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The Betrayal Of The Academy

[This is an excerpt from a paper delivered by James Piereson at a Manhattan Institute conference on October 3, 2007, marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. He is Executive Director of the Center for the American University and President of the William E. Simon Foundation. The New Criterion will publish the full text of papers from the conference, some of them in slightly different forms. The proceedings of the meeting will soon be available on C-SPAN. Speakers included Robert George, Roger Kimball, Peter Berkowitz, James Miller, Heather Mac Donald and Mark Steyn.]

[Allan] Bloom claimed that the West faces an intellectual crisis because no one any longer can make a principled defense of its institutions or way of life. This is most evident in the university, which has reformed itself according to the ideas of openness, tolerance, relativism, and diversity – all of which claim that no political principles, institutions, or way of life can be affirmed as being superior to any others. This is the near-universal view among students and faculty at our leading institutions of higher learning. The tragedy here, according to Bloom, is that relativism has extinguished the real motive behind all education, which is “the search for the good life.” If all ideas and ideals are equal, there is little point in searching for the best ones.

This open-mindedness, as Bloom said, is thought to be a moral virtue that counters a dangerous vice called “absolutism,” which involves the affirmation of any set of principles or morals as objectively true. The operative assumption here is that if someone or some group affirms something to be true they will be led to oppress those who disagree. Tolerance and openness are thus the virtues required for democracy and freedom. Hitler, as it is believed, was an absolutist; his crimes followed from his absolute conviction that he was right and Germans a superior people. Democracy thus seems to rely on the belief that no one has access to the truth.

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“Why Was I Unfit?”

After 25 years in the corporate world, I decided to head back to the campus. In a way, I hadn’t really left since my dissertation. I had published several refereed articles in academic journals, five academic books (one a best seller in the field) and had conducted large research studies, collected a lot of data, written “white papers” and shared a good deal of that with my academic friends.

I found a position in the business school of a well-known Midwestern university. In my first semester I was asked what my political associations were. The question seemed irrelevant. I said so, adding that in presidential elections I had voted for three Independents, three Democrats and three Republicans. I was a free market guy, believed in lower taxes, less regulation, individual performance and personal accountability. I also believed in a secure retirement, health care support for the needy, a social “safety net” for those who could not work, education for everyone starting in kindergarten, a strong national defense, a sustainable ecological future for our children and grandchildren, smaller government, more local control, law enforcement – in short, sort of a libertarian, and one who believed in helping those who were less fortunate.

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Professors: Just As Liberal, Or More Moderate?

The Chronicle of Higher Education, the voice of liberal academia, says that an important new study shows that liberal dominance among professors is much less than commonly believed. Not really. The study, by sociologists Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, found that in 2004, 78 percent of faculty voted for John Kerry (77percent) or Ralph Nader (1 percent), while only 20.4 percent voted for President Bush. Among social science professors, Ralph Nader and “other” received a percentage of the 2004 vote as large as that of President Bush.

Other findings:

* Liberals outnumber conservatives by 11-1 among social scientists and 13-1 among humanities professors.

* 25.5 percent of those who teach sociology identify themselves as Marxist. Self-identified radicals accounted for 19 percent of humanities professors and 24 percent of social scientists.

* Although business school professors are believed to be predominantly conservative, professors of business voted 2-1 for Kerry. These professors were barely more conservative than liberal.

* Only 19.7 percent of respondents identify themselves as any type of conservative, compared to 62.2 percent who say they are any type of liberal.

* At elite, Ph.D-granting schools in general, 60.4 percent of faculty members are Democrats, 30.1 percent are independents and 9.5 percent are Republicans.

* Gross and Simmons believe that liberals are losing ground to moderates among faculty, though conservatives are not gaining at all. Faculty members who are 35 or younger are less likely that their elders to be left-wing, and less likely to be conservative as well.

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College Admissions, Let’s Not Break The Law

David Leonhardt, an economics columnist for the New York Times, recently visited the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and took a careful look at the current admissions process of that campus in the wake of Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that outlawed race and gender preferences in public education, as well as in public employment and contracting. In particular, Leonhardt examined the application and the fate of one Francis Harris, a black student from Sacramento, who became the case study for his article. Here is how Leonhardt describes Ms. Harris:

She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. Her high school, in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, was shut down as an irremediable failure the spring before her freshman year, then reopened months later as a charter school. Midway through high school, her father developed heart problems and became an irritable fixture around the home. She also discovered that he was not actually her biological father. That was a man named Leroy who, when her mother took Harris to see him, simply said his name was George and waited for her to leave. In Harris’s senior year, her mother lost her job at a nursing home and the family filed for bankruptcy… Harris, for instance, scored a 22 on the ACT test – slightly above the national average and well below the U.C.L.A. average.

The underlying question posed by Leonhardt with regard to Harris is the extent to which her “disadvantages” should factor into her application for admission to U.C.L.A. As did Leonhardt, most college admissions officers look primarily at one facet of Harris’s life: “…she is African-American.” They start from the premise stated by Peter Taylor, a good friend mentioned in Leonhardt’s column, that “race has an enormous effect on the lives of applicants.”

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The Humanities: A Laughing Stock?

An excerpt from the new book Education’s End, Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School (Yale University Press)

By the early 1970s, the humanities were floundering. Ideological rifts were widening. Traditional ways of teaching had lost much of their authority, and there was worried talk of a “crisis” in the humanities. To many it seemed less clear than it had a quarter century before, when Harvard published its famous report on the aims of liberal education, what the humanities are supposed to do and why their doing it is important. In this anxious and excited environment, a new set of ideas began to gain currency. The first idea was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and is associated with the concept of diversity. The second generally goes under the name of multiculturalism, and reflected the deepening suspicion of Western values provoked, in part, by the Vietnam War. The third, which provided philosophical support for the other two, I shall call the idea of constructivism, though its supporters have given it a variety of other names (“postmodernism”, “antiessentialism,” and the like). Loosely inspired by the work of philosophers as different as Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, constructivism affirmed the artificiality of all human values and the absence of any natural standards by which to judge them. It insisted, in particular, that the values of the West have no inherent superiority over those of other civilizations and are merely instruments of power in disguise that must be unmasked and resisted as weapons of colonial oppression. Together, these three ideas are the source of the culture of political correctness that has dominated the humanities for the past forty years.

Each has something to recommend it. Each has a core of good sense with intellectual and moral appeal. And each draws its appeal from a feature it shares with secular humanism, which also acknowledged the diversity of human values and the need to construct one’s life by making a choice among them. Together these ideas have helped to maintain the confidence of many in the humanities that they do in fact have something special to contribute to the work of higher education. They have helped define a new and distinctive role for the humanities, organized around attractive moral and political values – one that fills the void that opened up when teachers in these fields abandoned their role as guides to the question of life’s purpose and value in favor of the research ideal. And they have done this in a way that appears consistent with the values of secular humanism itself.

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Second Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“The Hungry Student: Reopening After The Closing of the American Mind”

At the end of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions that only Socrates knew that he was ignorant, albeit “after a lifetime of unceasing labor.” Bloom observes at the time of his writing that every high school student knows he is ignorant. Like the psychology professor Bloom describes in his introduction, the goal of many a professor is to rid students of prejudice so that they can know that they do not know, so that like Socrates, they can be open-minded. But as Bloom finds, harkening back to Plato’s Republic, the professor’s endeavor to rid students of prejudice enervates the very imagination that projects images onto the cave wall. That is, the professor’s endeavor actively dissembles civilization and burns its parts so that they may never be reassembled into a whole. And students are somehow more like Socrates as a result? At issue in Bloom’s essay is the end to which education, particularly higher education is directed. Does opening minds, as liberal learning through reading Great Books, involve some taste, as remote as it may be, of a love or eros of wisdom? Where does such liberal learning cease? And has it? Bloom finds that while the endeavor of American higher education has sought to open minds, it is directed toward ends which do the opposite. Perhaps Bloom is correct. But after Closing, perhaps there is some conscious attempt among a select few to rekindle the eros that characterizes liberal learning in the university.

Cosmopolitanism, tolerance, specialization, and devouring nature’s fruits. These are the ends to which the modern university would appear to be directed. My own university places a premium on these self-described virtues. But it does so having uttered the language of its Jesuit heritage: ‘educating the whole person.’ Presumably the university attempts to implant in its students the theoretical and practical knowledge which together are crucial to love of truth and passion to live a good life, as the elementary reader of Aristotle knows and Bloom is quick to note. Nevertheless, in practice, these classical ideals, which surface in Closing, today often materialize as something less than the liberal learning that Bloom describes. That is, while students are required to study literature, theology, philosophy, and perhaps even political philosophy, much less is made of reading great old books than of learning critical methods for denigrating the thought of “dead old white men” or conceptualizing them as products of history. Few are those courses that engage in sincere dialogues with the great old writers who perhaps are esteemed enough to be regarded as lovers of wisdom. While American students are fortunate to have some attempt at liberal learning, gone are the days when Alexandre Kojeve could read his students’ term papers and see that they refer to Aristotle as ‘Mr. Aristotle’ as though he were a contemporary engaging in living discussion on matters of truth, right, and beauty.

Replacing ‘Mr. Aristotle’ is too often a mode of education that intends to ‘educate the whole person’ as a citizen not of any particular city but of a soulless world. And in order to graduate from such education, one must be void of all prejudices. One must be simply a material animal without any activity of soul that exhibits excellence. As in Plato’s Republic, the civilization that resides in the cave and the philosophic endeavor to ascend from the cave are usually not the ends of most cities today. That is, rather than cultivating one’s soul within one’s own city, as is the original meaning of culture, citizens abandon their cities for a more cosmopolitan place, the world. Culture is no longer an activity of cultivation within cities but a source of understanding without prejudice. In Max Weber’s thought, which Bloom in light of his teacher traces to the root of most modern social science endeavor, the student cannot make a truth claim as to the value of one culture or mode of cultivating one’s soul over another. The end of the professor is to foster not love of truth but love of toleration. Toleration in this light precedes truth. In opening the student to a cosmopolitan world, the university then closes the student from any interest in truth.

There are students at almost all American universities who dedicate their time to more inward pursuits than this brash cosmopolitanism, which Bloom sees as replacing dialogues with the great writings of human history. These are often the students who not only embrace the division of labor in Western thought, but do so without any desire for a vision, misguided or not, of the whole. And if they seek some vision of the whole, it is usually not a vision at all but a taste of nature’s fruits. These students, in their course of study, do not seek to be graced by nature’s grace in tasting nature’s fruits. Rather they seek to conquer nature and to devour it. For them, my own university is currently constructing two new buildings to occupy the physical center of campus, a business school and a science research center. Indeed, the economics of the household, which characterizes the pursuit of the businessman, occupies sizeable space in Book I of Aristotle’s Ethics and thereafter in much of the Western canon. And science as natural philosophy teaches any student a great deal about his nature as a human being. But both these pursuits in their current states are instrumental to overly specialized utilitarian ends at best. They are hardly concerned with the meaning of human nature. Much of the research that will take place in the new science center on campus will not seek some knowledge of the whole aware of the “sanctity of human nature.” Rather, it will seek to conquer human nature and nature more broadly. That these buildings should occupy the physical center of campus reflects a withdrawal from the dialogue for love of wisdom and passion for the good life in place of some utilitarian ends. It is still true today that the physicist gains nothing but mild “spiritual uplift” from reading Shakespeare and seeks nothing more too often.

Cosmopolitanism and the tolerance it requires redirect the student’s interest in truth. Specialization marked by a desire to devour nature’s fruits through conquering nature limits the student’s ability to make even an attempt at grasping knowledge of the whole. As a student, I fear that if the university does not look back to an earlier pursuit, one interested in cultivating virtuous citizens and teachers, then our society more broadly will be susceptible to the danger that Bloom evokes from Tocqueville – a society’s enslavement to public opinion or passions. Our universities still lack the philosophic experience that Bloom sees as the lifeline to philosophic endeavor more broadly. If we as students cannot distinguish the laws that killed Socrates from laws that enable his survival, philosophy is doomed. And if philosophy is doomed in our society, we find ourselves living in nihilism. The university as the bastion of liberal learning can be the preserve of philosophy. The university can be the place where we the citizens and students bring ourselves from the cave that our ancestors dug beneath the original cave. To do this, we must read things which much of our core curriculum has abandoned in place of things cosmopolitan or things specialized for the sake of instrumental knowledge. We must ask those ultimate questions in the academy, and not limit ourselves to learning techniques in glorified trade schools. Our professors must let students know about classic philosophers. With all these needs facing our starving universities, Bloom leaves us with a choice: embrace a rebirth of liberal learning or fall deeper into the cave.

Despite the replacement of cosmopolitanism and tolerance for citizenship and truth in most curricula, and despite the new epicenter of the college campus in the instrumental sciences, the neo-Gothic towers of the old campus have not yet been demolished. Like the pseudo-Gothic spires of the University of Chicago, which Bloom describes as his first discovery of life, or the life dedicated to contemplation, these Gothic towers still reflect the contemplative life in the university. And while few and far between, courses are available for the student to read the writings of great thinkers and engage in a living dialogue about truth, beauty, and right. Academic forums for students that seek to revitalize liberal learning are sprouting up across the country. But these forums are still in their infancy. Perhaps a few students with the help of a few professors at leading universities will start to seek those ultimate questions from education. Perhaps those students and professors will call for a reopening of the American mind in true liberal learning. For love of truth, beauty, and right, the last bastions, a few professors and a scant offering of courses, I the hungry student feed on the only food I find nourishing. And I hope. I hope that the American moment in world history, “the one for which we shall forever be judged,” as Bloom describes, is a success. A reopening of the American mind.

Third Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“Bloom’s Closing Revisited”

It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.

Introduction:
Fifteen years after his death, Allan Bloom still commands a rapt audience. This past April, his thoughts once again filled a University of Chicago lecture hall. Though he was a brilliant essayist, translator, and educator in his own right, he is remembered for his New York Times Bestseller.

On the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, we are confronted by a sort of intellectual imperative to re-examine the arguments contained therein. However, I wonder if I – as former St. John’s College student and someone whose present coursework at the University of Chicago consists principally of the study of the Greek language and of dead white males – should truly have much first hand experience of “the state [of] intellectual pluralism at today’s universities.” Nonetheless, my experiences as an American youth and as a student on various campuses have prepared me to attest to the veracity of much of Bloom’s analysis. However this may be, twenty long years after Bloom’s devastating critique, I can feel some confidence in asserting that humane learning does still continue in North America – though not as we should like it to be.

The Closing, 2007:

As someone born in the 1980’s, I write as a second generation student of Bloom – myself, a student of a student of Bloom’s. Though dedicated “To [his] students,” Bloom’s Closing was purchased in droves by the parents of his students, who yearned for insight into the minds of their close-lipped sons and daughters. Twenty years later, my generation has accidentally become the new – although, perhaps anticipated – audience of this book.

Few of us still revel in the music of Mick Jagger. Yet we are in the peculiar position of both living the world that Bloom describes and are simultaneously prepared with the critical tools and insights presented in Bloom’s Closing. Like the generation of the late 1960’s, we too are the generation afraid to say to his lover, “I love you.” But we are the first generation to know that we are afraid to say the words, “I love you.” We are the first generation both to fit Bloom’s description and to be equipped with – i.e., to know well – Bloom’s criticism.

Kulturkrise:

Bloom’s book, I believe, helped me to articulate and understand my upbringing and beliefs of youth. It provided me some of the language and analysis not yet present in my own thoughts. Though I am tempted to say that this very observation sufficiently attests to the truth of the criticism, it might be objected that Bloom’s book simply became for me a false hermeneutic by which to understand my experiences of post-adolescence. To this I would rejoin that although the trans-Atlantic etiology of the cultural crisis Bloom describes may be up for debate, his description of the phenomena is as insightful as it is accurate. I have sufficient insight into the psyche of my post-adolescence to attest to the accuracy of Bloom’s portrayal.

Today, any child can flatter his hollow intellect in declaring everything to be culturally relative. But this is simply the “insight” of the lazy. It is non-philosophical and strictly dogmatic. Unwilling to confront difficult questions, they instead withdraw into their pseudo-intellectual cave. In zealously undermining all traditions of men, modern theory has created a void, which presently yearns to be filled. The truly educated and civilized yearn for higher things.

Bloom – following Tocqueville – aptly teaches that the founding principles of our society (freedom and equality) exist in a fundamental tension with one another. Unfettered and unrestrained freedom can be, and frequently is, inegalitarian. Freedom commands that the dictates of equality be muted, but equality will not have this.
The confusion over the relationship of the one to the other (freedom to equality) probably manifests itself as a confusion in our own minds regarding what is good. Owing to this confusion, these principles were further radicalized in my mind. They came to mean for me permissiveness and license, and the unseating of authority. For reasons still difficult to articulate, I grew, unawares, into an adolescent who believed in no ultimate principles but the principles of self-indulgence and Karamazovian sensualism, the expression of “individuality,”and the pursuit of worldly gain or the satisfaction of my vanity (which seem to be one in the same thing today).

Have America’s youth become a mass of relativists, of nihilists, of hedonists, of materialists? Perhaps. But underlying it all, they are simply in a state of confusion stemming from a more fundamental confusion about the appropriate ends of a human being. But, as Bloom has so aptly put it, “All this is a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear.” Worse yet, American democratic culture appeared to be permissive of this confusion. Is it a coincidence that every American adolescence is haunted by pangs of loneliness, alienation, and dejection? Bloom accurately saw this in our preference for Catcher in the Rye – my favorite novel of youth – and Camus. We may be said to have become souls without longing, as Bloom had originally titled his manuscript – emotionally absent, psychically impoverished, and “flat-souled.”

The State of Education:

There is no word for “culture” in Greek. The closest word, one might say, would be the word paideia, or “education.” As such, a scholar of the classical world, would see the failures of a culture inextricably linked to that culture’s education. Having co-opted the method of the social scientist, Bloom examined the psyches of the “sample” available to him: the best and brightest in American universities. The psyches of the students at America’s elite universities are an image of the state of American culture, insofar as they are the product of a very high, intellectual tradition filtered down through the schools.
According to Bloom, we face today a profound educational crisis, coextensive with the crisis of our civilization. That crisis consists in the observation that we have formally defeated reason through the use of reason. Whatever we might understand liberal education to be, it is at least clear that it has partly – or in some cases, altogether – withered and died at some of America’s most prestigious universities and colleges.

There no longer exists a coherent image of what it means to be an educated human being. The departments within academia today deny the natural unity of human thought, yet they present their individual, partial perspectives as complete and comprehensive. The “new kind of education,” which Bloom saw, militantly sought to reduce all highs in man to lower motives, thereby stunting the growth of the minds of our nation. Multiculturalism in the humanities – for the mere sake of multiculturalism – has further obscured our purposes in education, having become an end in itself: openness to the “Other.”

What is Liberal Education?:

As stated above, education plays a reciprocal role with culture. Strangely, however, Bloom departs from the subsequent inference that Dewey had made, that higher education should become the handmaiden of liberal democracy. In point of fact, Bloom’s book was written in implicit but essential opposition to Dewey. Higher, theoretical thought – and hence, the university – is not naturally in the service of the city. Rather, at its best, it is the healthiest aristocratic element within a democratic society, promoting what is best and highest in man, without concern for the common denominator.
As Socrates is symbolic of the function of the university, the civilized and “humanizing” themes of a true liberal education involve the Socratic-Aristotelian question of the good life for a man. Education is said to be truly liberal (i.e., liberating) only if it promotes that single life that exercises that part of man that is peculiar to man, his mind. Humane learning should be dedicated to higher things and provide those “ideals” to which we might aspire.

True liberal education must actively engage us as human beings. Liberal education has as it end “the goal of human completeness,” but we may only fulfill our humanity in the use of reason. Philosophy – or any simply theoretical science – may be indefensible in terms of utility, but it represents something in man that establishes him as a being worthy of dignity. The static quality in all considerations of man is his nature. Humane education must pose those sempiternal questions which belong to man as man.

The very essence of liberal education for Bloom is the cognitive liberation borne of the knowledge of alternatives. True intellectual freedom is awareness of alternatives, a breadth and wealth of perspectives. However imperfect that tradition may be, the “best [minds] of the past” provide us with more reliable standards of thought and life than the ephemeral and present pieties and opinions. Thus philosophy is most needful, insofar as it is the function of philosophy to dismantle popular pieties and received opinions in the ascent from opinion to knowledge; darkness to light.

All this requires a return to the philosophical books undergirding our society. However, we must not read Rousseau, Socrates, or writers of their ilk as historical artifacts, but rather as living ideas. In order to treat of them seriously, we must understand them as they understood themselves. In so doing, we are under obligation to lay aside our faith in the superiority of modern knowledge, which we can do in recognition of the fact that the progress of the modern mind has borne rotten fruit: it has given us value-relativism and nihilism. This is what liberal education can do for us, but always with an awareness that liberal education is not essentially instrumental. (Even the things most needful can be also non-instrumental in the last appraisal.)

The Future of Humane Thought:

Humane learning is not yet dead in North America. Today one place with which I am familiar is that tiny enclave called “political philosophy” within many of North America’s departments of political science. There, scholars of the highest caliber still treat of the classics, with the seriousness of a Machiavelli. It is troubling, however, that this group represents a specialization, which definitionally seems to defy the concept of humane learning. Nevertheless, this group, and others like them, have answered the imposing question, why study Greek books? They have taken to heart Bloom’s exhortation:

For the first time in four hundred years, it seems possible and imperative to begin all over again, to try to figure out what Plato was talking about, because it might be the best thing available.

Today, there are still those who come to the university yearning for that je ne sais quoi that will complete them. There are even those who, like myself, came to the university eager to push through to a JD, MBA, or MD but somehow got diverted along the way by the ideas they encountered there. Today, it is not entirely uncommon to find eighteen and twenty year-old lovers of Mozart or Bartok – some of whom are without much formal music training or encouragement from their parents. Some of us do still long for the Continent and everything high which it represents. We long for Europe: to visit, to study, to live. Contrary to Bloom’s pronouncements, some of us do use Aristotle both as a means to understand ourselves, but also as source for reflection on our own practical or theoretical quagmires.
Humane learning is not altogether dead or dying in North America.

First Place – Bloom Essay Competition

“The Permanent Questions Are Still Permanent:
A Reflection on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind”

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education”, ultimately reflects on a problem that goes back to Socrates: the tension between the philosopher and the regime that he or she inhabits. Because this problem is a perennial one, this book is just as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago, and it will remain relevant so long as there are people who courageously seek answers to the permanent human questions about the true, the good, and the beautiful. While philosophy has always been at odds with various factions, attitudes, and opinions within society, the crisis of philosophy in liberal democracy today is that the institution that had become its last home, the university, has embraced those premises of the regime that threaten the philosophic way of life. Through his discussion of students, the universities they attend, and the ideas that have come to animate the American regime, Bloom challenges us to reconsider the nature and purpose of a liberal education, as well as examine whether we are living truly human lives.
“The essence of philosophy,” according to Bloom, “is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason” in “the quest for and even discovery of the truth according to nature.” The person who undertakes this quest is generally moved by a sense of being incomplete and has a desire – indeed, an Eros – to achieve wholeness through knowledge of the truth. Therefore, he or she must maintain, initially at least, that there is a truth to be found and reason is capable of finding it. Although the true philosopher will never find perfectly satisfactory answers to the permanent questions – “Socratic dialectic.. always culminates in doubt” – the philosophic enterprise does promise liberation from one’s previously held opinions, typically false and typically those of society-at-large. As Bloom states, “One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.”

Today’s brand of American democracy, however, has formed the souls of its inhabitants in such a way as to make them especially resistant to making the Socratic turn. In observing the students of elite U.S. colleges and universities, Bloom recognized that the vast majority of young people lack both prerequisites for the philosophic life. First, they lack the belief that there is an objectively good and just life to be pursued. As Bloom claims in the Introduction, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student… believes… that truth is relative.” Second, most undergraduates lack the angst and yearnings that would drive them to seek answers to the permanent questions; “The eroticism of our students is lame.” This condition of their souls has resulted from growing up and living in an environment that is relatively comfortable and pervaded by a “mood” that Bloom describes – and explores in Part II – as “American nihilism… [a] nihilism without the abyss.” The students’ unreflective relativism, access to immediate gratifications, and pursuit of happiness in “ways determined by [the] language” of this nihilism have seriously enervated their interest in the permanent questions, and consequently, their disposition towards liberal education.
The ways in which the lives of today’s undergraduates reflect this “American style” nihilism differ little from those that Bloom observed in the 1980s. For starters, students are still addicted to rock music – if Bloom could have only seen the iPod. Likewise, televisions, DVD players, and video game systems are to be found throughout dormitories, and the Internet, with its plethora of mindless delights ranging from YouTube to Facebook to Homestar Runner provides added distractions from reading and contemplation. Furthermore, with an ever growing gym culture, it is still quite accurate that “students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But… they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.”

Students’ relationships, another target of Bloom’s critique, can also indicate and contribute to their being “flat-souled.” His observation of the “pervasive feeling that love and friendship are groundless” does apply to the lives of some students, though it is somewhat exaggerated since he is arguing in terms of the philosophic life. While few undergraduates at elite universities become friends in common pursuit of wisdom via philosophy, there are not a few students, many of whom share religious, political, and other convictions, that forge friendships that go beyond superficiality; and there is a portion of students that actually dates during college and gets married after graduation. Yet at the same time, the “privileged debauchery,” to quote a friend, exhibited in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons should not be understated. Many college parties resemble what Bloom writes of the “youth culture” of rock music: “so loud [that] conversation [is] impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground… illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas… are the basis of association.”

Another factor that discourages students from pursuing a liberal education is their own Lockean diligence. Like their fellow citizens, American undergraduates are good “Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary… and will produce well-being.” Bloom notes that students who “have a fixed career goal” and are “obsessive[ly] concerned” with “[g]etting into… elite professional schools” are generally not open to a challenging, life-changing liberal education. Moreover, with people graduating from college in greater numbers, the top MD, JD, and MBA programs and prestigious entry-level jobs have become increasingly competitive. As a result, students feel an immense pressure to make top grades and do time-consuming internships to pad their resumes, making them, in many cases, more overworked and overstressed than when they enter the “real world,” an important reality of college life that Bloom somewhat overlooks. Even students who would be interested in contemplating the permanent questions simply lack the necessary leisure. Combine this state of affairs with the students’ desires to satisfy their “natural inclinations” and “passions,” though in a “balanced,” reasonable, “Lockean” fashion – in other words, to have a social life – what results on elite campuses is a hyper form of liberal democracy, in which “Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to… look into the abyss.” Sunday through Thursday, many students are up until 2:00 a.m. hitting the books, only to descend into bacchanalia on Friday and Saturday, and then repeat the cycle during the following week.
The fact that numerous forces within the American regime fashion and encourage souls to be so remarkably impervious to philosophical inquiry gives even greater urgency to the university’s purpose, which is, “in the first place, always to maintain the permanent questions front and center.” Yet because the university has embraced elements of the same anti-philosophical spirit that has influenced most students, even those few undergraduates who go to college desiring a liberal education may be left disappointed. According to Bloom, the university “must provide [students] with experiences they cannot have [in democratic society] …The universities never performed this function very well. Now they have practically ceased trying.”
The university manifests its aversion to seriously facing permanent questions in numerous ways, beginning with the standard “core” curriculum. Bloom argues that for courses to provide a student with a liberal education – as opposed to a technical or vocational one – they must have “the specific intention to lead to the permanent questions, to make the student aware of them and give him some competence in the important works that treat of them.” Yet most universities do not present to students in the curriculum a “vision… [or] set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is” and the alternative ways of facing the permanent questions. Relativism has rendered all comprehensive responses to such questions to be of equal worth. Therefore, the content of introductory courses can vary depending on the instructors’ tastes, and students are free to fulfill their core requirements in remarkably haphazard ways. For example, a student may fulfill the literature requirement with courses on gothic horror and Italian autobiographies of the twentieth century and graduate without having studied seriously Shakespeare or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This problem relates to and is exacerbated by the university’s division into natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and further subdivision into departments, which entails that the various disciplines “do not address one another” and “The problem of the whole… is never systematically posed.”

In addition, the university tends to avoid serious confrontation with the permanent questions about truth and justice because doing so necessarily entails praising certain ways of life and criticizing others, the latter of which now connotes intolerance. As Bloom explains in his discussion of what “openness” has come to mean in liberal democracy, “indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination.” To avoid appearing judgmental with respect to certain issues, universities have embraced some of the language and premises surrounding value relativism. Consider, for example, the way in which elite universities eagerly support students to form groups representing their cultural heritages. This is a perfectly safe route in a liberal democratic regime that values peace and seeks to avoid conflict, since “culture” actually originated in an attempt to maintain “the old attachments to family, country, and God” while ignoring that “real differences among men are based on real differences in fundamental beliefs about good and evil, about what is highest, about God.” The same can be said about institutional efforts to promote “dialogue” with no end beyond enhanced mutual-understanding, a far cry from dialogue in the Socratic sense that aims to distinguish true opinions from false ones.

Along with describing how the radicalized democratic spirit has flattened the souls of America’s youth and corrupted the university, in Part II, Nihilism, American Style, Bloom provides the intellectual history behind this mood’s development. Although Bloom’s analysis is interesting in its own right, perhaps more importantly, this section justifies his later claim that “Philosophy is still possible.” The command to “know thyself” will always exert a claim on human beings, and Bloom shows us how to pursue this knowledge by engaging the great thinkers, whose thoughts have been preserved in great books, who also took this mandate seriously. As Bloom states, “We need history, not to tell us what happened, or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible. This is our educational crisis and opportunity.”
For all its discussion of apathetic students and the debasement of institutions of higher learning, The Closing of the American Mind is really a book about the state of philosophy and its future in the United States. Towards the end of the book, Bloom remarks that the “story [of philosophy] defines in itself our whole problem.” Provided human nature does not change, there will always be souls inspired by the permanent questions. Concomitantly, there will always be forces in their regime that conspire against the pursuit of the truth. Therefore, the key question for the elite American university is whether it will once again provide a safe home for philosophy and encourage a liberal education for students. While the future in this regard is far from certain, the fact that people continue returning to Bloom’s book after twenty years is at least one promising sign.

Do Elite Universities Exclude The Poor?

In an Op-Ed in last Monday’s New York Times, UC-Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel painted an alarming picture of our elite universities as institutions that systematically discriminate against poor and middle-class students. In Karabel’s words, these schools are “serving less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.” This is a depressing analysis of our top academic institutions, but it also happens to be a false one.
While it is true that economically disadvantaged students sometimes get the short shrift in elite college admission, it is equally true that Karabel has used highly biased numbers to argue his case. When the statistical flaws are corrected, a truer picture emerges, one that suggests that the economic diversity at our top colleges is far greater than class warriors such as Karabel would admit.

Most of Karabel’s data in the op-ed comes from a single 2004 study done by the liberal Century Foundation. While the actual economic backgrounds of the students in the survey is somewhat difficult to determine because the study combined economic and non-economic factors, it is virtually certain that the study’s claims are dramatically exaggerated. To understand why, consider the similar claims Karabel made in his recent book, The Chosen.

Continue reading Do Elite Universities Exclude The Poor?