[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.
The curriculum and the organization of the academy are merely operational reflections of these ideas. This is why there is no required core curriculum at most leading institutions, why contemporary authors have replaced the great thinkers of the past on academic reading lists, why there is no structure to the curriculum, why there is no clear body of ideas that students are expected to master before graduation, why language requirements have disappeared, why students and faculty often express outrage when a speaker appears on campus to express a view that contradicts the doctrine of tolerance and openness. Bloom sought to challenge the philosophy – such as it is – that has shaped the academy, and only inferentially to reform the curriculum. This was the conversation that Bloom wished to ignite. From the perspective of two decades, it seems plain – notwithstanding the spectacular success of his book – that he failed to do so.
For Bloom, the great question was whether a political order founded on principles believed to be true here and everywhere (as expounded in the Declaration of Independence) can survive when they are no longer believed to be true or when they have been reinterpreted in the form of vague notions like openness and tolerance. This is one of the ways by which the academy has failed democracy, according to Bloom. Students and teachers believe fervently in democracy, but cannot tell us why.
A related failing of the academy is that, instead of acting as a check against the extreme impulses of a democratic order, it is spurring them on by its embrace of relativism, equality, and diversity. Bloom argues that the university in a democratic society should be a refuge from democratic impulses, a place where excellence is encouraged and pursued, where students consider ideas that run against the grain of democracy and equality, where for a short period of time they step outside our democratic regime to consider the best that has been thought and written through the ages. In this way the academy might elevate democratic life instead of merely pandering to it. By seeking to shape society in ever more democratic and egalitarian ways, the academy has betrayed its true function in a free society.