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.
I could not wait to share Bloom’s ideas with my students at Brown. I found an excuse to add the book to the end of a senior seminar I was teaching that spring – perhaps mindful of Bloom’s idea that the university years represented “civilization’s only chance to get them.” For a number of years I experimented with less formal but more tactical model of Bloom-distribution at Brown. For example, I purchased a big box of the books out of my own pocket and kept it beneath the desk of my office. I scrutinized every student who visited my office – freshman, senior, or Ph.D. candidate, I did not care. If I perceived a glimmer of the moral longing Bloom described, I would happily administer a copy of the book to that student – proffering the book as though it were a secret, and requiring only that each come back to tell me what they thought of the main question Bloom asked. That question, as I translated it to students, was this: “What is it that, precisely, that is desperately wrong with you? What about you is so unfinished, or so broken, that it could justify this massive mobilization of resources – buildings, professors, classes, monstrous tuition payments, four years of your time – to fix? What, precisely, do you seek from this place?” Through the years, one would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated disseminator of things-Bloom than I.
The Closing of the American Mind has aptly had described as “that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book.” Books gain profundity by having depth, but such depths are typically born of tensions internal to the main argument of those books. So it is with Bloom’s book. The more I studied it, the more one central tension within it troubled me. That tension is this: while Bloom is a stout defender of America, there is also an eddy of ambivalence about America curling against the main stream of argument in The Closing of the American Mind.
Bloom’s ambivalence about America values is clearest in his comments on commercial culture. He repeatedly describes mass culture in America as a wasteland, an attitude amplified by Bloom’s description of great universities such as the University of Chicago as being sanctuaries – lonely towers of culture standing amid the country’s endless philistine plains. Sometimes Bloom seems to worry that it modern liberties, for example the liberties of John Locke on which this country were founded, themselves lead to the cultural wasteland. Such liberties are devoid of responsibilities of place and time, setting people free in a way that cuts them off from their past – such that culture in America is always in danger of simply being whatever is “new” or, better, whatever is “next.” On this strand of Bloom’s argument, the defect that confronts is not just with our universities, but with our political ideals themselves.
Bloom’s ambivalence about the modern liberty of America’s political institutions throws light on Bloom’s critique of the American university. For Bloom’s primary worry about American universities seems not to be a worry that universities will fail in their civic function. That civic function is two-fold. First, universities should produce citizens knowledgeable enough about American political values to recognize when those values are being threatened. Second, in America most of all, citizens need to have pondered deep questions of human nature—perhaps by reading the classic works of their civilization – so that the lives they build by means of their liberties might be worthy of the human being each is. To each of us America whispers an urgent question: “Now that you are free, who will you be?” Universities must prepare citizens to hear that question, and to answer it.
Because Bloom is ambivalent about America – this land of bright and quintessentially modern freedom – he understands the moral function of universities slightly differently. Bloom’s worry seems almost to be that universities will fail sufficiently to alienate young people from America and its values, at least from the values of commercial culture. Anti-Americans from the Left have long sought to harness the universities to challenge American values with corrosive forms of moral relativism. In start contrast to them, Bloom longs for a University that will confront young people with a deep, unified, and non-material moral program. Like the barefoot soldier-boys of Sparta who were brought up to despise death and material pleasure, Blooms hopes the tastes and aspirations of at least a small phalanx of American citizens will be transformed through this encounter. Bloom wants a university that will inspire young people to turn away not only from the rhythms of the Rolling Stones, but from the bustle and lure of commercial society itself. He hopes to make them fit for the life of the mind (and perhaps only for the life of the mind?). Thus Bloom searches among the elite for the few who might join him, intellectual Spartans in a land of materialist and meretricious Hellenes.
I am convinced that Bloom is right to emphasize the importance of great books to people in their late teens and early twenties. Those are the years in which humans are most like Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures the Prigiones, figures struggling to pull free from the granite block of parental and state-educational control. Especially when it comes to the second half of the American civic question – “As I become free, who should I be?:” – young people need the chance to encounter great figures of literature, lessons of history, and music that will endure. But what about the first half of the American civic question, the side concerning political values? What lessons should the university teach? Can we learn something here from Bloom’s brilliant but Thermopylaeic critique?
I now would like to emphasize a point that is often overlooked in debates about American universities: the curriculum is not the only side of education within a liberal university. When universities teach, they make a choice not just on one dimension of instruction but on two. The first dimension is that of curriculum. This is the question of what to teach, the question that Bloom (and many others) have emphasized. But there is a second dimension that is as least as important: the dimension of pedagogy, or of how to teach.
For a long time in America, the second half of that educational decision was made largely by default. Teaching was to be done in classrooms by the traditional method of lectures and exams. The teacher should stand and deliver; the students, sit and receive. By the 1960s, however, educational theorists began experimenting with so-called progressive pedagogies. The insight underlying this development was the realization that people learn by the way they learn. In particular, people learn political lessons by their immediate experience of the way power is structured within their classrooms and schools.
This idea – that young people cannot help but absorbing political lessons by the way they learn – was seized upon by the left. Their creation was the “democratic classroom.” Rather than lining students up in rows and pouring lessons into their heads, students were invited to deliberate together about the rules of their own classrooms. They would deliberate together on what lessons would be done in the class and the resulting vote would bind them. From the start, the rationale for the democratic classroom was explicitly political. By exposing students in the classroom to power that was structured in this way, progressive theorists hoped to advance the form of social construction they preferred: decision making within social groupings should be collective decision making. This idea runs back to Aristotle’s state-centric idea that citizenship is a matter of “ruling and being ruled in term”, and runs through to John Rawls’s idea that social justice requires that citizens “share in one another’s fate.” So thoroughgoing was this revolution that for a time progressive education was democratic education.
But what about people on the right? What about people who see wisdom in the Founders’ emphasis on legislative bodies strictly limited by individual rights? These are people committed to the ideal of voluntarism in human affairs. They are attracted to the Tocquevillean idea that the great moral challenge each American faces is that of picking up and practicing the art of association – each in his or her own way. How do these people, lovers of liberty, answer the pedagogical question?
Intriguingly, most lovers of liberty are authoritarians about pedagogy. Whether self-consciously or not, they organize the process of learning in ways that accustom students to playing an assigned role within an essentially hierarchical system. Of course, with the possible exception of the most libertine educational theorists, all educators agree that educational structures need to be hierarchical at the early stages of a child’s education. Students need a base of skills and common information if they are ever to become free and responsible adults – or even if they are some day to become free and responsible students. So the question I am raising concerns not whether their should be hierarchy as students are propelled by schooling toward adulthood, but rather at what stage the booster of hierarchy should be jettisoned and the student allowed to travel forward freely. What form of pedagogy should lovers of freedom advocate at the university level?
Many universities and colleges, including some of America’s best, adhere to a hierarchical form of pedagogy throughout a student’s undergraduate years. Sometimes hierarchical pedagogies -such as the one I myself experienced as an undergraduate at St. John’s College – express themselves structurally. At St. John’s, not just every course, but every book in every course, every experiment in every laboratory, the selection and sequence of languages learned, the musical and athletic experiences of students, even the activities on Friday nights, were strictly and minutely prescribed for all students. When we arrived at St. John’s, we knew that we had handed ourselves over to the wisdom of elders who had selected these tasks for us long ago. At St. John’s, lessons of hierarchy and control emanated from the very structure of the place.
Hierarchical pedagogies may also express themselves charismatically. I have said that Bloom’s admiration for American liberty was ambivalent. But there is no doubt that Bloom was a charismatic teacher. Bloom’s best students, such as West, took multiple courses with him. Many of them followed the path of Bloom’s own pilgrimage through graduate programs at the University of Chicago, typically working in the same tradition or even with the same teachers who had once taught Bloom. On this model, the teacher is a mentor or, perhaps, an enlightened sherpa leading a trek up a narrow path in the Hindu Kush. This form of pedagogy is hierarchical because the student experiences instruction as a mentoree. His job is to hold the rope before him ever tighter, especially when the air gets thin and the clouds come closing in.
But, again I ask, what about the lovers of liberty? Is there a way of teaching such that – no matter what you teach – that way of teaching will be liberal in a classical American sense? I believe that there is such a way of teaching. Further, I believe that that the course at Brown that I described at the head of this essay – despite is manifest defects – may capture some of this American pedagogical ideal.
Liberty, on the social level, is a kind of letting go. Against all those hard-wired human tendencies to want to hold tight and control the world, bending it to our plans and purposes, we instead put our trust ultimately in free individuals: our neighbors, partners, competitors and countrymen. Like them, we conduct our affairs within institutions not of command and control but of ordered liberty. So perhaps educating for liberty, on the pedagogical level, also involves a kind of letting go. Is this possible within a university, or even within a classroom?
As the reader may have guessed, the strange course at Brown that I described earlier is my own current best attempt at creating such a learning environment. The course is PS11: Introduction to Political Thought. PS11 is so demanding that many students arrange to take it only during semesters when they know the balance of their course load will be light. The course is centered on a close reading of great books from the Western political tradition. The course has a grueling pace. Each week, students are to read one classic text: for example, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Machiavelli’s Prince, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Mill’s On Liberty, or Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. During two lectures each week, I attempt to make plausible some main idea at the center of each text. The focus of the course, though, is on the sections, which are run as seminars in which the students work with the primary texts for themselves. Seminars begin with the teaching assistant reading out some core question raised by the text. The seminar on Hobbes’s Leviathan, for example, centers on the following question: “Is the Hobbesian sovereign the agent or the master of his people? Are the people on Capital Hill your agents or your masters?” It is then left to the students as a group to discuss that question in light of the text at hand. Each week after seminar, every student writes a short essay in which they work out their own answer to the seminar question,or to whatever other puzzle in the text most interested them.
When I designed the course, my idea was to create a course that was worthy of young Americans. From the opening lecture, therefore, I emphasize to students that the success of the course does not depend on anything that I – their leader – does. Success or failure turns on the things that they do (or fail to do) as students taking the course together that year. By inviting them not to attend lectures, for example, I seek to create conditions in all future lectures in which all who attend have attended by their choice (predictably, students attend). When I invite them to change the questions on the exams or their papers so as to go to their own strengths, I point out to them that all the students around them are seeking to make similar adjustments, and thus the standard of written argumentation in the course gets steadily ratcheted up. I discourage them from reading editors’ introductions or any secondary materials of any kind (indeed, only half jokingly, I recommend that they tear the back covers off their books so they won’t read the summary in a moment of weakness). I want each student to discover first-hand the political problem each of these famous authors was wrestling with, and then to seize this chance to wrestle with that same problem for themselves. The challenge of PS11 is internal and at such it is practically limitless. The course is a test ultimately of each of them and their own seriousness about learning. The course is designed to help students ponder a question about themselves that many of them have never before considered in a sustained way: “How high will I climb, even for a professor who – far from leading me – sits back at base camp, applauding me from a great distance, as I disappear alone into the mists?” Or, to put the question closer to the civic ideal I have identified earlier in this essay: “If I am at liberty to create an educational experience worthy of a human being, what experience will I – the human being who is me right now – choose to create?”
Still, for the same reasons that Brown has been called the worst education in America, PS11 might well be called the worst course at Brown. What would Allan Bloom think of my way of teaching citizenship through Great Books at Brown University? The sentence on page 63 that long ago bewitched me includes a second clause that gives me some hope. That sentence, in full, reads: “Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them autonomously to seek that creation” (emphasis mine). To me that sounds just like Brown, but I suspect Bloom would not be pleased. A university, such as Brown, that values student autonomy has a special obligation to ensure that the preconditions of student autonomy be met. The most important such precondition, by far, is that students encounter a course-catalogue and a faculty that is intellectually diverse and vibrant enough continually to disrupt them, rather than one that channels them – whether intentionally or not – into one broad pattern of thought, however widely-held or seemingly deep. Every university needs intellectual counter-eddies to keep its waters fresh. But how do we create such counter-eddies and, once created, how are they to be sustained? At Brown today, this is the great challenge that we face.
Twenty years ago, Allan Bloom presented us with a brilliant diagnosis of a sickness at American universities and offered a compelling case that a cure might be found in the Great Books. However, Bloom did not tell us how those books should be taught. My own experience suggests that is not only by required curricula or mandatory cores that Great Books can be got into the hands of students. Great Books can change the lives of young people not only at Chicago, Columbia or St. John’s College, but even at a place such as Brown.
I would like to close with a quotation summarizing my argument. Because I teach at Brown, I cannot resist selecting this quotation from the sayings of Chairman Mao (though I shall invert it): “Let a thousand schools compete, Let a thousand flowers Bloom.”