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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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