April 1, 2012
AND THEN THEY WENT OFF TO COLLEGE:
If I had reread The Closing of the American Mind 10 years ago, when my own children were themselves under 10, I confess I would have thought Bloom's portrait of educational decline was overwrought. And then they grew up and went off to college.Here Bloom describes a freshman arriving on campus. "He finds a democracy of the disciplines," he wrote. "This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short, there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is." In the end the freshman will likely opt for a major that will get him hired when he graduates, while "pick[ing] up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured."This observation from 25 years ago matches what a freshman encounters at a moderately selective university today, and with small adjustments, even at many smaller colleges that claim to specialize in the liberal arts. The "core curriculum" or "general education requirements" are largely a sham: A math class may be offered, a science class may be offered, but seldom are both required, and often the content of each has only a glancing relation to the study of math or science. Philosophy and history fare still worse. Last year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed the catalogues of more than one thousand colleges and universities. Fewer than 20 percent of the schools required courses in American government, only a third required a literature survey class, and 15 percent required anything more than a beginner's level class in a foreign language. The results have been predictable. The authors of Academically Adrift, the most devastating book on higher education since Bloom, found that nearly half of undergraduates show no measurable improvement in knowledge or "critical thinking" after two years of college.Perhaps the most famous image in Bloom's book--certainly the least appetizing--is a cartoonish word picture of an MTV-watching, Walkman-wearing 13-year-old boy, the flower of American civilization, the human culmination of centuries of learning and sacrifice, nonetheless brought low by a degraded popular culture: "a pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents," and so on and so on, whose "life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbation fantasy," and who will soon, therefore, be well-fit to begin study at a major university.
I thought of that boy of 13 when I finished rereading The Closing of the American Mind not long ago. He is now 38. His parents, I hope, survived his childhood; about the onanism I refuse to speculate. He will likely have children of his own by now. And I hope by the time his own daughter is ready for college, he and all the youngsters he was meant to symbolize will have forgiven the author of this scandalous but all too plausible caricature. And when he disgorges tens of thousands of dollars to send his daughter to a school that has itself become a caricature of higher education, I am consoled to think that he will be able to consult Allan Bloom as to how such a thing could come to pass, thanks to a new edition of his maddening, haunting, towering book.
Our friend, Ari Mendelson, wrote a funny novel about college last year, Bias Incident.
Posted by Orrin Judd at April 1, 2012 12:57 PM