May 25, 2017


Allan Bloom's University and Mine: From Racial Intimidation to Trigger Warnings (Paul A. Rahe, May 25th, 2017, Public Discourse)

In the first section of the first chapter in the part of his book devoted to the university, Bloom turns to Tocqueville's Democracy in America--from which he gleans the premise of his argument: that there is a profound tension between liberal democracy and the life of the mind. If, he intimates, there is a closing of the American mind, it is, as Tocqueville indicated, because in democratic ages equality is the norm. When no individuals or groups really stand out, the only authority is popular opinion, and, without pausing to reflect on what they are doing, human beings tend to follow its lead.

Tocqueville's tyranny of the majority is gentle. It does not require violence, for its reign is psychological. Those who do not surrender to the temper of the times tend to be shunned. Those who do not go along tend not to get along.

In Bloom's view, the only thing that stands in the way of this species of tyranny is liberal education. At the best universities, young people--at an age when the most intelligent are filled with an erotic longing for the beautiful and the good--are exposed to what Matthew Arnold called "lost causes and forsaken beliefs." When, at the age of fifteen, Bloom journeyed from Indianapolis to the University of Chicago, he found this oasis of learning profoundly liberating. He was exposed to Plato, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and other great authors in an environment where their greatness was taken for granted and one was expected to pore over them, comparing their arguments with one another and considering whether and to what degree what each had to say was true. This opened up new horizons and enabled him to confront the larger world with a puzzled and critical eye.

In Bloom's opinion, liberal education--an education that liberates students from an enslavement to reigning public opinion by awakening them from dogmatic slumber--is a boon for liberal democracy. It promotes an open-mindedness and a detached perspective on present political struggles that is essential to the proper exercise of citizenship. As he puts it, "the successful university is proof that a society can be devoted to the well-being of all, without stunting human potential or imprisoning the mind to the goals of the regime." It is "an unpopular institution in our midst that sets clarity above well-being or compassion, that resists our powerful urges and temptations, that is free of all snobbism but has standards."

Although it is frequently interpreted as a political polemic, Bloom's book is actually a call for a return to Socratic rationalism. For it is only on the premise that reason might be able to provide us with guidance regarding the good life that liberal education is defensible.

...a liberal education is cultural appropriation.  

Posted by at May 25, 2017 7:30 AM