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In the late 1960s, revolutionary protests were directed at the conduct of the war in Vietnam and in advocacy of a “Civil Rights” movement. Leftist activists, assessing how best to capitalize on this unrest, concluded that revolution in the United States would not arise from America’s working class and began to focus on American colleges and universities.

When this occurred, the American system of higher education had changed significantly from its early days when colleges served to educate the clergy, began to focus on education for employment and with increasing influence of the national government had become a system of training for massive numbers of “students” who no longer sought knowledge in the seven liberal arts that formed the basis of a classical education. With the appeal of modern ideologies to high-school and college teachers, American higher education was used to change traditional culture and weaponize “students” for political action. American higher education became what James Piereson called a “Left University.”

As early as the Morrill Act of 1862, a system of Land Grant universities was founded to foster the agricultural sciences and which, in time, became a system of state, i.e. “public,” universities.[1] After the American Civil War which challenged the Protestant Christian faith of the American people, American colleges and universities began to break away from their religious moorings and higher education underwent a process of secularization.

Then, the 1944 “GI Bill” flooded American colleges with returning GIs and, finally, the Higher Education Act of 1965 established a federal student loan program that was designed to give every American the opportunity of a college “education,” but has had the unintended consequence of driving the cost of a college education to levels that most Americans cannot afford.

All Americans were given the opportunity to earn a college degree, but these large numbers of ‘students’ entering college tested the limits of a system of higher education that had never accommodated enormous numbers of student enrollments. Many had not mastered basic subjects such as English grammar and composition and the knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry of many more required remedial training.

By the mid-1960s, there was much to dissatisfy students, especially at large “mega universities,” where students were crowded into large lecture halls and seldom met with college faculty members. Conditions were ripe for an explosion, and the University of California-Berkeley led an initial uprising against speech restrictions placed on student activists. The “Free Speech” movement at Berkeley elided into a national, college-based movement against the war in Vietnam. Thus began a revolution in higher education perpetrated by student protestors.

Faced with rioting students, college administrators across the nation capitulated and granted student demands for removal of Core Curricula of required courses, as well as foreign language requirements. Procedures were established for review of faculty by students, and students were granted representation on college Boards of Trustees. The dumbing-down of higher education in America had begun. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, calls for multicultural, gender, and African-American studies completed the decline of courses focused on Western civilization.

In 1968, Allan Bloom, then a professor of Government at Cornell University, was witness to these events as they occurred across the nation, and specifically at Cornell University, where complicit administrators and student radicals brought Cornell to its knees. In his 1987 classic, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom detailed these developments and diagnosed their ramifications. A former colleague of mine who taught at a major state university describes how the environment for scholarly discourse at his university changed over the period in time that Bloom examines in The Closing of the American Mind.

When I first joined the faculty there was a core curriculum and there was a commitment to providing a liberal arts education. That is, there was recognition that there are skills and training (arts) needed by free (liberal) and responsible citizens in order to remain free. Faculty from different political views agreed that there was a tradition that had to be understood and there were thinking, reading and writing skills that had to be acquired. Of course, that common purpose has completely disappeared. There is no effort to coordinate course offerings to provide any of the arts required to be free. There is also little or no intellectual engagement among the faculty. When I first arrived there was a sizable group from several fields and political perspectives that met regularly to discuss projects we were working on. These were not ideological harangues but serious intellectual engagement with topics of common interest–and the best criticism usually came from someone who was on the opposite side of the political aisle.   Now, there are only clashes over ideological code words and other nonsense.

The history of those “days of rage” at Cornell has been published by historian Dr. Tevi Troy in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.[2] In an essay titled, “Cornell’s Straight Flush,” Dr. Troy recounts in detail what happened at Cornell. His account is a good way to come to terms with Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.

Dr. Troy’s story begins when James A Perkins became the seventh President of Cornell University in 1963. Perkins had been chairman of the Board of the Negro College Fund and secured a quarter of a million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to increase the number of African-American students at Cornell. At the time, Cornell’s enrollment was swelled by the post-World War II “baby boom” to 14,000 students.

Perkins’ actions increased the number of African-American students to 250. During the 1960s and 1970s, racial sensitivity was the hallmark of university professors and administrators. And the U.S. government’s “affirmative action” policies facilitated the college education of African Americans. At Cornell, some black students felt alienated from the culture of white students and began to take actions that thrust their feelings of alienation on the entire Cornell community.

In 1968 black students attempted to force the firing of a visiting professor of economics who had criticized economic development programs of some African countries. His class was disrupted. When he complained to the Chairman of his Department, his Chairman praised the disruptors for their activism.

That established the principle that use of force for political ends at Cornell would not be punished, but would be approved by Liberal faculty and Cornell’s Administrators. Black conservative economist and former U.S. Marine, Thomas Sowell, in his first academic position teaching economics at Cornell, tried to eject a disruptive black student from his class, and was not supported by his Chairman. Mr. Sowell saw the writing on the wall and resigned his academic position. Thirty years later, Mr. Sowell wrote in The Weekly Standard that these students were “hoodlums” with “serious academic problems [and] admitted under lower academic standards, and noted “it so happens that the pervasive racism that black students supposedly encountered at every turn on campus and in town was not apparent to me during the four years that I taught at Cornell and lived in Ithaca.” [3]

At a Symposium on South Africa in 1969, President Perkins was physically assaulted by a black sophomore student. Perkins fled the auditorium. In April of that year, black students took control of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell’s student activity center. Visiting parents of Cornell students who were staying in Straight while visiting their children were driven outside by disruptive black students. When these parents appealed to campus security officials, they were told that campus police could do nothing.

Student radicals chained the entrances to Straight and brought rifles into the building. Armed black students demanded nullification of actions against disruptive students from the previous year, commencement of negotiations concerning housing for black students, and investigation of a cross burning on campus, which campus police believed was started by black activists. Negotiations ensued, black students left Straight, but no students, including those wielding rifles, were punished.

Allan Bloom was shocked by these and subsequent actions by spineless Cornell administrators and, like Thomas Sowell, left Cornell. Eighteen years later, Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind.

About these events, Bloom wrote:

I know of nothing positive coming from that period, it was an unmitigated disaster for them. I hear that the good things were “greater openness,’ “less rigidity,” “freedom from authority,” etc.—but these have no content and express no view of what is wanted from a university education.[4]

I too share Allan Bloom’s judgment of the demands of student rioters of the 1960s. In the fall, Michaelmas term, in 1968, I was at the London School of Economics when students shut down the school and barged into Michael Oakeshott’s classroom and threatened him and me with injury if we did not leave. Many of those disruptive students were undergraduates who had been expelled from Columbia University for rioting during the Spring of 1968, but were admitted to the London School of Economics to continue their studies.

The Left University was taking care of its own.

The Closing of the American Mind should be seen, therefore, as a commentary on American higher education at a time when it was torn from its moorings in the tradition of “classical” liberal education and became ideological by focusing on globalism, multiculturalism, and identity studies.

One such “movement” is the recognition of “Women’s Studies” as an academic discipline. Women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and an underlying feminist ideology became powerful forces in American higher education. And now, with the “Me Too” movement, they have disrupted Congressional deliberations and the power structure of major corporations and the careers of motion picture, theatrical, television, and journalism professionals.

Feminism, Bloom argued, sought “a liberation from nature” more than a liberation from convention (99). Since nature is fixed, the aspiration to be liberated from nature requires the fashioning of a substitute, pseudo-reality rooted in will. Bloom describes this as “the longing for the unlimited, the unconstrained” (100). What are the consequences of such longing? “It ends as do many modern movements that seek abstract justice, in forgetting nature and using force to refashion human beings to secure that justice” (100). In other words, the feminist movement is willing to use force against those who oppose it or deny its claims. That “force” can take the form of charges of sexual harassment.

Today, the Feminist “movement” has contributed to university and work environments tense with concern by men that charges of sexual harassment can be used to destroy the professional careers of themselves and their male colleagues. Bloom suggests that university feminists will force men to conform to their interests—or else.

Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind must be seen in the context of s transformation of the traditional liberal university formalized in the 19th century into James Piereson’s “Left University” in the 20th century. That transformation was realized during the years 1968 to 1987.

A child prodigy, Bloom enrolled in the University of Chicago’s humanities program for gifted students at age fifteen and was graduated at age eighteen, when most American students enter college. As an undergraduate, his tutor was the classicist, David Grene, and as a graduate student at the University of Chicago he encountered the philosopher, Leo Strauss.

Bloom thus was educated as a classicist in what political theorists refer to as the Straussian “school” of political theory. That Straussian approach required that Bloom hone skills in analysis rooted in deep study of classical political philosophy, but also in the political theory of “the Moderns.”[5] As such, Bloom may be considered a “modern,” and though few modern scholars survive Bloom’s criticism, including Max Weber, John Rawls, Robert Dahl, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Carl Becker, and David Riesman, Bloom stood firmly in the camp of Enlightenment philosophy.

Thus, underlying Bloom’s analysis of intellectual forces that literally close the minds to truth can be found a “divided self,” enamored of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but also appreciative of the reasoning of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Friedrich Nietzsche. From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Bloom learned that there is objective truth, which can be known, and that a failure to teach that truth “is” has had a deleterious and destructive influence on civic order. Relativism and a growing nihilism that afflict intellectual culture in America are the result of this “value relativism.” Bloom believed that relativism contributed to the fragility of families and incidences of divorce.

We can see from a close reading of The Closing of the American Mind that Bloom clearly loved the experience growing up in Chicago with his family and was dismayed that so many of his students were adversely affected by divorce of their parents. Bloom believed that the American family was in decline because the individualism that is part and parcel of democracy works to exacerbate the self-interest of individuals. The family, however, entails attachments to others and thus establishes relationships that resist the isolation of individuals:

Parents, husbands, wives and children are hostages to the community. They palliate indifference to it and provide a material stake in the future. This is not quite instinctive love of country, but it is love of country for love of one’s own. It is the gentle form of patriotism, one that flows most easily out of self-interest, without the demand for much self-denial. The decay of the family means that community would require extreme self-abnegation in an era when there is no good reason for anything but self-indulgence (86).

Add to American individualism the mobility provided by modern transportation that can facilitate employment far away from family and school friends. That is not the case in Canada or France, Bloom observes, where mobility is more restricted. Consequently, Americans invest less in their past and the people from their past than do citizens of other countries. The effect of this is to shape the souls of Americans by making them “spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no inherited or conditional connection with anything or anyone” (89).

Bloom likens this to Plato’s description of democratic youths,[6] dedicated to equality, preoccupied with themselves, and treating all things equally because there is no right, no wrong, nothing absolutely true, no life better than another (88). Bloom denigrates our popular notion of “lifestyles,” the defense of which has become a moral cause. “In America,” Bloom observes, “there is always a need for moral justification” (234). And lifestyles can be justified because lifestyle involves no reasoning and does not require any form of intellectual or artistic achievement. “Life-style is so much freer, easier, more authentic and democratic. No attention has to be paid to content” (235). Whatever you choose is good. Here Bloom sees the relevance of Alexis Tocqueville, who understood that in a democracy abstractions have the power to change everything (235). This susceptibility to change and moral relativism works itself out in divorces.

It is very unusual for a political theorist to address issues like divorce, but Bloom was disturbed by the effects of divorce on his students. Writing in the late 1980s, Bloom called divorce “America’s most urgent social problem (119).[7] That is true, he believed, on several levels. Children subjected to divorce view the world in terms of conditional relationships. A capriciousness enters their lives that challenges what should not be challenged—the “unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings” (119).

And the fatuous concerns of students for “self-determination, respect for other people’s rights and decisions, the need to work out one’s individual values and commitments” hide what Bloom calls “a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear” (120). Compared to European students, Bloom writes, Americans seem like barbarians. The schools of Europe are simply better, but European students are raised in a homogenous racial and ethnic culture quite unlike America. The United States has good preparatory schools where the wealthy send their children, but these are the children of elites whose family traditions include education at places like Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Normal, “ordinary,” Americans may come from prosperous families of professionals or business owners, but somehow, they don’t look, sound, or think of themselves as elite. For Bloom, that is what he calls their “charm.” They exhibit natural curiosity and experience a love of knowledge that came to them “in the first flush of maturity” (48). Learning for them was not “old hat,” but vital and living in them with serious consequences for the remainder of their lives.

Without traditional constraints or encouragements, without society’s rewards and punishments, without snobbism or exclusivity, some Americans discovered that they had a boundless thirst for significant awareness, that their souls had spaces of which they were unaware and which cried out for furnishing (48).

These are the exceptions, and many—too many—students are then, and are now, addicted to rock music. On this topic, Bloom is adamant: “This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it.” Rock music is king, and very few students have any familiarity with classical music (69). Rock music responds to students’ sexual desire. They understand that “rock has the beat of sexual intercourse.”  Feeding that desire is a music industry whose market is children:

The rock business is perfect capitalism, supplying to demand and helping to create it. It has all the moral dignity of drug trafficking, but it was so totally new and unexpected that nobody thought to control it, and now it is too late. (76)

Bloom reminds us that Plato took music seriously (70) and believes that we should too. In Plato’s Republic, the discussants seeking to know what is the best regime agree that music should be taught first, even before gymnastics (376e). Censorship is an aspect of the best city developed in Plato’s Republic, and music is not exempted. Music that is permitted will exclude “wailing and lamentations”[8] (398e), but harmonic modes are allowed. Only the rhythms of an orderly and courageous life are permitted (399e).

Though Bloom was deeply rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, he was intimately familiar with the Enlightenment which he describes as “the first philosophically inspired ‘movement,’ a theoretical school that is a political force at the same time” (262). Bloom lists these Enlightenment thinkers as “men like Machiavelli Bacon, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza and Locke, along with the eighteenth-century thinkers like Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire.” Bloom does not castigate them as revolutionary in the negative sense used by non-Straussian theorists, including Tocqueville, who collectively defined them as advocates of esprit revolutionaire. This is an anomaly in The Closing of the American Mind and in the Straussian “School,” which accepted the Enlightenment as having replaced the classical and medieval traditions of political theory.[9]

Bloom finds good in the Enlightenment even as he rails against the forces, attributable to the Enlightenment, that contribute to decline of civic culture. Take, for example, what Bloom has to say about “values.” Values, Bloom writes, are a “new language of good and evil” designed to prevent us “from talking with any conviction about good and evil” (141). Values are based in will and thus they cannot be “discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them to find the truth or the good life (143).

A society in which citizens believe that truth is relative, or one with a significant number of citizens who deny that truth can be known and taught, will be susceptible to greater forces that use power to achieve their own goals. For that reason, Bloom writes with what can only be called frustration that “there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (25). Students come to this view because they believe that a free society must be tolerant. “Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue” (26).

American universities are accomplices in this failure of insight because they see education as the means to providing students with the moral virtue of “openness.” Where before we educated citizens to be Americans, we now seek to create the “democratic personality.” Bloom calls this the replacement of the natural soul with an artificial one (30).

Clearly, Bloom sees the university in a democracy as a source of disorder. At Cornell, administrators sought to do good by providing an education to minorities who misused that opportunity to engage in destructive practices. President Perkins established permanent racial quotas in admissions, gave preference to racial minorities in financial assistance, engaged in racially motivated hiring of faculty, and made it difficult for faculty to give failing marks (95).

Irving Babbitt and John Erskine were loudly critical of these “reforms” of higher education that removed “Core Curricula” of required courses. Erskine introduced a core honors curriculum at Columbia University in the masterpieces of Western philosophy. That core curriculum remains today at Columbia University, as does another at the University of Chicago, founded by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. Liberal Arts colleges with core Great Books curricula are the only remnants of what was once a vibrant tradition of classical education. That is unfortunate because the Great Books compel scholars to remember the past and to retrieve important lessons learned by the most important minds of Western civilization.

Following Allan Bloom, here are the six reasons American higher education corrupts the youth:

  1. Replacing core curricula with gender, African-American or “Global” studies ignores where we came from, who we are, and how we should act as citizens of the West.
  2. When that basis is removed from higher education, the virus of moral relativism cannot be confronted by scholarship leading to discovery of truth because only “opinion” has value.
  3. If there is no “Truth” that can be discovered, what is left for us to search for but self-interest?
  4. If there is no “Common Good,” then to what can we appeal in the face of the demands of the powerful?
  5. If the appetites of the young are aroused by Rock, Rap, and other musical trends, how can we instruct them about virtue?
  6. If a democratic regime values equality of condition, what will become of the equal protection of the law or any of the limits placed on the power of the state by a philosophy of limited government enshrined in the Constitution of the United States?

Author’s Note: This is part of a larger study, recently completed, of the fragility of democracy in America in our era of celebrity culture.

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Notes:

[1] Today there are 76 “land grant” universities.

[2] Tevi Troy, “Cornell’s Straight Flush,” City Journal, December 13, 2009.

[3] Thomas Sowell, The Day Cornell Died,

[4] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul’s of Today’s Students (Simon and Schuster: New York, 1987), 320. All pages from Closing of the American Mind are cited in the body of the text.

[5] See Richard Bishirjian, Leo Strauss and the American Political Religion, Modern Age (Fall 2014), pp. 7-18.

[6] Republic, 561c-d.

[7] “Researchers have found that the rate of divorce in the U.S. actually peaked at about 40% around 1980 and has been declining ever since. And, according to data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the probability of a first marriage lasting at least a decade was 68% for women and 70% for men between 2006 and 2010. The probability that they would make it 20 years was 52% for women and 56% for men, so that percentage is closer to the frequently-cited “half,” but still not there. Sarah Jacoby, What the divorce rate really means,” online at “refinery29.” Here.

[8] Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato (New York, 1968), Basic Books, p. 77.

[9] Richard Bishirjian, “Leo Strauss and the American Political Religion,” Modern Age (Fall 2014), pp. 7-18.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Students are able to take whatever courses they like at university. I studied Latin, Greek, English, and Medieval Studies, which is a very traditional liberal arts curriculum. Other people study other things because they are free to choose what they want to do with their lives. There is no need for a homogenous education. I fail to see how the author interprets increased access to education and students’ freedom to choose what they want to study as the “death” of higher education–freedom of choice is the essence of democracy, but perhaps the author prefers fewer free thinking people. While the seven liberal arts may have formed the backbone of the medieval universities, students require education in areas that did not exist in the Middle Ages, like computer science, and immunology, among many, many other subjects–and thank goodness for students of modern dentistry. The author’s view is not conservative but retrograde.

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