On Allan Bloom's 1987 best-seller about why students' disconnection from Great Books has led to relativism and ultimately nihilism.
What is the role of the university in our democracy? Bloom relates from his many years teaching the problem with kids today: They're subject to the evils that Tocqueville warned us go with American-style democracy: They're conformist, superficial, focused on the practical at the expense of the soul, and worst of all, the democratic ethos taken intellectually means that they're indiscriminate: Everyone's ideas are equally good. Bloom thinks that a liberal education should be the cure for this: by connecting with brilliant minds of the past, witnessing them speaking across history to each other, we become part of the great conversation about truth and virtue. People need to at one point in their lives seriously consider the question, "What is man?" in relation to our highest aspirations as opposed to our common, base needs. We need to forget, at least temporarily, about training for a particular job or any other practical consideration, and just engage in thinking for thinking's sake, which is the thing that Aristotle said makes us most human.
Bloom bemoans that incoming students for the most part no longer have favorite books, that their music is all instant gratification, and that they see truth as relative. While it is democracy itself that tends to support making people like this, ironically, this condition means that we're no longer fit to intelligently participate in politics. Bloom thinks that we need to understand intellectual history to understand the foundations of liberty and so be able to defend it. In overthrowing elites like the church and the noble class, we should become independent thinkers, but what happens much more often is that we just go along with the crowd, and the crowd's ethos in our case involves an ignorant scientism that disregards the needs of the soul, a leveling of values that precludes any serious discussion of the good, and the related idea that every opinion is equally valid.
Bloom includes Rawls and Mill in this condemnation. As you may recall, both of these thinkers were insistent that government shouldn't dictate the good to citizens (in Mill's case, this was a matter of not restricting speech), but Bloom is less concerned with the logical consequents of their philosophies than with the actual, social consequences, which in both cases Bloom diagnoses as nihilism: By denying values a central place in public norms, we promote mere legalism, pragmatism, i.e., a lack of values.
The full foursome is on board to reflect on how we feel about these critiques. Have our society and our educational system really produced a bunch of Nietzschean "last men"? Does Bloom's suggested program of Great Books (which is pretty much what Wes underwent at St. John's) actually produce better citizens?
The image is by David Levine, drawn for the New York Review of Books' review of Bloom's book by Martha Nussbaum, which is pretty scathing and well worth your time. She focuses on the elitism involved in Bloom's account: He's really only worried about the quality of education of his elite students, and recommends a regimen that will surely be out of reach of most people who actually have to worry about making a living.
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