Over thirty years ago, Allan Bloom—the late American philosopher and university professor who was the model for Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—published The Closing of the American Mind. He began with a startling declaration: “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.” Relativism, Bloom claimed, “is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.” Students “have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.” What students “fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance.” At the end of the opening paragraph, Bloom summarized the result: “The point is not to correct [their] mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”
In the ensuing pages, Bloom argued that modern universities were failing their students in part because postmodern trends in the humanities had devalued the Western literary canon, which he championed as a tradition that honored, cultivated, and molded the Socratic dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. Introspection was, in Bloom’s view, the point of a liberal education. In the preface to his book, Bloom described the job of a teacher as a guide in this quest, more akin to midwifery than socialization: “i.e. the delivery of real babies of which not the midwife but nature is the cause.” A liberal education, he argued, helps students to develop a mature perspective and resolute position on universal questions about human nature—the most central being, what is man?—and “to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern.”
Bloom confessed upfront that the sample of students upon which he had based his diagnosis of the “present situation” in American education was selective: “It consists of thousands of students of comparatively high intelligence, materially and spiritually free to do pretty much what they want with the few years of college they are privileged to have—in short, the kind of young persons who populate the twenty or thirty best universities.” He made no apologies, however: “It is sometimes said that these advantaged youths have less need of our attention and resources, that they already have enough. But they, above all, most need education, in as much as the greatest talents are most difficult to perfect, and the more complex the nature the more susceptible it is to perversion.”
In summarily declaring that higher education had been so undermined that truth itself had been discarded as irrelevant or illegitimate by the best and the brightest at America’s top universities, Bloom undoubtedly gave us a controversial, even dire, account of the state of modern education. Whether or not things were as bad as he said, however, the book was a stimulating contribution to an emerging conversation about social, political, and cultural values at a time when the ethos of multiculturalism was becoming a hot-button topic in institutions of higher learning and in society at large. A term that can mean many things, “multiculturalism” refers in part to a benign and productive effort to include a multiplicity of cultural perspectives in the canon of great literary and philosophical works. But it can also spark a more controversial politics of identity, tending to promote relativism, whereby truth, knowledge, and humanistic inquiry are seen as inseparable from the subjectivity of identity, perspective, and institutional affiliation.
A few years after Bloom’s book appeared, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published a book entitled, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. A political liberal, Schlesinger warned of the dangers of identity politics but also expressed optimism that unity would prevail in American society. His warning came as the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union broke apart, and ethnic separatism asserted itself in Eastern Europe. In America and abroad, it was an open question whether the ethos of multiculturalism in America, and ethnic separatism abroad, would lead to unity while broadening the circle of inclusion and pluralism, or greater division by galvanizing the tribal instincts of humanity.
As the discussion sometimes focused on the virtues of teaching “great books” by “dead white males,” the relevance of a traditional liberal education was sufficient to inspire film critic David Denby to publish Great Books, in which he recounted a year he spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities focused on the great works of Western civilization. Denby wrote about coming away from the experience with a renewed appreciation for their timeless insights into the human condition, and in so doing offered a kind of defense of the Western literary canon. But Denby did not neutralize a nascent skepticism of the Western literary canon which was taking root among intellectual elites who were among the provocateurs of Bloom’s dismay. Nor is it clear that Denby’s celebration of the canon did anything to convince contemporary students at elite universities like Columbia who, 20 years later, now assume positions of influence in institutions of politics, culture, and learning in American, and Western, society.
In a 1992 essay in the New Criterion, Roger Kimball reviewed a book by Julien Benda entitled The Treason of the Intellectuals, “an unremitting attack on the politicization of the intellect and ethnic separatism” published a decade before the outbreak of World War II. Applying Benda’s observations to his own time, Mr. Kimball wrote: “From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of the intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama.” Indeed, as Saul Bellow wrote in a foreword to Allan Bloom’s book: “The heat of the dispute between Left and Right has grown so fierce in the last decade that the habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching.”
Mr. Bellow’s words were written 30 years before Donald J. Trump was elected as president of the United States.
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