Keeping the American Mind Closed: The Continuing Sorry State of American Higher Education

In his 1987 book, Allan Bloom bemoaned the Closing of the American Mind. In his densely-written, trenchant and devastating depiction of the average American undergraduate’s intellectual equipment, Dr. Bloom laid the blame (partly) on how the nature of ‘general education’ in academia had changed for the worse in the preceding generation. Whereas up until mid century, no university student could escape with a degree without a classical education, that assertion was demonstrably false by 1980. In fact I was an undergraduate student in the early 1960s and to my good fortune, I received such an education. Its components included: mathematics and science; an in-depth history of ancient Greece and Rome; the art, literature, music and architecture of Western Europe from the Renaissance through the 19th century; the economic system of laissez faire capitalism pioneered by the Dutch and British and carried forward by the Americans; the notion of political freedom and liberty under the rule of law, exemplified by England and the USA, and highlighted by the stark differences between the American and French Revolutions; philosophy and morals, with an emphasis on the role played by the Church (sometimes good, sometimes bad); all of it subsumed under the rubric of Western Civilization. There was also a large dose of American history and government and, perhaps to the surprise of today’s youngsters, most of it was portrayed in a positive light.

In the 1960s and 1970s, these core components of a classical curriculum in higher education were not so much thrown out as shoved aside. The doyens of higher education decided that, while a classical education might have made sense in a classical age, the progressive times of the latter third of the 20th century demanded that more important ideas be imparted to the eager young minds entering the campus. Furthermore, not only were the components of a classical education obsolete, they shielded the youth of America from much that was unpleasant, even evil, about American history and Western Civilization—e.g., slavery, oppression of women, religious fundamentalism, colonialism and the ubiquitous presence of war. Thus a new, improved general curriculum was developed that embraced: deconstructionism, moral relativism, various ‘studies’ (black, women’s, gay & lesbian, urban, environmental, ethnic, etc.), cultures of the underdeveloped world, Marxism, and a de-emphasis, if not denigration of American society and Western Civilization.

I might mention that some of these drastic changes had already crept into the curriculum during my college days. For example, the Bible was still in the curriculum, but only as literature, certainly not in the context of history, philosophy or morals; the emphasis in economics was on Keynesianism; government was viewed as the ultimate arbiter of all American problems—based on the accepted wisdom that the New Deal saved America from the ravages of the Depression (whereas in fact, as most economists now acknowledge, it actually prolonged the Depression); and Soviet Communism was portrayed as a competing economic system, not the brutal totalitarian society that it was. Nevertheless, I would say that the basic underlying nature of the classical curriculum was largely intact at the time of my college education (early 60s). But it wouldn’t survive the decade.

The new curriculum introduced in American colleges in the 60s and 70s, in the words of Dr. Bloom, ‘failed democracy and impoverished the souls of the students.’ Indeed much of it was specious, sophomoric and subversive. A major undercurrent was that Western Civilization and American society were no better than and maybe worse than almost any other social, political or economic system. The new thinking completely ignored or devalued the achievements of Western Civilization such as ethical monotheism, democratic capitalism, European architecture, literature and art, the English/American concept of the rule of law, sanctity of private property and the economic prosperity that resulted. In their stead, the oppression of peoples of color and women, the evils of colonialism, the economic imbalances that result from free market capitalism and the injustices perpetrated by WASP legal systems were seen as the hallmarks of Western society. Of course, these defects would be corrected when enough of the populace was sufficiently inculcated with the ideas of the new curriculum.

Bloom also pointed out that critical and independent thinking was another casualty of the new curriculum. In the history, philosophy and political science courses of a classical education, students were encouraged to not simply blindly accept what was in the curriculum but to question for themselves the opinions and actions of the peoples and cultures they were studying. The scholars who taught the courses didn’t pretend they knew less than their students, but they were willing to listen and give credence to alternate views. In the new curriculum, although great lip service was paid to the idea that students should discover their own truths, in actuality it was made perfectly clear to them that there would be no deviation from the wisdom they were receiving. Bloom decried the mind-numbing conformity and ignorance that resulted. Students graduated without knowing the name of the river that Washington was crossing in that boat and why he was crossing it, who Adam Smith was and what the invisible hand is, who said ‘Out, damned spot!’ and its moral implications, what judicial concept Chief Justice Marshall introduced in 1803 and why it is still so important today, or exactly how many theses Martin Luther nailed on that Church door in Wittenberg or what ticked him off so much to do so. As their minds closed up, the students didn’t even know why it was so disappointing that they didn’t know these things.

Well another generation has passed and the ‘new’ curriculum is not wearing so well. Impetus for changing it has come lately from students and their parents. Of course in its desire to please its ‘customers,’ as many higher education officials are wont to call their students these days, revisions are the order of the day. A high level committee at my university has recently completed a draft of a new core educational program to replace the one that has been in force since the 70s. Alas, an examination of the document reveals that the minds of our students are not about to be pried open, but likely to remain firmly shut. Yes, the emphasis on ‘studies’ is gone; there is little about colonialism and oppression of third world cultures or the moral shortcomings of Western Civilization; and the word ‘deconstruction’ does not even appear. But these awful ideas have been replaced by the modern claptrap that has supplanted them in the minds of today’s great thinkers. The new document is shot through with buzzwords and cockamamie notions that have gained popularity in the last decade or so: sustainability, diversity, multiculturalism, equity, social justice, globalism (not the economic variety, rather one world political nonsense) and of course CHANGE. I emphasized the last topic since the word has now become holy. Heaven knows who is to change what to benefit whom, but the status quo is clearly totally unacceptable, we must all embrace change.

A new curriculum! But its components are still specious, sophomoric and subversive, just packaged slightly differently. The monumental achievements of Western Civilization remain off the menu. And the place of America in world history and affairs is not an exalted one. There is no hint of a society that saved the world twice from totalitarianism, created the greatest overall economic prosperity in the history of human existence, and is in fact one of the most tolerant multicultural societies on the planet.

One can take consolation from the following thought. Despite the banalities and inanities of the previous general curriculum, my university and others in the United States have continued to produce first class minds, genuinely creative thinkers and talented scientists, businessmen and artists—some of whom even managed to get a degree. (Sergey Brin, co-inventor of Google, is one of ours.) This means that either there is enough solid meat left in the curriculum to generate and succor terrific minds. Or perhaps the precise curriculum is irrelevant; there are a sufficient number of genuine and independent scholars among the faculty to motivate the most fertile minds among their students toward meaningful and objective scientific, political, economic and artistic pursuits. Either way, I am optimistic that the new drivel will also not prevent the cream of America’s youth from rising to the top.