Andrew Ferguson is not considered among today’s most illuminating and amusing conservative writers for nothing. (Personally, I would take out the “among” and “conservative” qualifiers.) His latest delectable treat is a reflection on 25th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind.” When released in 1987 and in the years following, the book rendered the left gobsmacked by Bloom’s critique of the downfall of elite institutions (most especially higher education) that had beached themselves on the rocky shoals of relativism. Ferguson observes:
I can think of lots of reasons why The Closing of the American Mind deserves as many readers as it earned in the eighties; Bloom’s sly wit and the torrential energy of his prose are worth the price of admission, in my opinion. But this one carries a special urgency. As well as anyone then or now, he understood that the intellectual fashion of materialism — of explaining all life, human or animal, mental or otherwise, by means of physical processes alone — had led inescapably to a doctrinaire relativism that would prove to be a universal corrosive.
The crisis was — is — a crisis of confidence in the principle that serves as the premise of liberal education: that reason, informed by learning and experience, can arrive at truth, and that one truth may be truer than another. This loss of faith had consequences and causes far beyond higher ed. Bloom was a believer in intellectual trickle-down theory, and it is the comprehensiveness of his thesis that may have attracted readers to him and his book. The coarsening of public manners, the decline in academic achievement, the general dumbing down of America — even Jerry Springer — had a long pedigree that Bloom was at pains to describe for a general reader.
“The crisis of liberal education,” he wrote, “is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning, an incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world, an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization.”
Put differently, the gang that declared “dead white men” to be irrelevant became ignorant about the dead white men’s legacy, namely Western civilization, thereby ruining elite institutions and doing the country no favors.
The aspect of Bloom’s critique that drew the most heat from liberal academics was — no surprise — his indictment of higher education. Bloom’s observations must indeed have hit home. Ferguson writes: “It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place. Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances.”
Ferguson’s piece conincided with a Wall Street Journal piece by Peter Berkowitz, who reflects on “A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California,” a new report by the California Association of Scholars, a division of the conservative National Association of Scholars (NAS). It is as if nothing much has changed in 25 years, as Berkowitz explains:
The analysis begins from a nonpolitical fact: Numerous studies of both the UC system and of higher education nationwide demonstrate that students who graduate from college are increasingly ignorant of history and literature. They are unfamiliar with the principles of American constitutional government. And they are bereft of the skills necessary to comprehend serious books and effectively marshal evidence and argument in written work.
This decline in the quality of education coincides with a profound transformation of the college curriculum. None of the nine general campuses in the UC system requires students to study the history and institutions of the United States. None requires students to study Western civilization, and on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered. In several English departments one can graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. In many political science departments majors need not take a course in American politics.
Moreover, the evidence suggests that the hollowing of the curriculum stems from too many professors’ preference for promoting a partisan political agenda.
Well, Bloom’s work, then, is a timely as it was 25 years ago.
As I rolled last week’s Supreme Court arguments and the commentary thereon around in my mind, the Ferguson and Berkowitz pieces offered a possible answer to two questions that conservatives had been mulling: Why was the quality of the government’s argument so weak, and why were liberal elites so baffled that their side was being pummeled? Well, if you have given into relativism, shun the notion that the Constitution is fixed rather than infinitely malleable, and take little interest in the historical context and political philosophy in which our political system is grounded, you are going to be, let me put this bluntly, ignorant. You’re going to be out-argued and out-maneuvered by smart people who think relativism is bunk, seek to undercover the meaning and intent of the Constitution, and luxuriate in the study of the Founders.
In sum, the left systematically has dumbed its side down, to the point where supposedly well-educated elites are untrained and unaware of our country’s history and constitutional traditions. The left thinks words have no fixed meaning (health care and health insurance, are close enough, so they insist we can define the latter to be the former.) The liberal elites have a poor grounding in market economics so they swallow the idea that health-care insurance is “unique” because others’ purchases affect your cost of goods. (Surprise: all markets operate this way.) They advance illogical and counterfactual arguments (e.g., withdrawing a 100 percent subsidy for health care to seniors is a “mandate”) because they are unused to vigorous debate that upsets their preferences dressed up in a thin veil of factual distortion. (Sorry, taking away a freebie is not remotely the same in logic or in law as requiring you purchase something.)
Conservatives, well aware of the intellectual deterioration of liberal institutions, have spent decades pursing supplemental education in think tanks, the speeches and writings of public intellectuals (e.g., Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson), professional organizations (e.g., the Federalist society) and classrooms of intellectually rigorous scholars (e.g., Robert P. George, Harvey Mansfield and Richard Epstein).In doing so, they sharpened their rhetorical kills, versed themselves in history and political philosophy, and prepared themselves for intellectual combat against those who had rejected the idea of objective meaning, be it in literature or the Constitution. In moments like the Supreme Court argument we see how vast is the gulf between conservative and liberal elites.
In short, what Bloom spotted more than two decades ago and what NAS documents today is the unilateral intellectual disarmament of liberal elites. Twenty-five years ago they were scrambling to figure out who were the giants of Western civilization that Bloom was discussing; Today they can’t comprehend why their ”historic” legislation is being tested against strict rule of Constitution propriety. It is as if they are listening to a foreign language. And indeed they are.
All of this should give the left pause. Have they become intellectual couch potatoes while conservatives have been training for a marathon? It sure seems that way.