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Drifting to a Close?

by Thomas K. Lindsay

The latest front in the higher-education battles

Twenty-five years ago, Allan Bloom published his bestselling book,The Closing of the American Mind. Last year, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published their landmark study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift. The two works stand as bookends. Between them rests a generation of college graduates. Together, theychronicle the crisis in higher education.

In Closing, Bloom lays out his analysis of the principles that he recognized had come to dominate the academy. Adrift provides quantitative evidence that the American mind Bloom saw closing has, one generation later, closed further. The unanswered question is whether Adrift’s corroboration of Closing will spur reform — or resignation.

Bloom’s book is a liberal education in itself. It is impossible to do justice to its fullness and depth in a brief summary. What can be said here is that prominent among the causes he finds for the decay of higher education is the moral and cultural relativism that has come to dominate the academy and trickled down to the popular culture.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the observation that “all men by nature desire to know.” Socrates, when asked why the Delphic oracle proclaimed that no one in Greece was wiser than he, responded that he best understood the depth of his ignorance regarding life’s most fundamental questions. But Socratic skepticism regarding received opinions on the question “What is the good life?” is altogether different from the soul-impoverishing relativism that permeates much of our culture today. Socrates’ skepticism is wedded to a longing for wisdom that is as intense, he tells us, as a drowning man’s desire for air. This longing is the original meaning of the word “philosophy.” Philosophy, in this sense, is the highest calling in life, while “the unexamined life,” as Socrates put it, “is not worth living for a human being.”

Accordingly, the highest purpose of higher learning is to introduce students to alternative visions of the good life as presented by the roughly once-a-century thinkers who have proven capable of ascending from the caves of their particular cultures. Liberal education offers us the opportunity to liberate ourselves from unthinking acceptance of conventional opinions. It invites us to stretch and thereby elevate our minds as we struggle to understand the seminal arguments of great thinkers who pondered the permanent questions: Who am I? What is the good life? What is the good society?

But today, Bloom argues, the American mind is closing to these, the most deeply human questions and concerns. Why? Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance has been replaced by the assumed certainty that all moral principles, all visions of the good life, are mere preferences, or “values.” The substitution of values for principles is intentional and momentous. “Values” is a term from modern economics, which teaches that the value of a good is not intrinsic but dependent on demand. Bloom is said to have jested, “When I hear someone start to talk about good values, I reach for my Sears catalogue.”

Relativism saps the soul’s longing for wisdom, a longing that fuels the ascent from the cave. If students already “know” that no culture or way of life is better or worse than any other, why sweat over a lengthy, difficult text such as, say, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which purports to say something authoritative about “values”? The discovery that different societies honor different, at times contradictory, visions of the good is at least as old as Herodotus. But this diversity was, until the mid–20th century, regarded as an invitation to further study that would lead us from opinion to knowledge, from our particular convention to universal principle. Today, the mere fact that there are diverse opinions apparently settles the case against the possibility of moral truth.

Yet relativism has not banished the moral cosmos entirely. On the one hand, as Bloom demonstrates, the epistemological difficulties of relativism are not hard to convey and not easy to accept. How many of us are really persuaded by the line “We have our values; Hitler had his. Who’s to say which is better?” On the other hand, despite the untenability of such a position, relativism has great popular appeal because it has come to be regarded as the precondition of a tolerant society. Hitler opined that there were better and worse ways of life, higher and lower cultures. If no one makes this mistake again, intolerant projects such as his surely will wither. The obstacle that relativists leave unaddressed is that consistency requires them to be as open to intolerance as to tolerance, because both are values, which, they assert, cannot be ranked by reason. Hence, they find themselves in a self-defeating position — they must condemn and must not condemn Hitlerism.

Unsurprisingly, just as relativism stunts the capacity for an education aimed at intellectual liberty, so it deprives American democracy of a foundation on which to defend political liberty. Unique among polities in its dependence on reason as the source of the legitimacy of its government, America loses confidence in the American experiment to the extent that it loses confidence in reason. For us, democracy and liberal education stand or fall together.

Although concern over relativism is far from the explicit focus of Arum and Roksa inAdrift, their findings somewhat complement Bloom’s argument in Closing. Arum and Roksa administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to 2,300 students nationwide to measure what American undergraduates learn in college. They found that 36 percent showed “small or empirically non-existent” gains in “general collegiate skills” — critical thinking, complex reasoning, writing, and computational skills — after four years of college. The authors offer a host of reasons that may account for these depressing statistics — among them, decreased study time that does not result in lower grades; a decline in full-time instructional faculty; increased publishing requirements for faculty and the concomitant lightening of teaching loads; and the diversion of increasing amounts of university resources to nonacademic functions.

Another reason cited by Arum and Roksa recalls the analysis in Closing. They quote Clark Kerr, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, who sums up nicely — albeit unawares — the crisis in our universities: “There is less sense of purpose” but “there are more ways to excel.” This loss of an authoritative conception of what an educated person looks like, Bloom argues, is what constitutes the collapse of higher education.

If the two works harmonize to some extent, their tones nonetheless differ, as becomes apparent merely from considering their subtitles. Closing’s is a thunderclap: “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” Adrift’s would be perfectly at home at a faculty reception: “Limited Learning on College Campuses.” This may explain why Adrift proves more agreeable to academic sensibilities. In 1987, Bloom’s book was routinely excoriated wherever faculty gathered. In contrast, a professor recently told me that the president of his university was receptive to Adrift because it was penned, in the president’s words, by “one of us, not some crazy right-winger.” That the president committed the ad hominemfallacy is understandable: In the name of expanding student choice, logic has not been a required course at most universities for many years.

The pacific tone of Adrift may explain the book’s relatively non-hostile reception by academics in part, but not entirely. Another reason that the authors’ findings resonate may be that, this quarter century since the publication of Closing, it has become all too obvious that higher education is serving students badly. Yet for some, it is no cause for optimism that academics may be coming to accept one of Bloom’s central contentions. It is instead a sign of further decline and a cause for resignation, as the “owl of Minerva begins her flight only at dusk”: Wisdom arises only on the ashes of cultural collapse.

Others are not so pessimistic. In my home state of Texas, some have seized on Adrift as a banner in their campaign to reform higher education. Efforts are now under way in the Texas legislature to pass a law requiring all students at public colleges and universities to take the CLA during their freshman and senior years. Every institution would then be called to account for how much students learn under its tutelage. Moreover, by revealing which majors significantly increase learning, and which do not, the CLA could bolster Bloom’s case for the restoration of a required core curriculum in the sciences and liberal arts — which is not to be confused with its imposters, “general education” and “distribution” requirements.

The CLA would serve as an alternative credential to the bachelor’s degree, the hollowness of which has been demonstrated in so many cases. It would help students, parents, and legislators to take a more open-eyed view of the current state of higher education. For reformers, the reckoning has been a long time coming.

– Mr. Lindsay is the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He served as the deputy chairman and chief operating officer of the National Endowment for the Humanities during George W. Bush’s second term.

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