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The Closing of the American Mind’

In response to:

Undemocratic Vistas from the November 5, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

I accept much of Martha Nussbaum’s elegant critique of The Closing of the American Mind [NYR, November 5, 1987]. But, curiously, both Bloom and Nussbaum for quite different reasons, appear to share the assumption that the great books cannot, in Bloom’s case, perhaps should not, in Nussbaum’s, form the basis of a university curriculum. Bloom seems to think them over the heads of all but a small elite; Nussbaum seems to think them not relevant to a large number of students from deprived, or divergent ethnic backgrounds, or simply those of different interests.

It is very likely that I have taught far more students from deprived or divergent ethnic backgrounds, and for many more years, than either Nussbaum or Bloom. So my experience may be of interest. Many of my students—among those who have really learned to read, which is sometimes a problem—have been very taken with, some even stunned by, their confrontation with the classics. Over the years I have taught occasionally Oedipus, Hamlet, and Aristotle’s Ethics; and much more often, The Republic, some of the early and middle dialogues of Plato, even Berkeley, Hume, and Mill. Some students have even asked for more and I have sent them happy into Shakespeare, the English Novel, and even Milton. I can recall no case in which a student was at a loss to understand or appreciate, or was at pains to reject these works because of a different cultural background. I don’t say (I almost wrote “argue” but looking back I see there are no arguments) that students should lose or forget whatever cultures they may have. Nor do I think there is a unique list of great books.

But the argument can be made that just because a student is being educated in this culture his education should in great measure consist in becoming enculturated in it. That student is here and probably will live and raise a family here. And making the culture of one’s home a part of oneself is, or used to be, what being educated meant. I do agree with Bloom at least to this extent: far too many of our students are now graduated without any culture at all.

Barry R. Gross

The City University of New York

Jamaica, New York

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