The Storm Over the University

The Politics of Liberal Education Winter 1990, Vol. 89, No. 1).

edited by Darryl L. Gless, edited by Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Duke University Press, 236 pp., $8.00 (paper)

The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education

edited by Timothy Fuller
Yale University Press, 166 pp., $9.95 (paper)


I cannot recall a time when American education was not in a “crisis.” We have lived through Sputnik (when we were “falling behind the Russians”), through the era of “Johnny can’t read,” and through the upheavals of the Sixties. Now a good many books are telling us that the university is going to hell in several different directions at once. I believe that, at least in part, the crisis rhetoric has a structural explanation: since we do not have a national consensus on what success in higher education would consist of, no matter what happens, some sizable part of the population is going to regard the situation as a disaster. As with taxation and relations between the sexes, higher education is essentially and continuously contested territory. Given the history of that crisis rhetoric, one’s natural response to the current cries of desperation might reasonably be one of boredom.

A few years ago the literature of educational crises was changed by a previously little-known professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago in a book implausibly entitled The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. To me, the amazing thing about Allan Bloom’s book was not just its prodigious commercial success—more than half a year at the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list—but the depth of the hostility and even hatred that it inspired among a large number of professors. Most of Bloom’s book is not about higher education as such, but consists of an idiosyncratic, often original, and even sometimes profound—as well as quirky and cranky—analysis of contemporary American intellectual culture, with an emphasis on the unacknowledged and largely unconscious influence of certain German thinkers, especially Weber and Nietzsche.

Why did Bloom’s book arouse such passion? I will suggest an explanation later in this article, but it is worth noting that Bloom demonstrated to publishers and potential authors one thesis beyond doubt: it is possible to write an alarmist book about the state of higher education with a long-winded title and make a great deal of money. This consequence appears to provide at least part of the inspiration for a number of other books, equally alarmist and with almost equally heavy-duty titles, for example The Moral Collapse of the University, Professionalism, Purity and Alienation, by Bruce Wilshire; Killing the Spirit, Higher Education in America, by Page Smith; Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, by Roger Kimball; and The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education, by David E. Purpel.

One difficulty with the more alarmist of these books is that though they agree that the universities are in a desperate state, they do not agree on what is wrong or what to do about it. When there is no agreement not only on the cure but on the diagnosis itself, it is very hard to treat the patient. Another weakness of such books is their…

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