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by William H. Benson

September 20, 2007

     The calendar and the cooling of the temperatures tell us that another school year has arrived. The fall sports schedule is in full swing, and just beyond the horizon lies the winter schedule. The presence of the book backpacks indicates that teachers are poring on the homework—their duty and a very good thing for the students, and the more serious students are responding with hours of solitary concentration.

     In 1987, twenty years ago already, a professor at the University of Chicago, Allan Bloom, published The Closing of the American Mind, a book that spent more than a year on the best-seller’s list then. A humanities scholar who specialized in the works of Plato and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Bloom issued a series of daring claims in his book about what is wrong with the university as a whole, with the disciplines included within the humanities, and with the students themselves.

      Things went wrong on the university campus, so Bloom charged, in the 1960’s when certain pieces of that vast collection known as the Western Canon, which includes Plato, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, and Emerson and others, were replaced with writers more modern and also representative of women and minorities.

     The literature curriculum, in other words, was dumbed down to accommodate students unwilling to work as hard as the great writers require of readers. As the Greek and Roman classics had disappeared in the previous century, so now had other worthy writers. It was the students’ loss, and yet they and many at the universities wanted writers more relevant, what ever that may mean.

     But the larger question is, “Why study the Western Canon or the humanities or history or English or philosophy at all?” In the light of the costs of a four-year degree, it does seem ludicrous to spend the time and money reading Spinoza and Nietzsche. Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor said it this way, “The big question for humanists is, ‘How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists?’ That’s been tough, really tough.”

     Allan Bloom tried to answer that question. A liberal arts education, he believed, should provide a student with “four years of freedom”—“a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.”

     Bloom identified certain opinions that students bring with them and also the distractions that together prevent students from receiving all they can at the university.

     He said, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. Students are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. The true believer is the real danger. . . . This is something with which they have been indoctrinated.”

     Openness has rejected the natural rights of people. Unreserved equality and total tolerance for others’ opinions has overthrown identification of evil ideas and recognition of the world’s injustices. Suddenly, everything, including truth and beauty, is relative. And so Bloom entitled his book as he did: the American mind is closed, and yet thinks it wide open. The word sophomore unites two disparate Greek words: wise and fool.

     Music is the major distraction for students, Bloom claimed, a not so surprising comment. “Though students do not have books, they most emphatically do have music. Nothing is more singular about this generation than its addiction to music. This is the age of music and the states of soul that accompany it.”

     Yes, music is still a powerful influence among students, but I see that the cell phone and the internet have gradually replaced music as the students’ source of distraction. The cell phone seems a permanent fixture today, something Bloom did not foresee in 1987.


     Education is there at the university, available for anyone willing to work. The learning is profound and life changing. Bloom put it this way: “The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found cast away treasures.”