Today we live in a different age, one that so worried Bloom—an age of indifference. Institutions of higher learning have almost completely abandoned even a residual belief that there are some books and authors that an educated person should encounter. A rousing defense of a curriculum in which female, African-American, Latino, and other authors should be represented has given way to a nearly thoroughgoing indifference to the content of our students’ curricula. Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity, but eschews any belief that the content of what is taught will or ought to influence how a person lives.
Thus, not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.
Bloom was so correct about the predictable rise of a society defined by indifference that one is entitled to conclude that were Closing published today, it would barely cause a ripple. This is not because most of academia would be inclined to agree with his arguments any more than they did in 1987. Rather, it is simply the case that hardly anyone in academe any longer thinks that curricula are worth fighting over. Jesse Jackson once thought it at least important to oppose Western Civilization in the name of an alternative; today, it would be thought untoward and unworkable to propose any shared curriculum.
Those who run institutions of higher learning tell themselves that this is because they respect the choices of their young adult charges; however, their silence is born precisely of the indifference predicted by Bloom. Today’s academic leaders don’t believe the content of those choices has any fundamental influence on the souls of our students, most likely because it would be unfashionable to believe that they have souls. As long as everyone is tolerant of everyone else’s choices, no one can get hurt. What is today called “tolerance,” Bloom rightly understood to be more deeply a form of indifference, the extreme absence of care, leading to a society composed not only of “souls without longing” but humans treated as utilitarian bodies that are increasingly incapable of love.
Like many conservative critiques of academia, this one misinterprets a great deal of academics’ activities.
Problem the first: the canon still has considerable influence over students’ choices. Try teaching a Nonnus course instead of a Homer course and see how many students show up. When I taught ancient epic and tried to expose students to non-canonical texts, I in fact met some resistance. Some students plain didn’t like that the exotica of antiquity was intruding on their study of HOMER. Like it or not, the implicit values of the canon still inform many decisions for both teachers and students.
Problem the second: I am not quite sure what the author is advocating in fashioning students’ character. Are we supposed to spell out what is right and wrong in the world to our students? While this seems like a horribly presumptuous act that my Ph.D has not prepared me for, it also strikes me as a horribly futile method. We only have 90 minutes with the students twice a week; I am not quite sure how to infuse love of heaven and fear of hell in the even if I wanted to. Maybe the writer is wanting us to rethink the basic structure of academia, but as it stands, classrooms are extremely inefficient ways of inculcating belief.
Problem the third: The author seems to poo-poo critical thinking and analysis. But that is precisely what teachers can give their students. While we do indeed have a wider range of objects to practice this critical thinking on than in the past, that is the beauty of this skill. You can take it anywhere - under the power of critical thinking skills learned in the humanities can fruitfully be applied to business. But in our hyperactive, media-saturated age, where social networks allow us to push misinformation to much wider audiences, critical thinking is a more than valuable activity. It is a vital necessity of any citizen.