As a new generation of college students gets ready to return to campus, I’m reminded of the late Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago professor, philosopher and — on the subject of university education — famously eloquent grump.
No one had any reason to expect his 1987 book with the stuffy title, “The Closing of the American Mind: “How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” to be a bestseller. But it was.
It hit at just the right time to be embraced, particularly by conservatives who were looking, in the era of President Ronald Reagan, for arguments to push back against what they saw as the growing dominance of campus liberals. Regardless of which side we are on, Bloom argued, campuses were losing the values of truth, freedom and critical thinking in the Socratic tradition of asking the right questions about everything.
I enjoyed testing my own tolerance by reading Bloom, even when I sometimes thought the only closed mind in the book was Bloom’s.
In the Socratic tradition, I, too, find that I learn not only by reading those with whom I agree but also by testing out my arguments against those with whom I disagree. I appreciate the value of such arguments even more these days, as people on the left, right and wobbly middle increasingly retreat to their separate worlds and media.
Now decades after Bloom, a new book by Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, in some ways picks up where Bloom left off. But Kronman’s book is enlivened by the new era of Black Lives Matter, antifa and a new campus culture that too often values “feelings” and “safety” over the fundamental values of free speech and rational arguments.
Kronman’s book, “The Assault on American Excellence,” begins with an anecdote about the dispute at Yale four years ago when a “master,” or head of residence, at one of Yale’s “colleges,” as they call dormitories, declared that he would no longer use the “master” title. Some black students, in particular, had objected to the title because it reminded them of plantation culture in the Old South.
Frankly, as a descendant of American slaves and grandson of an excellent English teacher, I was more dismayed than amused by this surrender to linguistic ignorance. Faculty and others should use this teachable moment, I thought, to educate students of the significant historical differences between a schoolmaster and a slave master.
That’s how Kronman felt, and he recounts more serious examples at Yale and elsewhere to argue that the campus culture clashes in recent years not only dilute academic rigor but also pose a direct threat to our understanding of what democracy should be about.
Longer running objections were raised over the naming of another residence hall after John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate, two-time vice president of the United States and a leading pre-Civil War defender of slavery as a “positive good.”
Yale finally changed the name in 2017 to honor another Yale grad, computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper.
As with Bloom’s book, I think Kronman raises important points worthy of further discussion and argument, especially when I disagree with him. Like Bloom, he talks a lot more about student protests than he does about what the student protests are about.
Kronman criticizes affirmative action, too, mainly for devaluing individuals in its pursuit of equity for “groups.” Yet, that’s hard to avoid when you’re trying to solve a mammoth problem that, at bottom, is all about groups. We can respect individuals and value diversity in pursuit of excellence, not by opposing it.
Again, we need to talk about such challenges. Unfortunately, free speech is more than some young people can tolerate. Some of them were in the black student union that interrupted a program for 45 minutes in which I participated a few years ago at the University of North Carolina. I was more upset by their promptly leaving after reading off their demands. They didn’t hear me quote Marshall McLuhan’s observation: “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”
Too bad. I, too, thought as a student that I knew all the answers. After graduation, I learned about the questions.
Yet I’ve spent too much time with students in recent years to be grumpy about their impatience. Some are great at telling me what they believe. But, as Kronman and Bloom point out, students also need to be challenged to tell me why they believe it.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.