Thursday, May 1, 2014

Patrick Deneen and Allan Bloom

Patrick Deneen and Allan Bloom
P. Schultz
December 24, 2013/May 1, 2014

“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.”

                  These passages are from a review by Patrick Deneen of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, long after its publication. I believe Deneen is wrong in the following ways. First, this is not “an age of indifference.” That institutions of higher learning are no longer interested in certain books and authors is not due to indifference but rather to a commitment to a “practical” education, or what might be called an “economically” driven education. It is not that the colleges and universities are not interested in a particular kind of curriculum; rather, it is that they are interested in curricula that serve the interests of our corporations or the globalized economy. Call it what you will but this is not indifference.

                  Hence, the conflicts over curriculum that once described the institutions of higher education have been short-circuited, as it were. Like tenure, they are being undermined indirectly, as it were. Evidence of this is the degree to which now administrators, bureaucrats who have never been in a classroom or taught, have assumed so much power in these institutions that it is all-too-common to hear pleas for “shared governance” in these institutions, pleas most often or always heard coming from the faculty, not from the bureaucrats. And both of these developments, the rise of a bureaucracy not populated by former faculty members and the demise of tenure via adjunct and not-tenure track positions, are in the service of an education that serves the interests of our corporations.

            So, when Deneen writes that “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,” he is wrong. What he sees as “the greatest possible expanse of options” is actually a tremendous narrowing of the options thought respectable at our institutions of “higher learning.” It is not relativism that is undermining our institutions of “higher learning.” Rather, it is capitalism or the alleged demands of globalization. It is not that these institutions think the young “can responsibly fashion [their] own character unaided.” Rather, it is that these institutions will fashion their characters for them and that these “characters” will be thoroughly bureaucratized so that they will fit into the “globalized” world, the “capitalized,” “corporatized,” or “bureaucratized” world we live in.

                  I believe what Deneen fails to appreciate is how hard it is for humans to embrace what he calls “relativism” or what Bloom called “nihilism.” Both seem to think that relativism or nihilism are easy pills to swallow for human beings when in fact they are not. Yes, humans may say relativistic things, but saying and doing are two different things and when humans do something, they have to justify those doings. This is, it seems to me, just human nature. Hence, when Americans held slaves, they had to justify that and, as a result, they came up with “theories” of racial inferiority and superiority. And when Americans had to deal with having “nuked” the Japanese, they had to embrace notions of Japanese inhumanness. Or to take a simpler example: One of my professors said, a long time ago, that no one is a relativist after a dinner guest has stolen some of the family’s silver, no matter how committed they might be to tolerance or relativism in the classroom! One could see the same phenomenon occurring after 9/11, when there were no relativists in the U.S. that I could see.

                  So, I am skeptical when I hear people speaking about alleged relativists or nihilists who are taking over our institutions of higher education. And it is not that these institutions are not in danger; they are. But the danger does not arise today, as it did not arise in the past, from relativism or nihilism. Rather, it arises from prejudiced or parochial notions of what is the just way for human beings to live. We now have embraced, some of us anyway, the idea that those in the business of business are the virtuous ones, and the larger and more profitable the business, the more virtuous are those who control or own it. It is even said, over and over, that business virtue is political virtue. So why shouldn’t it be confused with intellectual virtue as well? This is, as strange as it may seem, what is endangering that which is or should be “higher” about our educational institutions.


  1. You make two excellent points here and while I respect the intelligent conservatism that Deneen represents, you point out why the intelligent conservatives are unlikely to every really get to the root of the problems we face. Under the pressures of hyper-globalization the market tsunami has washed away most of the traces of any institutional support for the "higher" values of Western civilization. Yet how can conservatives become "radicals?" They could become fascists, I suppose, but Deneen's position is consistent with the attempt to stand above the vulgarity of modern American society and political culture without actually having to move in either of those directions. We can re-claim a higher ground by either limiting freedom or by morally confronting the evils of late-modern capitalism and empire. Historically, conservatives, especially in the United States, are much better at the former than the latter.

  2. Thanks for the comment, the thoughtful comment.