This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of two books that have had an enormous impact on my thinking about education policy across the board, from elementary to secondary to higher, not to mention completely changing the conversation among intellectuals and others involved with education policy.
The first was The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, by Allan Bloom, which I mentioned several years ago as part of a survey of my top ten books. Bloom stunned the academic world with this book, not just because of its sweeping indictment of our elite institutions of higher learning, but also because of the unusually resounding commercial success of a scholarly work by such an intellectual. No doubt it is an extraordinary analysis of the state of the American university and the mind of the students who populate the most elite of the institutions. It is also an in depth survey of the intellectual history leading to the present condition. Essentially, the crisis of liberal education and American intellectual life, according to Bloom, who was certainly no right-wing reactionary, is that no one is prepared to ask or answer the big questions about the nature of man and of good and evil. We have so “closed” the mind of the American student to these philosophical pursuits that we have impoverished their minds as well as their souls and rendered them incapable of determining the nature of man and moral truth. The result is that the large majority of students are “unified only in their relativism and their allegiance to equality, and their greatest fear is not error but intolerance”.
Recently, in commemoration of its 30th anniversary, the Witherspoon Institute hosted on their web site Public Discourse a symposium on Bloom’s book, featuring among others Paul Rahe, who was one of Bloom’s students during the campus revolutionary period of the late 1960s. He has this to say about the relevance of Bloom’s thinking today: “There is nothing that has happened in American higher education in the last few years that would have surprised Bloom. The demand for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, the offense taken at so-called “micro-aggressions”, and the resort to violence are a parody of the rougher stuff that happened in Germany in the mid-1930s. Bloom believed that the cowardice displayed by university administrations and faculties in the face of thuggery back in the late 1960s portended an end for the life of the mind in the United States. Recent events at Yale University, the University of Missouri, Claremont McKenna College, the University of California at Berkeley, Middlebury College, and elsewhere suggest that he was right. On most campuses, the most important questions can no longer be posed and students as well as faculty members engage in self-censorship.”
Needless to say, this does not bode well for higher education or for our country and Bloom was prescient in his forewarning.
The second book from 1987 was Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most brilliant minds in education reform of the past half-century. Again, the commercial success of such a book was stunning, steeped as it is in pedagogical concepts and teaching and learning methodology. As the cover jacket indicates, it is essentially a book about reading, but it is much more–it has much to say about how students learn to read, what they read, and how badly that flawed education policy has crippled our students over the past 60 to 70 years. From a public policy standpoint, it is a scathing indictment of the pedagogical upheaval foisted on our education system since the mid-20th century by so-called “progressive” educators that succeeded in completely gutting the coherent grade-by-grade curriculum that had made American elementary and secondary education the envy of the world. This system was replaced by methodologies based on the romantic theories of child development dating from the 18th century thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as adapted by John Dewey in the 20th century, which were based on the notion of “constructivism”, that children should dispense with “mere facts” and “construct their own knowledge”, with the teacher as a mere guide and facilitator. By the 1960s, this ideology had penetrated the depths of the American school system, resulting in “learner-centered” methodologies in every state. In his work on analyzing this debacle, Hirsch has shown that the early damage appears in reading proficiency because of the poor quality of teacher training and that it is most severe in its harm to the most disadvantaged children.
Also very significantly, he notes that this failed pedagogy disrupted the transmission of civic values and traditions from generation to generation, a reversal of the valuable insight that a nation’s schools must follow a common curriculum soaked in cultural literacy, that there is no such thing as “mere facts”, and that this cultural factual immersion is critical for students’ ability to read and comprehend advanced texts. In a recent essay, “A Sense of Belonging”, Hirsch has this to say on this point: “The recent scientific consensus about the role of unspoken shared knowledge in the language transaction has implications for educational policy that American educators have not yet been willing to draw. If shared background knowledge is essential for effective reading, writing, speaking, and listening in a nation, the schools of a nation need to be common schools that teach this shared knowledge of the public sphere. They must do so if all students are to be literate.” And I would add that it goes without saying that this shared common heritage is absolutely necessary to sustain a democratic republic.
At 88, he has recently published his fifth book on these subjects and I wish I could say that we are closer to a complete reversal of the failed policies that he has so insightfully analyzed. Thanks to him some progress has been made, but alas, the progressive ideological barricades are still firmly entrenched.
Both of these books are classics, even more relevant now than when I first read them 30 years ago, and still in print. They will change the way you think about some important things.