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The War Of The Great Books
What seemed to be just another tempest in the teapot of academia has escalated into a matter of national values and politics. Who would have believed that the choice of which books Stanford University students must read would create so much tumult? And that the controversy goes back so far?
February 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 1
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind must surely be the most unexpected happening of American intellectual life in recent years. It is an erudite, closely argued book of philosophy and cultural criticism. That it should sit atop the New York Times best-seller list for eleven weeks and produce a hard-cover sale of a half-million copies defies publishing’s common sense.
Unexpected, but not unprecedented. The Education of Henry Adams, a gloomy meditation on the course of American development, was a nonfiction best seller of 1919. In recent decades Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a statement of outrage at American poverty, and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, an indictment of a self-absorbed culture, also won unforeseen acclaim. We embrace our Cassandras. Socrates criticized Athenian democracy and was forced to sip the hemlock; Allan Bloom charges America with mindlessness and becomes a millionaire.
But our society’s admirable habit of rewarding its severest critics does not explain the Bloom phenomenon completely. By raising fundamental questions about the very basis of modern education, Allan Bloom has started a war of ideas within the intellectual community. After an initially warm reception by most reviewers and continued endorsement by conservative thinkers, Bloom’s work came under heavy fire. “A most enticing, a most subtle, a most learned, a most dangerous tract,” Benjamin Barber wrote in Harper’s, “one of the most profoundly anti-democratic books ever written for a popular audience.” The book was scorched by the reviewer David Rieff in The Times Literary Supplement as one “decent people would be ashamed of having written.”
The usual tempest-in-a-teapot nature of academic fights has taken on larger dimensions with the battle passing over into the political arena. On the left, Jesse Jackson joined demonstrators at Stanford University last year protesting the traditional required Western Culture course. They demanded and got a broadening of the reading list to include works of “women, minorities, and persons of color.” Calling this event another example of the “closing of the American mind"— because it appears to replace a concern for classic standards and values with a narrower focus on current problems—the former Secretary of Education William Bennett has mounted the ramparts on the right alongside Bloom, warning of a “nation at risk” because of mediocre schools and exhorting colleges to “reclaim a legacy” of humanistic learning.
We are, in short, witnessing another round in the war between the ancients and moderns first described by Jonathan Swift in his mock-heroic satire of 1697, “The Battle of the Books.” In that struggle set in the royal library, the modern volumes envied the ancient volumes’ privileged position on Mount Parnassus. The ancients’ refusal to come down provoked the moderns to attack. But where the classic authors commanded the heights in Swift’s day, in ours the battle lines have reversed. Science and the apparently limitless march of knowledge overshadow older axioms and make uncertain the very notion of absolute, “classic” truth. The Closing of the American Mind, then, represents something of a rearguard action on behalf of traditional authorities.
But Bloom is not the first to lead an American counterattack against modernist philosophy. His diagnosis of America’s ills (educational shallowness) and his prescriptions for its cure (diligent study of Plato et al.) continue a line of argument developed by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler more than half a century ago. By the same token, the sparks Bloom’s book struck rekindle memories of the reception given their Great Books seminars in the thirties and the publication of the Great Books of the Western World in 1952.
The story of the Great Books—the most ambitious championing of the classics in American history—has several facets. It is an account of our national genius for marketing culture. It is another example of our penchant for self-development. But above all, it is about the search for a proper democratic education and raises the question, Have we of the twentieth century anything to learn from works of the past?
Through the nineteenth century that was a question cultured people would hardly have considered asking. The speeches and letters of the public figures of that century reveal an impressive familiarity with the classics of Western civilization. These were considered the repository of wisdom and culture, and an educated person—by definition—knew them well. But as the old-time classical curriculum of the colleges gave way to the more utilitarian-minded elective system of the new universities, the voices of Plato, Tacitus, Euclid, and even Shakespeare began to wane. Undergraduates sought “useful” learning that prepared one for “real life.” By the 1920s the fragmented curriculum prevailed at many colleges and universities. The Great Books movement began as a counter-revolution to these changes in higher education.