An essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review noted that “humanities departments thrive at elite institutions (at Yale, for example, History has long been the most popular major, with English usually beating out Economics).”
But the News reported Friday that “undergraduate humanities classes [at Yale] saw their lowest enrollment in three decades last year. … Director of Undergraduate Studies in English Lawrence Manley … noted a decline in enrollment in English classes, as well as in … English majors … from 176 to 149.”
The difference isn’t that the News is closer to campus. It’s that The Times is in a time warp. Its essay (by Rachel Donadio ’96) suggests that if humanities are down, it’s mainly because “multiculturalists won the canon wars,” making it impossible to decide which great books and core courses are essential to a liberal education.
That explanation, as Donadio notes, was offered powerfully by Allan Bloom in his 1987 bestseller “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” Bloom’s book inspired conservative campus interventions in funding, pedagogy and activism that hope to rescue the liberal arts — which teach us to think about the lasting challenges of politics and the spirit — from being fragmented by leftist sexual and racial politics and the political-correctness police.
A worthy goal, but far from saving liberal education, the conservative surge is inundating undergraduates with too much marketing, self-marketing, national-security strategizing and jejune affectations of classical virtue. This is what the Times essay missed or downplayed. Yet no one foresaw and condemned it more vigorously than Bloom himself.
Honorable conservatives who want to clean the academic stables will be disappointed, not because multiculturalist leftists won the canon wars (although they did, sometimes stupidly), but because multiculturalist global capitalism won everything else, to the peril of humanistic studies, let alone ancient or Enlightenment republics.
Neoconservatives deny that the free markets and wars they promote unleash the free morals they decry. But for all their aspirations to virtue — whether the heroic Thucydidean kind or the tea-sipping Elizabethan, high-church Burkean and American Federalist varieties — the campus interventionists are subverting the liberal education they mean to save.
Some liberal arts departments in the 1970s were refuges for defeated leftists who played out frustrated revolutionary fantasies in classrooms. Todd Gitlin noted that while the right was marching on the White House, the left was marching on the English Department. But much more endangers liberal education than a few Marxists, identity politics nincompoops and po-mo poseurs. (Most Marxists and post-modernists are smart, honorable teachers.)
Partly because a variant of corporate capitalism captured “the White House,” more students live in a high-pressured, civically empty political economy than in the 1960s. Which would you say imperils liberal education: 10 leftist professors on a campus, or the 10,000 hours a student has spent with TV, video games and at the mall? Global capital also turns ethno-religious depths into niche-marketed effluvia, and it prizes computer English over the English of John Milton or Reinhold Niebuhr.
Universities are in on the game. To its credit, Yale is internationalizing its students and broadening Americans’ horizons. But how can it keep its collegiate crucible of civic-republican leadership from morphing into a career factory and cultural galleria for a global ruling class that’s accountable to no polity or moral code?
Bloom’s answer was to deepen the study of American founders and to renew a classical pedagogy that weaves eros and intellect into the love of knowing and natural virtues. But that won’t curb the consumer-marketed hedonism that’s driving Americans to road rage, lethal stampedes at store openings, cage fighting, violence at sporting events, a groping pornification of private lives in public spaces, and myriad compensatory addictions and medications.
Bloom rejected the premature indoctrination of national-security cadres and the phony populism of “Take Back the University” enthusiasts. “I am not a conservative — neo- or paleo-,” he said. “Conservatism is a respectable outlook, and its adherents usually have to have some firmness of character to stick by what is so unpopular in universities. I just do not happen to be that animal. Any superficial reading of my book will show that I differ from both theoretical and practical conservative positions.”
Bloom denounced the obstacles posed to liberal education by commercial or bourgeois society. He didn’t want colleges to harbor neoconservative warriors or leftist revolutionaries. Such partisans poison the civic trust that is the oxygen of liberal education. Real leaders with real liberal educations are partly conservative, partly liberal and impossible to corral into cadres.
“To a remarkable extent this place has detected and rejected those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr. told my entering class in 1965. “This is done not by official edict … but through an ethic of mutual trust and responsibility among students and faculty that lies deep in our origins and traditions.” Those traditions have saved the republic. Yale shouldn’t miscarry them in ways both Brewster and Bloom would have deplored.
Jim Sleeper graduated from Yale College in 1969 and is a lecturer in the Political Science Department. An earlier version of this column appeared in The Guardian (London).