Disputing Deneen: A Misremembered Past

Matthew J. Franck

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, professor emeritus of political science at Radford University in Radford, VA, and visiting lecturer in politics at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544; [email protected].


This piece originally appeared in “Disputing Deneen,” a special section in the Winter 2015 Academic Questions (volume 28, number 4).


Editor’s Note

In the Winter 2014 Academic Questions (vol. 27, no. 4), Patrick J. Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, made a provocative argument in “After the Interregnum,” his contribution to the issue’s special section, “God and Guns.” Deneen claimed that the opposition that arose in the 1980s to the politicization of the academy and the corruption of the liberal arts did not point to an abiding alternative to the countercultural assault on higher education. Deneen argued that the era of the ascendancy of liberal arts core curricula, to which the opposition hoped to return, had only been an “interregnum” between two approaches to higher education based on competing ideas of liberty.

“In this essay, I advance two connected arguments,” Deneen wrote:

(1) the conservative aims of the “first” culture wars [of the 1980s]—particularly the restoration of the “great books” of the Western canon—does not represent a wished-for alternative, but the dying gasp and brief interregnum following the demise of colleges and universities as religious institutions; and (2) that moment was short-lived because it represented a transition between two competing ideals of liberty—one informed by classical and particularly Christian inheritance, the other by modern philosophic trends that favor applied science and technology—and, despite its apparent devotion to the classics, was itself deeply shaped by the latter conception of liberty that ushered in its own demise.

We believe that Deneen’s assessment of the situation in the university today and his characterization of the battle in which National Association of Scholars and other organizations are still very much engaged demand some response, and we herewith present [one of] four.   

A Misremembered Past

Patrick J. Deneen’s “After the Interregnum” argues that genuine liberal education in the United States has been doomed for much longer than anyone thinks, and that its soi-disant defenders have in fact been complicit in its demise. Or so I think he argues. The clearest statement in his article regarding the emergence of our present predicament in higher education is this: “With the loss of religious affiliation and mission, American institutions of higher education have been on a steady and wholly predictable trajectory of rejecting the central relevance of the liberal arts in favor of those areas of study and research that expand human power.”[1]

I find myself fairly sympathetic to my friend Pat’s lament about the “trajectory” he describes, while I am less keen to endorse his analysis, or his implied prescription. Let me explain.

Deneen contra Bloom

Deneen relies in part on a historical account of American higher education in Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Are Giving Up on the Meaning of Life (2008).[2] Kronman divides the relevant history into the “age of piety,” the “age of secular humanism,” and the age of “the research ideal”—a description Deneen calls “compelling and largely accurate” (369). Then Deneen strongly associates Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind[3] with Kronman’s preference for the second age, his precise claim being that “Kronman’s lament for the passing of the age of secular humanism maps perfectly onto Allan Bloom’s analysis” of what ails American higher education (370).

But there is something curious about this claim, masked by that phrase “maps perfectly onto,” which is so useful in its imprecision. That is, Kronman’s book barely notices the existence of Bloom’s book (which appears glancingly in one endnote), and with good reason. For Bloom has practically nothing to say about the institutional history of American higher education outside the bounds of his own three or four decades of experience, as student and then teacher. He never mentions the religious foundations of most American colleges from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. And his strictures regarding recent developments in university life venture no condemnation of “the research ideal” and the concomitant domination of the natural and applied sciences, which are at the heart of Kronman’s “lament.”

It is therefore decidedly strange for Deneen to say, “Kronman accurately notes that the period of the ‘great books’ that Bloom valorizes was an interregnum between two distinctive and fundamentally hostile worldviews” (370). Strange because (contrary to what the reader might infer from Deneen) Kronman offers no comment on a “period” that “Bloom valorizes,” inasmuch as Bloom is absent from his book, and stranger still because there is no “period” that “Bloom valorizes” (oh that pomo verb!). The unhappy mash-up of Kronman’s and Bloom’s perspectives permits Deneen to associate a powerful if flawed book—Bloom’s—with an evanescent and already mostly forgotten one—Kronman’s. This is rather unjust.

Bloom’s Closing, which remains as idiosyncratically compelling and occasionally frustrating as it did twenty-eight years ago, is certainly no apologia for the Enlightenment, as Deneen would also have his readers believe. He writes that “Kronman and Bloom”—there’s that unwarranted linkage again—favor a “great books” education for its “support of the exercise of modern liberty, and especially, the expansion of individual choice” (373). But no one could read Bloom’s short chapter titled “The Self”—to take just one part of Closing—and think that Deneen has rightly characterized his view here. Closing in fact is riddled with criticism of the decisive shapers of modern thought in philosophy and politics, and, notwithstanding the occasional notes of patriotism in the book, Bloom remains fairly ambivalent about America. In this respect Deneen ought to recognize a kindred spirit.

That he does not may be largely owing to the fact that, as Wilfred McClay put it several years ago, “Bloom’s is a version of the history of the West that is, so to speak, all Athens and no Jerusalem.”[4] Deneen, by contrast, could be read as being nostalgic for “the religious assumptions of colleges and universities as originally founded, in which education aimed at a deeper knowledge and understanding of the truths already held by faith and discerned through reason” (371). Here is the real nub of Deneen’s irritation where Bloom is concerned. It is true that in the early pages of Closing Bloom remarks with a kind of wistful sadness that his students’ “real religion and knowledge of the Bible have diminished to the vanishing point” (56), resulting in a “loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible” (57). But this is part of Bloom’s general complaint that students today arrive in college believing in practically nothing and ready to believe anything. It is hardly his purpose to lead his students back to the faith of their ancestors. Does he miss those hardier believers of yesteryear because they were worthier interlocutors in the enterprise of philosophy? Probably. Does Bloom intend, indeed, to lead the most promising of his students away from whatever their biblical religion vouchsafed, into a treeless landscape of pure Platonic reason where they can no longer lean on the trunks of faith or tradition? Perhaps he does; there is a more than plausible case for this. Are young people of the highest intelligence, whose faith is strong and whose reason is sturdy, liable to be turned into philosophers as heedless of the claims of religion as Bloom, by the encounter with a teacher such as he? That strikes me as fairly doubtful.

But let us leave behind what is at best a blind spot and at worst a hostility to religion in Bloom, and return to the subject of the university. Here are some statements on that subject from Bloom’s Closing, given with his characteristic assurance, which show that the evolution of the modern university since the Enlightenment, in his view, has not (to say the least) been an unmixed blessing:

The university’s task…is, in the first place, always to maintain the permanent questions front and center. This it does primarily by preserving—by keeping alive—the works of those who best addressed these questions. (p. 252)

Hence, without having the answers, the university knows what openness is and knows the questions. (p. 253)

Although universities go back very far, the university, as we know it, in its content and its aim, is the product of the Enlightenment. (p. 256)

The regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man, is the regime of reason. The free university exists only in liberal democracy, and liberal democracies exist only where there are free universities. (p. 259)

And one final passage, to complete the circle Bloom seems to travel in the heart of his book:

The philosophic life is not the university. Until the nineteenth century most philosophers had nothing to do with universities, and perhaps the greatest abhorred them. One cannot imagine Socrates as a professor, for reasons that are worthy of our attention. But Socrates is of the essence of the university. It exists to preserve and further what he represents. In effect, it hardly does so anymore. But more important is the fact that as a result of Enlightenment, philosophers and philosophy came to inhabit the universities exclusively, abandoning their old habits and haunts. There they have become vulnerable in new ways and thus risk extinction. The classical philosophers would not, for very good reasons, have taken this risk. Understanding these reasons is invaluable for our peculiar predicament. (pp. 272–73)

Had Bloom written still more aphoristically than he does, the tangled course of argument that can be glimpsed in the passages above could have been encapsulated by saying, “The Enlightenment brought philosophy into the university to keep it alive, and has thereby nearly succeeded in killing it.” In the end, it is not at all clear that Bloom has written a requiem for a lost golden age in the American university. He has merely limned the contours of one particular instance of a perennial problem—the uneasy relation of philosophy and political life—which in our own day has been played out most vividly in our universities. Blind spot and all, it is hard to fault his analysis. It goes a long way toward explaining both the pretensions and the pathologies of the modern university.

The American Situation

As I have already noted, Bloom pays no real attention to Kronman’s three “ages” of the American university. This is just as well, as it seems to be fairly potted history. Other historians of American higher education such as Julie Reuben (The Making of the Modern University) and George Marsden (The Soul of the American University) have told a more complicated story.[5] Here is Marsden, for instance, from his piece, “The Incoherent University”:

The most illuminating dimension of the history of American universities, especially considered in their moral dimensions, is that they were until at least the 1960s essentially liberal Protestant institutions….After the disestablishment of official state Protestantism in the revolutionary era, evangelical Protestants built a powerful informal cultural establishment during the first half of the nineteenth century. Evangelical Protestants dominated almost all American colleges and universities of that era [including the state universities]….These schools claimed to be “non-sectarian,” but that meant that they would include Methodists and Baptists, as well as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, or Episcopalians on their faculties. Catholics and Jews, of course, were excluded.[6]

“After the Civil War,” Marsden continues, the universities “banished formal worship to the voluntary sphere,” began to emphasize “the humanities and the Western classics” as the “chief bearers” of the moral burden of the institution, and at the same time ramped up the “scientific and technical” side of their work, which was “especially true in the state Land Grant technical schools and in medical schools.”[7] But it was not until well after World War II that these institutions, both private and public, became fully open to Jews and Catholics, integrated themselves racially, and elevated the “triad of virtues” of “tolerance, free choice, and self-fulfillment.”[8]

In short, Kronman’s “age of secular humanism” never existed in some pristine form, sandwiched between an earlier “age of piety” and a later “age of the research ideal.” The real history is much messier, much less clearly punctuated than that, with the universities’ scientific turn roughly coinciding with their retooling of the liberal arts along more secular lines. Early American colleges were indeed more markedly religious than they later became. But are these historic institutions worthy of the nostalgia Deneen expresses? Considering their vice of closed-mindedness alongside their virtue of moral inculcation, this is a tough case to make. And was there any American institution of higher learning after, say, 1776 that was devoted, in Deneen’s words, to “the liberal arts based upon a premodern understanding of liberty” (373)? Any institution, that is, that represented, in America, “the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition” of what a liberal education means (373)? Outside the world of Catholic higher education, whose first institution in this country was Georgetown, I doubt it very much. But it seems to have fallen precisely to our own age to see the founding or, God willing, the reform of Catholic, Protestant, and other religious institutions that understand, as Bloom seemingly did not, that faith and reason are allies and not enemies.

There is much talk today of the coming collapse of the system of higher education in the United States. It could be that there is something to that. But there is no doubt a good deal of resilience in those institutions—across a diverse American landscape—that do their work really well. One such work is that of the great research institutions, whose benefit to human material flourishing is palpable. The other work that begs to be done really well, and so far prospers in too few places, is scholarly and pedagogical work on human spiritual and moral flourishing. Like Patrick Deneen, I believe the classical learning appropriate to our needs will have to rise from the ashes of failed institutions. Like him, too, I want that classical learning to take the claims of faith more seriously than Allan Bloom did. Unlike my friend Pat, I think that our models for such learning lie more in the future we will fashion than in a past we misremember.

[1]Patrick J. Deneen, “After the Interregnum,” Academic Questions 27, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 374. All further references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text.

[2]Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Are Giving Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

[3]Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987). All further references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text.

[4]Wilfred McClay, “Recovering the Western Soul,” Intercollegiate Review 42, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 23.

[5]Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[6]George M. Marsden, “The Incoherent University,” Hedgehog Review 2, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 96.

[7]Ibid., 97.

[8]Ibid., 98.

Image Credit: Beyond My Ken, cropped.

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