The Once and Future Core

Carol Iannone

Many readers of Academic Questions no doubt recall the excitement generated by Allan Bloom’s runaway bestseller of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which encapsulated what the “culture wars” were and are about in the area of higher education: the politicization of the academy along left-wing lines and the corruption of the liberal arts to serve political, not scholarly or pedagogical ends. Bloom came to speak at the college where I was teaching at the time and I could sense the unease about him on the part of the liberal faculty. I was sure he represented everything that was good about the traditional college education that I cherished and that was being lost in the ongoing countercultural advance of the late 1960s and afterward.

Imagine my surprise when a friend and mentor cautioned me about what he saw as the book’s underlying nihilism. I had to admit that the major excitement the book aroused in me was due to its electrifying first section, in which the author presents a precise and letter-perfect picture of the contemporary university student whose mind is so open as to be closed, devoid of any capacity for judgment or discrimination among competing goods, or even between good and evil. I had perhaps not been as attentive as I should have been to the rest of the book, and I was to be surprised yet again when a second friend cited the exact page on which he believed Bloom’s nihilism is unmistakably revealed. (Reader, can you guess the page? Write me if you can.)

Whether or not the charge of nihilism is justified, Patrick J. Deneen also came of intellectual age around the time of the onset of the culture wars, and the publication of Closing was a significant part of his intellectual maturation as well. But, as he details in “After the Interregnum,” his contribution to the “God and Guns” feature of the Winter 2014 AQ, Deneen soon saw shortcomings in Bloom’s analysis. Deneen argues that the period before the counterculture, the era of higher education that Bloom valorizes and the passing of which he laments, an era in which a variety of solid core curricula in the liberal arts were regnant throughout higher education, was only an interregnum, a relatively brief span of some decades between the decline of religiously based higher education and the more scientific, technological, professional, and research-based model of today. So, too, by extension, the traditionalist opposition to the politicization of the academy that galvanized in the 1980s (and that inspired the founding of the National Association of Scholars) was also an interregnum, in a way, inasmuch as many conservatives, in Deneen’s view, have now given up on the liberal arts in favor of career-oriented education, particular in the STEM fields. Deneen also believes that many conservatives have abandoned the older classical and Christian ideal of liberty in favor of one based on modern scientific and philosophical trends that stress radical personal autonomy.

We invited four scholars to respond to Deneen. In “A Misremembered Past,” Matthew J. Franck argues among other things that Deneen has badly misunderstood Allan Bloom. Timothy Fuller in “Civilizing Places” disagrees that a predetermined religious or philosophical basis is necessary to education, and recommends Michael Oakeshott’s understanding of study as a means of self-discovery and beneficent involvement in our “great, multi-faceted heritage.” C. Bradley Thompson, “On the Decline and Fall of the Liberal Arts,” disagrees with Deneen’s view of the Enlightenment and suggests that the cure for today’s corrupted academy is to provide “students with an education that will encourage them to discover and live lives of responsible liberty according to a demonstrable, absolute, eternal, universal moral code that can be validated as true” through reason. In “Narratives of the Fall,” Nicholas Capaldi defends what he sees as a better understanding of modernity, as presented by the great Enlightenment figures, which includes technology, the free market, limited government, the rule of law, and conscientious personal autonomy. In addition, he offers a list of ten suggestions for correcting the current state of affairs in the academy.

Our second special section in this issue is a Festschrift in honor of Stanley Rothman, author, scholar, social scientist, founding member and chairman of the board of the National Association of Scholars, who passed away in 2011. Introduced by his son, David J. Rothman, “Stanley Rothman and the Dangers of Faction,” it features contributions from friends, colleagues, coauthors, co-researchers, and founding NAS president Stephen H. Balch, “Scholar and Academic Citizen.” Additional contributors include Robert Maranto, “A Madisonian Man”; Charles L. Robertson, “A Personal Reminiscence”; Matthew C. Woessner, “The End of an Era”; and Althea Nagai, “Content Analysis: It’s Not Bean-Counting.”

A full picture of this exceptional man and his work emerges. This section also introduces the edited posthumous publication of Rothman’s The End of the Experiment: The Rise of Cultural Elites and the Decline of America’s Civic Culture (Transaction). (We are aware that, strictly speaking, a “festschrift” is intended to honor a scholar still living, but we decided to use that word since it has become familiar in English, while its counterpart for a deceased scholar, Gedenkschrift, is still quite obscure.)

This issue’s poem, “Canonical,” by Jason Morgan, a new contributor, offers an imagined and beautifully crafted glimpse of the very human authors who produce the exalted treasures we religiously term “the canon” of great works.

Daniel Asia’s review essay, “Tumbling Down,” is an in-depth discussion of Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow’s The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism. Robert Maranto makes his second appearance in this issue with a review of Sandra Stotsky’s An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, and Peter Wood offers another detailed Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.

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