Deneen on Bloom, Conservatism, and Multiculturalism

What does it mean for schools to embrace “multiculturalism?”

One of the sternest and most popular condemnations of the implications of multicultural ideology was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Political philosopher Patrick Deneen recently evaluated the book and its legacy.  Deneen concludes that the book could have done much more to condemn the pernicious influence of “multiculturalism.”

As Deneen notes, Bloom explicitly refused the label “conservative.”  Nevertheless, his book became a favorite of those culture-war activists who battled over the cultural content of higher education.  Should colleges teach Plato, Locke, and Shakespeare?  Or should they instead teach Fanon, Derrida, and Gloria Anzaldua?

Bloom plaintively argued that American higher education had abandoned its central mission.   In order for young people to doubt, Bloom argued, they must have some ground from which to question.  They must understand themselves as inheritors of a cultural tradition.  Higher education, Bloom argued, had willfully denied its central role as caretakers of students’ souls.  Instead of teaching young people to explore and question Truth, higher education shamefully evaded its responsibility and taught students instead that Truth was an illusion.

It is easy to see how this argument endeared Bloom to many conservative activists.  Yet Bloom himself did not argue for any specific tradition.  He was not a religious man himself, nor did his book insist that any religion embodied the truth.  Rather, he argued that students must be recognized as yearning souls, rather than transformed into indifferent spiritual husks.

Deneen’s critique raises many intriguing points and is worth reading in its entirety.  Deneen wishes Bloom might have pursued the analysis of multiculturalism to its logical conclusion.  As Deneen writes,

The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.

If Bloom could have seen the current state of American higher education, Deneen argues, Bloom would have seen that his 1987 book underestimated the scope of the problem.  In the late 1980s, Deneen believes, advocates of multiculturalism shared Bloom’s sense of the importance of curriculum.  These days, even that awkward defense of multiculturalism has been eclipsed by what Deneen calls “an age of indifference.”  The cultural left no longer insists on a left-leaning set of counter-readings.  Instead, Deneen points out,

not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.

Whatever Bloom’s personal views, the notion that schools at every level must teach a set of core values has been and remains central to conservative thinking about schooling and education.  The central issue remains the question of the function of schooling.  Conservatives embraced Bloom the skeptic because he made a powerful argument in favor of school as a transmitter of cultural values.  “Multiculturalism,” in contrast, became a label for a very different vision.  For multiculturalists, the purpose of school was to help students overcome their inherited cultural values, clearing the way for a logical, tolerant, reasonable set of beliefs.

Traditionalism and Education

This morning’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times is sure to provoke some head-scratching.

Brooks points out the conventional division of contemporary conservatism into two constituent entities. He calls them “economic conservatism” and “traditional conservatism.” Economic conservatives are the free-market champions. They are the sort who cheered when Reagan described the nine most terrifying words in the English language as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, value localism, organic social structures, and community. They derive their ideas from the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.

Those who follow the intellectual history of modern conservatism will scratch their heads that Brooks did not include other important types of conservatism, such as the Jerry-Falwell-style Moral Majoritarianism, the kind of conservatism that wants to regulate personal behavior and use government power to improve America’s morals. And where are the “tribal” conservatives, folks such as Rush Limbaugh who cling to “conservatism” largely as a form of in-group identity?

On the other side, people less familiar with the landscape of modern American conservatism might be surprised at Brooks’ evocation of an entirely different style of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with this traditionalist tradition might be shocked to hear of conservatives who oppose a pure laissez-faire approach to economics. Conservatives, as Brooks puts it, who want government to use a “subtle hand” to encourage family and neighborhood cohesion.

As Brooks notes, influential bloggers such as Rod Dreher at the American Conservative keep traditionalist conservatism alive and kicking. Brooks might also have included Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in this survey.

Those of us most interested in the relationship between conservatism and education can explore Deneen’s exposition of traditionalist hero Robert Nisbet.  In 1953, Nisbet had lamented the increasingly universalist nature of higher education.  Deneen argues that such trends have only accelerated.  As Deneen noted a few years back,

“The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of ‘creating knowledge’ and providing educations that allow our students to ‘succeed’ and to ‘solve problems.’ Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly ‘conservative’ administrations, one of which gave us ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Margaret Spellings).”

The traditionalist solution, Deneen argues, is to restore some measure of true diversity to university life in America.  Instead of a spread of cookie-cutter colleges arrayed to produce skilled mechanics of a corporate juggernaut, institutions of higher education could instead strive to emphasize the particularities of their own local communities.  Elsewhere, Deneen has suggested that this particularity must embody not only a constrained localism, but also a truer conception of universality. 

As David Brooks suggests, much of the subtlety of this sort of traditionalism has been read out of today’s conservative discussions of education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking about education, however, it is a useful reminder of the complexities of what Brooks calls “half of [the Republican Party’s] intellectual ammunition.”