Commentary Magazine


“Western Civ”

To the Editor:

In his article, “Western Civ—and Me” [August 1990], Allan Bloom takes undisguised glee in sniping at various universities such as Harvard, Duke, and Stanford whose current curricula and general ideological direction he finds unacceptable. Some of his comments about Stanford, the university I know best, are simply one-liners tossed in as rhetorical excess, as in “Join Stanford and see the world,” a comment which is a complete non sequitur to his argument at that point about Japanese culture’s ethnocentrism, but others are more serious.

At the end of his article, for example, he goes so far as to claim that in changing its curriculum, “Stanford has replaced John Locke, the philosopher of liberalism [his emphasis], with Frantz Fanon, an ephemeral writer once promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre. . . .” This cleverly sets up Bloom’s ironic finale, comparing the devotion of the Chinese students of Tiananmen Square to Western ideals with the actions of the best U.S. universities in dismissing these ideals from the curriculum. The claim, however, is factually false.

The Western Culture program was inaugurated at Stanford in 1980. At first, it did not have a prescribed list of “core readings.” A year later, a list was adopted with both a “required” and a “recommended” section. The required list included fifteen books and authors such as the Bible, Plato, Homer, Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, Marx, and Freud. The recommended list included Locke, along with eighteen other authors. It is a list with which I think Mr. Bloom would generally feel quite at home. At no time during the following nine years was this list ever enforced on the eight different courses that satisfied the Western Culture requirement, but most of the courses tended to teach most of the books (but not all of them by any means) on the required list and some of the ones on the recommended list. Given the somewhat different disciplinary emphases of the courses (several emphasized literature, another science and technology), it is unlikely that Locke was taught in more than four of them in any given year.

So Locke was never “replaced” for the simple reason that he was never required in the first place. In fact, as Mr. Bloom can see for himself from the reading lists I sent him to examine, Locke is still read in four of the largest courses offered. It is safe to say that at least two-thirds of Stanford’s 1,600 innocent freshmen are exposed to his writings. Frantz Fanon, the “Great Satan” of those like Mr. Bloom who would like to protect our young from evil ideas, is only read in two of these courses, which, as it happens, have the two smallest enrollments. No more than 10 percent of the freshmen are exposed to his dangerous thoughts. Actually, Fanon was read in just as many courses as an optional reading before the recent change in the curriculum. In other words, in contrast to Mr. Bloom’s shrieks of alarm at the collapse of “Western Civ” at Stanford, not much has changed over the last decade. Of course, he may now prefer to believe that the rot set in much earlier than he had previously believed, or he may simply want to do his homework next time before pontificating about something he doesn’t know very much about.

In fact, this past year, all eight Western Culture courses at Stanford read the Bible, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Marx, and Freud. Seven of the eight read St. Augustine, Virginia Woolf, and Rousseau. Six read Descartes, Machiavelli, Aquinas, and Plato. This is hardly evidence of the decline of the West, is it? It is one of the occupational pleasures of university faculty to carp at one another’s reading lists, and I am sure that Mr. Bloom will readily find fault with the ones I sent him, but I hope he will pause, just for a moment, to consider how little has changed fundamentally despite all the heated political rhetoric that has surrounded the debate on the Western Culture requirements at Stanford.

In his zeal for scoring debating points, Mr. Bloom has succumbed to the temptation of the sophists he claims to despise to win a point with a clever jibe, and in the process he has, sadly, lost sight of his obligation to get his facts straight. Reality is always more complex than we would like it to be. Surely, this is one of the lessons that Mr. Bloom’s idol Socrates taught us. To paraphrase the last sentence of his article, a scholar of Plato owes us much better.

Jonathan P. Reider
Associate Director of Admissions
Stanford University
Stanford, California

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To the Editor:

I read with both interest and apprehension Allan Bloom’s “Western Civ—and Me.” If the best schools are as bad as he says they are, could Mr. Bloom draw up a list of schools where one can get a real education? I realize that such a list would only make him new enemies, but then he has so many enemies already that a few more wouldn’t hurt, and such a list would probably also make him a good many very grateful friends. If my own experience is in any way typical, I can’t tell you how many younger people there are out here who are getting a little worried about their chances of getting any kind of meaningful undergraduate education.

Mark Gray
Seattle, Washington

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To the Editor:

In “Western Civ—and Me” Allan Bloom responds to “the celebrated liberal,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who had contrasted Mr. Bloom’s “alleged absolutism” with the authentic relativism of the American tradition. Mr. Bloom is astonished and astounded (as am I) that Schlesinger had cited, in support of this opinion, the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . .” I understand Mr. Bloom to imply—what is certainly true—that the tradition of moral and political postulates embodied in the Declaration of Independence is a non-relativist—that is to say, absolutist—tradition. In his reply to Schlesinger, however, Mr. Bloom proceeds as follows:

I never stated, nor do I believe, that man is, or can be, in possession of absolutes. I tried to teach, evidently not very successfully in his case, that there are two threats to reason, the opinion that one knows the truth about the most important things and the opinion that there is no truth about them. [Emphasis added]

I find what Mr. Bloom says here to be puzzling, since he also writes—and this, it seems to me, lies at the very heart of his (and my) argument for Western civilization—that

Socrates’ way of life is the consequence of his recognition that we can know what it is that we do not know about the most important things and that we are by nature obliged to seek that knowledge. We must remain faithful to the bit of light which pierces through our circumambient darkness.

If we have the authority of Socrates that we can know what we need to know “about the most important things,” then why cannot the truths of the Declaration of Independence be among them? Why may not these truths be among the fruits, after more than 2,000 years, of that Socratic quest? Why may we not believe this to be “the bit of light that pierces . . . our circumambient darkness”?

Harry V. Jaffa
Claremont, California

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To the Editor:

Nietzsche challenges us to suppose that truth were unbearable, and to possess it were a curse, robbing us of all appetite for life. . . . Then what? Would we choose illusion? . . . Why do some men push on, seeking truth? Nietzsche’s answer is “the will to power,” the need to test one’s strength, to overcome oneself, to perform feats of valor. That is what Nietzsche primarily means in the dictum quoted by Allan Bloom: “Philosphy is the most spiritualized will to power.”

Mr. Bloom does Nietzsche a deep wrong by the misleading way in which he uses the quotation. But more than this; by failing to understand the issue Nietzsche raised, he persists in a somewhat sentimental view of liberal education. He says, in effect, come, bright young men and women, become liberally educated, it will do you good, and finally, it will do the world good, too. That is a happy thought, and perhaps it is true. But perhaps not—perhaps liberal education, if sincerely pursued, is altogether more dangerous and troubling.

On the other hand, suppose we are determined that liberal education shall do good. Then are we not in danger of manufacturing untruths, half-truths, beliefs plausible or implausible, and calling them truth? Further, Nietzsche sometimes asks, is it not perhaps fair that philosophy shall serve life? But if so, let us make the activity explicit, and judge philosophies according to whether they are more or less life-enhancing. Even then, some of our “truths” will need to be bracing, for life requires strength to flourish. . . .

Interestingly, Mr. Bloom’s position is akin to Nietzsche’s, so far as I can tell, with two exceptions: (1) He never truly entertains the possibility that truth and life may be at odds; and (2) he wishes to deny that the predetermination that elite education shall “best nourish the hunger of young souls” subordinates truth to utility, and the sincere quest for truth to an approximation aimed at edification. Yet the pretense to the disinterested pursuit of truth undermines the very argument for elite education. No one really believes that liberal education, particularly as represented in the humanities, is disinterested, not even Mr. Bloom. But since his whole case is based on the opposition between the quest for truth and ideological motivation, it is bound to fail. The game is given away when he raises the question of Heidegger’s Nazism, as if it were appropriate to judge the truth of ideas by their possible consequences, or when he says, “the people of the world need and want education in democracy,” thus prejudicing the result of inquiry.

The argument for elite education runs along these lines: that those of greater intelligence and spiritedness will have contempt for obvious twaddle, and will seek to engage issues of consequence more decisively. They will be contemptuous of teachers who do not serve them in this search, and respectful, even grateful, to those such as Mr. Bloom who do. And though their search may only terminate in superior forms of belief, and though their beliefs may differ, they will have justified the elaborate apparatus of liberal education in a way that other students cannot, to whom philosophy and literature and art mean very little, and for whom it is useless to provide the pretense of inquiry if simple indoctrination is intended. Many who oppose Mr. Bloom intend to leech out whatever meaning there is in the enterprise of liberal education, and if they had greater integrity would get out and leave it to those of us to whom it matters.

But we must not use the issue of the integrity of the curriculum as a stalking horse for philosophical positions upon which there is no wide agreement. We must define the issue more narrowly. If liberal education means anything, then, as Mr. Bloom says, “the true canon aggregates around the most urgent questions we face. That is the only ground for the study of books.” Perhaps “the only ground” is overstated, but still, it is the strongest ground for a form of education founded upon discussion, argument, reflection, research—in general, inquiry.

Michael David Blume
Annapolis, Maryland

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To the Editor:

I give generally heartfelt assent to what Allan Bloom says in “Western Civ—and Me.” . . . In my own little corner of the academic world, too, I see the politicization of core revision and the corruption of affirmative action. They are indeed connected with the absurd egalitarianism and the naive or doctrinaire relativism that Mr. Bloom diagnoses so well. However, I have a few quibbles about the risks of using certain words as fighting slogans.

The term “relativism” admits of degrees and equivocations. There is a relativism (as Socrates saw) in the play of young minds, in the ability to debate either side of an issue, in the appreciation and enjoyment of arguments that are not one’s own.

A more mature and “undoctrinaire” relativism conjoins seriousness to playfulness. Such a relativism moves in on itself, perceives ironies, and gains a tragic awareness that logic cannot avoid or resolve life’s paradoxes. It transforms into something unlike itself. “Relativism,” in brief, is no longer a viable fighting term, and there is not much point in arguing with Arthur Schlesinger or anyone else about it. . . .

I dislike, as much as Mr. Bloom does, the Nazism of Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. . . . However, they are now dead, not clear and present dangers. . . . Their words overall, earlier and later, ought not to be dismissed out of hand because of some of the politically dreadful linkages.

There may be, as Mr. Bloom says, “the possible relation of Heidegger’s or de Man’s thought to the foulest political extremism.” But connections with the politically nefarious can be found in many worthy thinkers, including Hobbes, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Santayana, and even Plato. Explore the connections, raise suspicions, but let us not use simple litmus tests to launch people into or out of our canons. . . .

Mr. Bloom writes that “[E]verywhere in the Communist world what is wanted is rational liberal democracy.” Does he mean desired or needed? What is desired, alas, is also illiberal, irrational, passionate religious autocracy—which sentiments can generously be attributed, with great egalitarianism, to both Western and non-Western sources, perhaps even to the human condition. The study of such irrationality should be made part of every coherent and rational core. . . .

Mr. Bloom seems unequivocally enthusiastic about science, “that big rock of transcendental knowledge or truth.” He begins his article with a discussion of irony, and I would like to attribute irony to him here. For philosophy, which has been capable both of allying with science and challenging it, has shown that the big rock is more like a rolling stone, gathering accretions and modifications, serving some human powers and purposes but not others. Science, alas, is not an anchor that can keep us from going adrift. The nearest thing to such a rock and anchor, of course, is philosophy. But even philosophy is in need of ongoing shoving and lifting, fated, it seems, to be mired and unmired in ever new forms of “historicism,” “relativism,” and “egalitarianism.”

Morris Grossman
Fairfield University
Fairfield, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

Allan Bloom ignores the whole question of why the multiculturalists have been so successful in intruding their world view and propaganda into the elite university curriculum. A major reason is that Western historiography . . . has traditionally lied by portraying the development of modern Western civilization as a natural continuation of Greco-Roman (and maybe ancient Hebrew) society. This patently incorrect view may simply be an attempt to simplify a vastly complex subject, but the intellectual degradation caused by a little lie prepares the intellectual environment for the corruption of the big lie of the multiculturalists. . . .

The view of continuity enthusiasts has probably led to a profound misunderstanding of how premodern societies develop and is grossly insulting to those of us of non-Western background in that it suggests that the success of the West was programmed into it from the earliest period and that the West, therefore, had something which other civilizations lacked. Actually, the pre-modern West has far more in common with pre-modern China and Japan than it does with the modern West. For example, Roman emperors were often accorded divine status just like Chinese and Japanese emperors. . . .

Most educated people probably have a conscious, or nearly conscious, sense of the lateral similarity of all pre-modern societies, including those of the classical West. This shared sense of similarity makes it easy for the multiculturalists to market their cultural relativism, since they argue that there is no value system which distinguishes one society from another. But then traditional Western historiography clinches the multiculturalist argument by insisting on the continuity of Western culture from the ancient to the modern West. At this point, Mr. Bloom and his allies might as well capitulate because this traditional historiography, at least as taught in the secondary schools and universities, has provided the multiculturalists with all the evidence they need to claim that there is no reason except perhaps Eurocentric chauvinism to emphasize modern Western culture over any other culture.

As an antidote to this rather disastrous situation, I would propose that elite education recognize and teach the lateral similarity of premodern civilizations, all of which divided the world into self and barbarian. . . . The main foundation upon which modern civilization is built was laid in the 17th and 18th centuries. . . . A properly designed curriculum would emphasize the achievement of our immediate intellectual forebears of the Enlightenment and guarantee that a well-educated college student would immediately identify the hypocrisy of Islamic, African, and Asian demagogues who complain of Western imperialism. Such a student would be knowledgeable enough to compare the history of modern Western involvement in the pre-modern world with the horrible atrocities which pre-modern Western and non-Western adventurers and imperialists committed in the premodern world. In effect, a good elite curriculum cleansed of the traditional lie of Western cultural continuity would neutralize the multiculturalists by providing a genuine and sophisticated multicultural education.

Joachim Martillo
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I enjoyed and agreed with much that Allan Bloom says about teaching Western culture, but I continue to wish for someone of greater knowledge and importance than myself to rediscover what I consider the greatest achievement of Western culture, . . . namely, the great founding ideas of the American colonists. I know that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are on the Great Books lists and in many a college syllabus but everyone seems to assume prior knowledge, and passes quickly over them. Yet these documents—with their provision for the separation of powers, for an independent judiciary, and for the doctrine that the rights of every individual are more important than the rights of the government—represent the second great ethical and political revolution of Western civilization (Moses came first).

Gerson Jacobs
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

. . . The role of the university in our educational system has undergone many changes. In the late 50’s, with the advent of Sputnik, universities were sold to the public as a major pillar of national security. Later, the university came to be defined as the place where a lifetime income could be made to increase by several hundred thousand dollars. Finally, during the Vietnam era, our universities and churches became the last refuge of the draft dodger, finally serving a clientele desirous of the longest possible term of idleness. It was at that point that American universities began to share the political role of universities in Europe and Latin America, as places for the cultivation of knowledge by people unrestrained by the possibility of having to live with the consequences of that knowledge.

The result of this confusion between the philosophical and the vocational role of the university has been the emergence of a “lumpen intelligentsia,” unholy in every sense of the word. . . . Up until now, our educational system, in its inimitably American way, had attempted to find a party favor for everyone: you are not smart enough to get a Ph.D. in physics or mathematics? Never mind, you can get a Ph.D. in journalism or education or basket weaving. You can’t read books? No matter, we’ll show it to you on videotape. You don’t understand Nietzsche? No matter, you can buy Superman comic books. In the hands of the Left, however, a doctorate has now come to be another entitlement, a part of the birthright of every American, another civil right which it would be unconscionable to deny on such flimsy grounds as lack of ability or unwillingness to do the work.

Thus, while I admire Mr. Bloom and his writing immensely and agree with the need for internalizing the books that are our heritage, I do so as a fellow elitist who is not convinced that this knowledge is needed by all. . . . It is certainly necessary to provide everyone with a skill, but I greatly question whether it is necessary to provide everyone with the illusion that he has been educated. . . . Perhaps there was, after all, some wisdom in Chairman Mao’s insistence on sending intellectuals to the farm. For all the repugnant brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the thought of bringing Duke University intellectuals and their colleagues into such intimate contact with reality does have a certain appeal. . . .

Walter Schimmerling
Arlington, Virginia

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To the Editor:

I would like to thank you for publishing Allan Bloom’s incisive article, “Western Civ—and Me.” It seems rather odd that Marxism as an ideology should continue to dominate the humanities departments of our major colleges and universities at a time when the peoples of Europe, the USSR, and China are rejecting it. I find the left-wing attack upon our treasured intellectual heritage appalling. . . .

When the Chinese students needed a symbol for their cause, they turned not toward the Third World but to us, and found their symbol in the Statue of Liberty; does the West, then, have nothing to offer them intellectually but Marxist revisionism?. . . .

Students need intellectual discipline and an understanding of our heritage. To reject that heritage in the name of a discredited leftist agenda is an absurdity. Instead of logic, science, and art, will we go on offering our students the typical multicultural, environmentalist, feminist, liberal slogans that already inundate them through the media? Many young people are barely literate; are they to be further discouraged from the pursuit of knowledge by the professors and administrators who are busily at work deconstructing our Western Civ classes? Will we advise our students to look for their ideals in the Third World, where terrorism, dictatorship, and tribalism currently thrive? Will we replace Plato’s Republic with Malcolm X’s Autobiography in our political-science classes? I hope not. We need more thinkers like Allan Bloom to lead us out of this “postmodern” crisis. Otherwise Marx may have the last laugh after all.

Paul Silverman
Spring Valley, New York

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Allan Bloom writes:

Jonathan P. Reider is one of the many voices of Stanford. To understand that voice we must look to its source and the audience it is attempting to influence. He speaks for the admissions office. If rumor be truth, there has been a substantial decrease in applications for admission since the scandal over the curriculum reform three years ago. Mark Gray’s letter is typical of the concern of many potential applicants.

To such potential applicants Mr. Reider says, What changes? Nothing happened here. We just did the most banal scholarly fine-tuning of our text selection. This claim is too disingenuous even to merit discussion. The substance and the tenor of the Stanford debate are too well known and too well documented to permit such evasion. Everyone knows that the white, Western male hegemony in the curriculum was overthrown there. This famous victory was celebrated by Stanford functionaries. We all heard them, and we are all aware of Stanford’s reforming mission.

I learned of Locke’s being deposed from a letter to the Wall Street Journal (January 6, 1989), from Charles Junkerman, then Stanford’s assistant dean of undergraduate studies:

. . . 50 years ago John Locke seemed indispensable in answering a question like “What is social justice?” In 1989, with a more interdependent world order, a more heterogeneous domestic population, and mass media and communications systems that complicate our definitions of “society” and “individual,” it may be that someone like Frantz Fanon, a black Algerian psychoanalyst, will get us closer to the answer we need.

The core list of classic readings, in which Locke was “strongly recommended” to all parts of the liberal-arts program, disappeared. He is present in some of the lists for particular parts of the new CIV (Cultures, Ideas, Values) program, but as one among countless books, too many for students to read with any care. These lists are interesting documents, packed with books from here, there, and everywhere, from which all presumptions of the greatness of the works have disappeared. They are not invitations to the quest for truth. Rather, they present vile bodies for the race, class, and gender analysis mandated in the CIV legislation. It must be borne in mind that the character of a program is determined not only by what books are on its lists but by how they are treated.

Mr. Reider provides a fair sample of Stanford rhetoric. He says that I think Fanon is a “Great Satan,” that I wish to “protect the young from evil ideas,” etc. He thus associates me with Khomeini-like (non-Western?) conspiracies to inhibit free speech. But I said no such thing. I used the word “ephemeral,” which means a thing of a day, passing. I have no more objection to students reading Fanon than I do to their reading Time or Playboy. I do object to their confusing these things with serious thought, and this is what the Stanford program is systematically promoting. Fanon is not a theoretically dangerous writer but a conventional one. If students want to learn what a truly radical thinker is, they must study Locke and his peers.

Finally, I wonder whether Mr. Reider knows what a non sequitur is.

Michael David Blume faces the abyss smugly. He is right that philosophy should not be edifying. But it is utterly un-Nietzschean of him to wish for silence about the extreme consequences of some kinds of thought. Nietzsche constantly tests his readers’ resoluteness with calls for slavery, whips to deal with women, the joy of the knife, and unjust wars. Most readers don’t have the stomach for it. Mr. Blume’s liberal education is too unpolitical to prepare students to confront the human condition. Inquire indeed, but know the risks of inquiry! Ignorance of this is what I reproach contemporary Nietzscheans for.

Harry V. Jaffa remains within the confines of the relativism-absolutism dichotomy which makes it impossible to philosophize.

Mark Gray’s is my favorite letter for its candor and simplicity. He is right that a few enemies more or less won’t do me any harm, and I would be glad to win his friendship. Unfortunately, I cannot provide him with a list of the colleges and universities which care for students’ souls because I don’t have one myself.

I can mention two examples, which, among others, seem to me relatively good. Carleton College is a traditional liberal-arts school which has produced a disproportionate number of my best graduate students. This appears to be due to the fact that it has maintained genuine diversity, i.e., diversity of opinion. Its students are frequently free of the ideological certitudes of the day and know there are various serious responses to our great problems. Carleton is equidistant from the great centers of enthusiasm on the East and West Coasts.

The other is St. John’s College which plods along, without apologies, in its Great Books program even now when we think we know that they are the source of unjust domination. This means that its students have a naive acquaintance with such books and can, at least potentially, address the problems of their own lives through them.

To Mark Gray I would say, you must not despair. It is true that almost no institutions are dedicated to preparing students to address the permanent alternatives and that a very great number are dedicated to a reforming mission which celebrates its own superiority to all earlier views. But usually there are a few serious professors who are not caught up in the tide. With their teaching and the association with a few like-minded friends, you can weather it. A good education is today more a question of chance than it was in the past when there was more agreement about our heritage and institutions. There are, however, still bargains to be found in what has become the university bazaar. I would suggest that you and your friends be especially wary of those institutions which trumpet their consciousness-transforming vocation. Stay with those places that might still limit themselves to providing the materials for self-discovery.

I am grateful for the other letters, but they raise issues that cannot properly be addressed within the confines of a response such as this. Together they represent the kind of discussion I would hope to provoke.

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