The present agitation around Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind, reminds me of the many similar debates I have witnessed in this country during the last four decades. At almost regular intervals the mediocrity of our system of education, from grade school to university, is demonstrated, denounced, deplored, and pilloried. Committees are set up which propose—the slogans hardly change—an “education for excellence,” by which the pronouncements mean more millions of dollars, higher salaries for teachers, new divisions of the school year, and new methods of “motivating” students. All this for the greater glory of the textbook and audio-visual industry, the real beneficiaries of the reforms. Then, as soon as formulated, these reforms abandon the path of a genuine improvement (which is never envisaged anyway) and generate new ills, suspiciously like the old. The dialectics of solid mediocrity and false cure reminds one of Tocqueville’s famous phrase, describing much of our public life and mood as an agitated monotony.
Prompted by these circumstances, I am tempted to remember my own years as a schoolboy and student, not to compare (that would be futile) but to offer other educational postulates, themselves the products of other cultures and other human relationships. I use the plural because I went to school in three different countries—Hungary, Rumania, and Belgium. Different countries, yet sharing the tacit assumption: education concerns the mind and the traditional areas of knowledge, refined and enriched by every generation. It has nothing to do with the “well-rounded personality,” “sociability,” and “getting along,” or with saving the world for this or that ism and Utopian dream. Conduct, manners, and morals were left to other institutions—family, church, the circle of friends, military service. And there was something else very important: our attitude vis-à-vis teachers and professors who, merely by having authority in the social structure and value system, an authority not exchangeable for the small coin of personal friendship, let alone a first-name based pal-approach, were corporately respected. They possessed the knowledge to which we aspired. Some of them were our intellectual heroes, the others simply our betters.
I am not arguing that the reality was as ideal as this picture, but I insist that the young need to be surrounded by strong images and influences; not Freudian “father figures” which imply weakness in the young, but sources of respect and admiration. Our American students’ basic and all-too-frequent mediocrity and lethargy can be explained as an outcome of hardly ever encountering personal or institutional strength. Hardly anybody displays excellence before them; all, from parent to dean to advisor, seek to flatter them, using the pseudo-pal system. Long before Bloom, Plato told the whole story.
The overall cultural message for us was excellence. I recently read a volume of Goethe’s various writings and jottings, and it struck me that the ever-recurrent phrase is: superior mind, views of a high order, spiritual heights. These for Goethe were nouns and adjectives not in need of definitions. Enough of this mentality survived to the 1930’s to remain the strongest current in the gymnasia and lycées that I attended for a total of eight years, in two countries. Let me not give the impression that we were intellectually standing at attention. True, in class we listened, hardly asked questions, and never discussed” (I still believe this to be best method), but we absorbed a great deal, then discussed—and/ours were free and passion-filled conversations—at home, in coffee houses and pubs, and in endless strolls when two, three, four young students opened their souls, dreams, and whatever intelligence they had. Think of conversations in Dostoevsky’s novels and you have it.
In class we learned, not in order just to acquire knowledge but to satisfy stern parental demands, avoid the prof’s sarcasms,’and to hold our own with competing fellow students. It occurred to nobody to mock the best brains in class or to complain about the dozen or so courses (no electives) in history, geography, Latin, foreign language, literature, math, physics, biology, to which later philosophy and elements of law were added. All this was as natural as the other demands of life. No committees to discuss the curriculum since the pattern of studies had gradually emerged from (and continued) the paideia, the humanitas, the trivium/quadrivium, down to the programs elaborated in Ministries of Instruction by German Wissenschaftler and French academiciens (for the gymnasium and the lycées, respectively). We knew ourselves to be part of Western culture, a term never used because it was taken for granted.
The youngster’s mind was not cluttered up, I think because he heard similar things repeated by all institutions and at home—on different levels, of course. We were strongly influenced by the family; there was no need for the schools to stand in loco parentis. This nonconfusion of institutional roles was essential in my youth, and it has remained crucial for the new generations, now that some countries of which I speak are enemy-occupied. The child knows that the school is distinct from the home and that it is now also occupied by the enemy. He trusts the family rather than the teachers, themselves captives. Imagine the havoc of schools in Communist regimes standing in loco parentis!
As I look back, my school years appear as imparting if not always excellence, at least a reassuring orientation toward it. In my particular case, I benefited enormously from the duality of early years: a Hungarian youngster schooled for years in Rumania, the main enemy. Concretely: learning in class the Rumanian version of the area’s history and, at home and from books, the Hungarian version. No divided mind, no schizophrenia resulted, only an early awareness of Pascal’s dictum: ” . . . truth this side of the Pyrenees [in my case, the Carpathians], a lie on the other side.” It may have led me to political relativism; it strengthened my absolutism in other respects. Anyway, the situation came to a head at the “little baccalaureate” (I was 14) when the Rumanian professor, notorious for detesting Hungarians, came to examine us in history—and asked me about Hungarian kings, battles, medieval lawmaking. A child’s instant dilemma: if I give the correct answers, he may flunk me for surreptitiously studying the subject; if I display ignorance, he will flunk me, period. I chose the first, he was delighted, and gave me the highest mark.
We lived history anyway, at every street corner, monument, and public park with its statues of great men. At six, we knew the Greek and Roman past from little vignettes which were to shape my imagination about Alcibiades or Caesar to this day. They were more legend than fact, but that is exactly what children need. Much later, my history professor at the University of Brussels went beyond my early impressions. “I should not teach you history [we were aged 20 to 25, the war years having delayed many young men and women], one does not grasp what it is before reaching 40.” Perhaps true, but those little vignettes, deliberately mixing gods and men, did prepare me for the harder stuff.
The university years in Belgium were among my best memories. The war had matured us, and personally, I came to my classes from prison. I had been jailed for illegal border-crossing (having escaped from Hungary without papers) and spent two months among a cross section of postwar Belgian society, 12 to a cell built for two. For me it was yet another history lesson, listening at night to stories told by cell mates: black marketeers, pimps, professors arrested for German sympathies, young chaps back from the Soviet front, sentenced to be hanged for fighting our “ally,” Moscow.
War, jail, refugee status—yet the cultural conditions I found at the university were the same as in high school days, 1,500 miles east, an agitated decade before. Learning now on a sophisticated level under world-famous professors was a young man’s fulfillment. Discussions, girls, drinking, exams, just as before in Hungary. And the severe selection process which, from one year to the next, eliminated a third of the class—until in the last year only seminar-size rooms remained for the handful of us. Exams? Twenty-one courses at the end of each year. The girls and the more nervous among us in tears before entering the examining professor’s room. Those who survived felt like kings (from July to October); the others had to spend the summer studying, all subjects again in case they had failed two. Those definitively leaving us became businessmen, minor officials, often journalists.
It was also my first encounter with academic Marxism. In prewar Central Europe, Communism and Marxism were, to say the least, not school subjects; government and church policy sheltered us from the growing threat in the East. In postwar Belgium I had the first openly Marxist professors, one of them a senator. He argued that there was a bourgeois and a Marxist science, opposed an invitation to speak to Etienne Gilson (he was overruled), approved the one to Marcel Prenant, the Marxist biologist from the Sorbonne. Sartre also came to lecture—not at the university but at some institute on the Avenue Louise—and we students stood among the thousand who wanted to hear the scandal-ridden author of Being and Nothingness and La Nausée. The lecture was pure jargon, but with the stamp of Paris (our cultural Mecca) on it; we were speechless with admiration.
In 1948 I gathered up courage and addressed a letter to General Eisenhower, the soon-to-be president of Columbia University. I asked for admission; there was not much future for a foreign-born in still war-torn and impoverished West Europe. I knew that one did not write letters to famous generals just like that, but I had nothing to lose. In a few weeks his aide-decamp answered: my application was approved. From then on I started scrutinizing catalogs, puzzled by American academic structure. I still am. In early 1949, in snow-covered New York, I entered Columbia campus. Two more semesters, I had my doctorate. I was told that my previous schooling had prepared me very well. I think the war, the jail, and the free intellectual climate also had a share in it. Columbia was child’s play in comparison.
Now back to Allan Bloom’s book. I find The Closing of the American Mind a catchy, presumptuous title, and the arguments unconvincing. The American educational mind does not suffer from constriction but from the desolateness of cultural landscape and the deficiency of human relations. Our democracy tolerates no institutions with a clear profile—as guides or indeed as barriers to leap over. Universities themselves fuse with politics, business, and government. As far as the human relations are concerned, they are ruled if not by the cash nexus, certainly by the business character of our entire public life. And of course by pervasive puritanism, which means living by formulas. In 37 years of teaching in America I have known enough students to conclude that what they lack is not the 100 volumes of the “great books” (itself a publicity slogan) or a choice between constructive Aristotle and nihilist Nietzsche. What they lack is a warm and gently cultured family life, friends to talk with arid to trust, teachers who probe soul, taste, and knowledge in an inseparable fusion.
In sum, I may be more pessimistic than Bloom, who, following our society’s fashion, offers “remedies,” which usually turn out to be parts of the problem. Like his peers over the past decades (Rudolf Flesch, Arthur Bestor, Jacques Barzun, et al.) he has launched a best-seller. In our society this means money and fame, but also neutralization through memberships on presidential committees dealing with the state of education. In other words, the closing of the mind. The students whom Bloom alerted will not be the better for it.
Leave a Reply