This deliberately intemperate book is a useful reminder that liberal education always faces threats from one kind of intolerance or another. It is ultimately a footnote to Allan Bloom’s 1987 best seller, “The Closing of the American Mind,” to which Bawer pays homage in his subtitle. He’s right to lament the continued decline of the kind of education that Bloom defined as helping “students to pose the question . . . ‘What is man?’ in relation to his highest aspirations” by guiding them to and through “the alternative answers” to be found in great works of art and thought. But in updating that argument, Bawer overlooks the greatest threat to today’s universities. Today, corporate-minded university presidents spout platitudes about “outcome metric” and “game-changing” technologies, while faculty members struggle to piece together a living with multiple part-time jobs, and students search for marketable skills that, they hope, will help them pay off their education debt.
In his foreword to Bloom’s book, Saul Bellow described his friend and University of Chicago colleague as “a front-line fighter in the mental wars of our times.” Taking up arms on behalf of Bloom’s cause 25 years later, Bruce Bawer is fighting a rear-guard action against an enemy who has largely ceded the field to a new philistine army that has no interest in the culture wars. The humanities and “soft” social science departments that Bawer mocks are sinking into insignificance — partly, to be sure, because they have purveyed the kind of buffoonery he decries. Meanwhile, a more formidable enemy has arrived in the form of resolute utilitarians who discourage students from seeking what Bawer wants for them: the chance, through arduous reading and reflection under the guidance of dedicated teachers, to discover themselves.