Twenty years ago a dense meditation on the state of higher American education by a political philosopher at the University of Chicago rose to the top 10 of the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind discussed how liberal education, by pushing cultural relativism in American universities over the previous 25 years, undermined critical thinking. Bloom taught Plato, and he recalled for his readers Plato’s famous allegory of the cave and man’s escape from its darkness via philosophy.
Bloom wrote, “A culture is a cave. (Plato) did not suggest going around to other cultures as a solution to the limitations of the cave.” Instead, according to Bloom, Plato held “philosophy, not history or anthropology, is the most important human science” for assisting individuals to emerge eventually from the closedness of caves to the openness of republican democracy.
Cultural relativism is anthropology’s revenge on philosophy, and subversion of critical thinking or reasoning. The function of rational thought is to assist individuals learn how to discriminate between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness. But for such discrimination there needs to be standards – measurements and criteria – by which what is good, or true, or beautiful can be discerned, appreciated and separated from what is evil or false or ugly.
But cultural relativism insists standards are arbitrary construction of norms and values by those holding power or, in other words, predominantly white males.
Moreover, cultural relativists by conflating discrimination with bigotry put a chill on critical thinking and corrupted liberal education by subjecting it to political correctness.
For Bloom, the closing of the American mind meant dismantling of rational inquiry in higher learning. He observed, “As Hegel was said to have died in Germany in 1933, enlightenment in America came close to breathing its last during the ’60s.”
America in modern history is man’s greatest experiment in building a free republic protected by his devotion to rational thought. The founding fathers invested much of their thinking on how this could be done given the failings inherent in human nature. They found the answer in the ingenious device of checks and balances in government.
James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” He recommended good and free government required “that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”
Since the 1960s, however, the corrosive politics of cultural relativism and erosion of critical thinking have left the United States vulnerable to those who do not take kindly to freedom. In a republic about equally divided, nearly half of the citizens are unwilling to be sentinels while having no qualms in being predators raiding the public treasury.
A prudent American voter – irrespective of the failings of elected representatives – would not vote members of the same party, Democrat or Republican, to the White House and the Congress, and nullify the virtue of divided government.
The urgent question then hanging over the United States is if there are Americans sufficient in numbers to protect the republic from the peril of those with closed minds voting in the November 2008 election.