Engaging the issue of higher education's role in a democracy is a Gordian Knot that many insightful thinkers and profound authors have attempted to untangle. The purpose of this essay is to explicate the distinct metaphysical postulates underlying the thinking of two influential philosophers: Allan David Bloom (1930-1992) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Of course, these two men were quite clear as to the ontological postulates underlying their arguments. It is due to that clarity that examination of their respective metaphysics contributes to our own contemporary understanding as we carry on the discussion.
One would be hard pressed to find a thinker more influential in the twentieth century than John Dewey. This is true across the wide spectrum of schools of thought and fields of inquiry, not the least of which are the philosophy of education and the theory of democracy. His work remains actively studied and productively applied to this day. Allan Bloom's influence as a teacher of classical literature and political theory was sustained over many years, but his impact as an author was enhanced by his bestselling book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. Perhaps the most often purchased and least read book of the decade, it became a symbol in the curriculum wars of the period. Its popularity was in some ways unfortunate, for like most symbols, the depth of its insight was too often lost in the heat of debate. The more difficult chapters of the book are well worth careful review.
Faith in one's democratic fellow has always been and yet remains the core matter of contention; one need not venture far into the folly of human foible and frailty to question the prudence of self-government. Certainly, from the beginning of the American Experiment, education has been promoted as the best response to such misgivings. It is impossible to converse about democratic character, citizenship, or leadership without the subject of education emerging, the two are so entwined. Oftentimes, an impasse seems to be encountered and one feels compelled to choose from two less than satisfactory alternatives. It is at such moments that our unexamined assumptions are ripe for examination. This essay attempts to explicate some of those underlying assumptions about how the world "is"; that is to say, our ontology.
Allan Bloom (1987) is insightful when he points out that the fundamental crisis facing us today is the "incoherence and incompatibility among the first principles with which we interpret the world" (p. 346). However, his solution to this predicament falls woefully short; indeed, it may serve to make matters worse. The philosophy of John Dewey provides a fruitful perspective from which to examine the shortcomings of Bloom's thinking. Dewey also supplies an alternative to what Bloom views as the underlying impasse.
The essay below is divided into three sections. The first will summarize Allan Bloom's position as it is found in his influential book, The Closing of the American Mind. The paraphrase found here will be tightly focused upon those postulates underlying a more extensive argument. The second section will offer a critical examination of these underpinnings found in Bloom's analysis of the crisis in American higher education from the perspective of John Dewey's thought. The final section will furnish a brief account of Dewey's alternative ontology as it relates to the fundamental dualism underpinning Bloom's critique of American higher education. If the reader returns to Dewey's original text, the author will be delighted indeed.
I. Openness and the Demise of the American College Student
Allan Bloom addresses "the state of our souls" in a report from "the front." The front of which he speaks is the current scene of higher education as he found it in the best universities. The students he encountered there are united in their claim that truth is relative. The belief that truth is relative is necessary to the virtue which they hold most dear: openness. …