The Closing of the American Heart

Don Closson

A few years ago an influential book titled The Closing of the American Mind was written by Dr. Allan Bloom, a professor on the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Since then, the book has served as a catalyst for debate on educational problems in our nation. Hundreds of articles and books have since been written that seek either to affirm or deny the validity of Bloom's reasoning.

One book written in response was The Closing of the American Heart by Dr. Ronald H. Nash, then chairman of the department of history and philosophy at the University of Kentucky. Both books are important for Christians or anyone interested in education. They attempt to uncover the root causes of the chaos and lack of overall effectiveness in public education.

First let's review what Dr. Bloom and Dr. Nash agree on concerning the condition of education in America.

If one concept runs throughout both books, it is that ideas have consequences. Bloom states that "a serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear." This statement relates directly to the educational enterprise. Someone must decide what it means to be an educated person and consequently what students should know and believe when they are graduated from our schools.

Nash argues that this decision--what it means to be educated-- will be based on the educator's world view. Education can never be neutral because no individual is religiously neutral. He goes one step further by asserting that all public policy is shaped by the ultimate concerns of those holding power in our culture. In other words, world views shape institutions and policies, which directly affect how children are educated.

This concept of world view is central to the current firestorm surrounding education because it forms the basis for one's idea of a good life. To paraphrase Aristotle's Politics,

It is impossible to talk about education apart from some conception of the good life; people will inevitably differ in their conception of the good life, and hence they will inevitably disagree on matters of education.

What frightens Bloom and Nash is that there seems to be little disagreement among those who exercise the most power over our schools. Instead of a free marketplace of ideas,a monopoly of thought has systematically filtered out any alternatives. Schools of education, teacher's unions, administrator's organizations, and textbooks have methodically divested themselves of viewpoints that hold to supernatural explanations or that uphold the necessity of moral absolutes. In many cases educational leaders fail to admit that a problem exists. They see themselves as neutral players in the cultural war raging in our society between groups holding different world views.

As R. C. Sproul explains in the forward to Nash's book, modern education has abandoned truth and replaced it with rhetoric. Educators have become modern-day Sophists. Speaking the truth is less important than convincing others that something is true, whether or not it actually is. As in ancient Greece, preference replaces laws, personal gratification replaces virtue, and truth is slain in the streets.

Moral Relativism

Bloom opens his book with the statement,

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

This now-famous (or infamous) description of American students rests on his observation that a single way of thinking has come to dominate our campuses. Relativism, the view that truth and absolute values--other than tolerance and openness--do not exist, is the governing mechanism by which people solve moral dilemmas in our institutions of higher learning.

Bloom goes on to argue that this assurance that truth does not exist has left our students with little desire to seek knowledge. The search for truth has been replaced by an "unsubstantial awareness that there are many cultures." Since cultures have different values, truth must not therefore exist. From this they derive the maxim that we should just get along with one another, and that no values are superior to others and worth defending. Students are left with a gentle egotism, a desire for comfort.

Bloom feels that the shallowness of our students' position has been caused by the reluctance of those in charge of their education to furnish their minds with something more substantial than MTV and the most recent slasher movie. Without the aid of substantial books, without heroes, students lack the resources to fight conformity in a world that denies any basis for virtue.

Three Forms of Illiteracy

Nash agrees with the dismal picture drawn by Bloom, but he adds another dimension to it. His book focuses on three areas of illiteracy in our country and among our students. The first is most commonly known as functional illiteracy, the inability to understand the written word well enough to function within our society. Nash gives us evidence of a major problem: 13 percent of all 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate, as are 24 million of the general population. After noting that in 1910 only 2.2 percent of American children between ten and fourteen could neither read nor write, he quotes Karl Shapiro at the University of California, Davis, who states,

What is really distressing is that this generation cannot and does not read. I am speaking of university students in what are supposed to be our best universities. Their illiteracy is staggering.... We are experiencing a literacy breakdown which is unlike anything I know of in the history of letters.

Next is the problem of cultural illiteracy. This term describes students who can read but are unable to thrive in the modern world because they lack the information necessary to interpret the material they read. Dr. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is the most prominent thinker associated with this concept of cultural illiteracy. Both he and Nash charge that modern educational theory deserves much of the blame for causing cultural illiteracy. Hirsch argues that educators often believe that "a child's intellectual and social skills will develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education." Educators are more interested in how children learn rather than what they learn. Because of this belief, children fail to store away enough information to become culturally literate.

Educators will grudgingly admit to the problem of functional and cultural literacy, and even assume some of the blame, but they are proud of the decline in what Nash calls moral illiteracy.

Nash sees the problem of moral illiteracy as a cultural war between those who are religious and support traditional values and those who are secular and advocate anti-traditional or modernist values. Those in the midst of the battle understand this conflict, while the typical American does not.

The problem of moral illiteracy is not evident only to evangelical Christians. Jewish scholar Will Herberg writes,

We are surrounded on all sides by the wreckage of our great intellectual tradition. In this kind of spiritual chaos, neither freedom nor order is possible. Instead of freedom, we have the all- engulfing whirl of pleasure and power; instead of order, we have the jungle wilderness of normlessness and self-indulgence.

Boston University president John Silber states,

In generations past, parents were more diligent in passing on their principles and values to their children, and were assisted by churches and schools which emphasized religious and moral education. In recent years, in contrast, our society has become increasingly secular and the curriculum of the public schools has been denuded of almost all ethical content. As a result universities must confront a student body ignorant of the evidence and arguments that underlie and support many of our traditional moral principles and practices.

Although the elimination of values from education may be explained by numerous factors, many educators see this removal of values as part of their job.

Self-Actualized Children

Non-directive, affective education, which makes use of values-clarification and moral reasoning skills, is often blamed for breaking down the transmission of values from parents to their children. Psychologist Carl Rogers and others taught that to become self-actualized individuals, children must reject the absolute values they have been taught at home or church. Students are supposed to seek values within themselves. Educators are to be facilitators--helping students to discover their values--not teachers of values. The main vehicle for this process is the use of moral dilemmas. Students are presented with difficult situations that adults rarely confront and, as a result, are slowly convinced that there are no right answers to moral questions.

The movement that began as encounter groups, Gestalt Therapy and other self-help techniques in the '60s has become part of the public school curriculum. This model of teacher as therapist has gone a long way towards replacing the concept of teacher as scholar and has been implemented to combat social ills from teen pregnancy to drug use. But even one of its early adherents, Dr. W. M. Coulson, a colleague of influential people like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, has come out voicing the danger of using these techniques on school children and of having unqualified teachers become therapists.

When educators do talk about the need for values to be communicated in our schools, they argue that any concept of absolute values must be combatted. This leaves us without a consensus of what to teach, and without any criteria for positing values that have real meaning. In this environment, students naturally perceive that they have no responsibility to a moral order.

Three Philosophies

Three distinct philosophical movements have had a negative impact on public education in America. If we are to be successful in mitigating their influence we must first become aware of their nature and impact.

The first of these philosophies is relativism, which supports the conviction that there is no such thing as truth. A second view is positivism, an arrogant, quasi-religious devotion to the scientific method. A positivist argues that any belief that cannot be tested by science is irrational. But as Louise Young has written,

Science is one way of getting at the truth--some people believe, the only way--but the truth which it reveals is of a tentative nature. It does not provide ultimate or absolute truth such as that claimed by religious revelations or philosophical systems.

This faith in science itself must be defended on a metaphysical basis. J. P. Moreland has written,

The aims, methodologies, and presuppositions of science cannot be validated by science. One cannot turn to science to justify science any more than one can pull oneself up by his own bootstraps.

Richard John Neuhaus has labeled the third movement the bootleg religion of American education, a mixture of secularism, naturalism, and humanism. The assumptions of this faith include (1) the absence of a transcendent God, (2) the non-existence of anything outside of the physical universe, and (3) the acceptance of the self-actualization of each human being-- complete autonomy--as the purpose of life.

As a result, some educators consider their students maladjusted or even mentally ill if they hold a view that conflicts with these principles. Because the courts have systematically filtered out Christian thought via their interpretation of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, these views tend to fill the void.

Bloom's Solution

As we have noted, Bloom sees relativism as a powerful enemy of our students' minds, and a force undermining our educational system. His antidote lies in one major recommendation. Bloom argues that

the only serious solution is the one that is almost universally rejected: the good old Great Books approach, in which a liberal education means reading certain generally recognized classic texts, just reading them, letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of approaching them--not forcing them into categories we make up, not treating them as historical products, but trying to read them as their authors wished them to be read.

Even when these books are read today they are often viewed through radical lenses such as feminism or Marxism. At best, anything written prior to the modern scientific age is suspect.

Nash agrees that the Great Books are valuable and contribute to a complete education, but he believes that the array of ideas contained in them will baffle students unless they have an over-arching philosophy to guide them through the maze. Although Bloom acknowledges the necessity for individuals and schools to make the hard choices about the big questions in life, he himself fails to do this in regards to a curriculum. Should teachers treat all of the Great Books equally? Since the authors disagree intensely on basic issues regarding the nature of reality and humanity, are we not promoting a new relativism in place of the old? For instance, do we accept Augustine's Confessions and his views on the sinfulness of mankind, or Rousseau's Confessions, which posits a naturally good human nature?

Nash contends that one condition of being an educated person is that he or she have a single, unified world and life view, something not found in the Great Books. As Christian philosopher Gordon Clark once put it,

If someone wishes to unify education, it is not enough to say that a philosophical base is necessary. To accomplish such a result, it is essential to provide the philosophy.

From a Christian point of view, only Christian theism can accomplish the task adequately.

Human beings are never neutral concerning the nature of God, and what people believe to be true will ultimately affect their view of education. Although Bloom talks about how modern education has impoverished the souls of today's students, he leaves us without any indication of how those souls should be fed or what connection should be made between knowledge and virtue.

Socrates and Plato warned against the inadequacies of an education that only taught people how to select the best means to achieve their ends or goals. It was far more important, they thought, that humans recognize the importance of selecting the right ends. But the subject of right, good, or noble ends is precisely what contemporary education seeks to avoid.

In Nash's words,

While the Bible does not teach physics or astronomy, it does provide a structure for human thought, a perspective on reality. The biblical perspective can, among other things, inform us of the limitations and proper aims of theoretical inquiry. It tells us that the pursuit of knowledge, while important, is not the sum total of human life. It also provides a basis on which we may evaluate non-Christian presuppositions and conceptual schemes.

Nash's Recommendations

Nash makes some general recommendations to parents who are concerned about their children's education. The first is to revitalize the educational role of the family. As J. Gresham Machen once wrote,

The most important Christian education institution is not the pulpit or the is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work.

Parents need to be actively involved in seeing that their children mature theologically and intellectually. Theologically, children need to know what they believe in. Our children need to learn to love God with all of their minds, as Matthew 22:37 calls all Christians to do. In order to love God with our minds we must know something about Him.

Intellectually, we must avoid the common practice of compartmentalizing knowledge into sacred and secular components. This division is unbiblical and leads to the dangerous notion that secular knowledge is somehow unfit for the spiritual Christian.

Families need to work together to develop a Christian mind in their young, one that can apply Christian truth to all areas of life.

Nash also calls for greater local control of schools as a way for Christians to fight the hostile attitudes that prevail against biblical thought on campus. Increasing parental choice takes this concept one step further. This growing movement would allow parents to place their children in any school, public or private, with no increased financial burden. Although questions exist about the viability of this concept, many are attracted to its potential.

The bottom line is that parents cannot assume that the education they received in the '50s or '60s is still being delivered in the schools today. Dr. Nash and Dr. Bloom both see serious problems with the current educational techniques and dogmas and urge parents to get involved.

© 1993 Probe Ministries International