The university is supposed to be the place where excited young minds come to be initiated into the mysteries of the cosmos. And it wasn't long ago that such adventures were both available and pursued. Liberal education encouraged students to ask for themselves the question "what is man?" and to wrestle with alternative answers. The university provided a haven where the easy and preferred answers of the culture could be safely set aside, at least for a time, while the great minds of history past were consulted, argued with, and learned from.
But in Bloom's thirty years as a university professor he has witnessed a change, both in the mood and expectation of the students, and in the university's sense of identity, which has fragmented into a smorgasbord of unrelated pursuits. Confusion over the nature of knowledge confounds both. The spirit of the age, relativism, the truth that there is no objective truth, has settled like a smog over the campuses. Students no longer expect to find truth and meaning "out there", but only within. So the appeal of liberal arts to students is vastly diminished if it is denied that these studies can point to any reality beyond themselves.
Bloom notes that "the university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. There is no vision...of what an educated human being is. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him, that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn." The "undecided student is an embarrassment to most universities, because he seems to be saying, 'I am a whole human being. Help me to form myself in my wholeness and let me develop my real potential,' and he is the one to whom they have nothing to say" (p.339).
America was founded on the Enlightenment tradition of men like Locke where reason was central; equality and human rights were rationally derived, universal principles, and democracy could flourish. A competing political philosophy with its origins in Rousseau but more radically developed by Nietzsche is where Bloom sees the beginning of today's predicament. It was with Nietzsche that American intellectuals in the forties became enamoured. Nietzsche denied, however, the rationally accessible human rights and equality that was central to American ideals. Rather it was in localized "culture" that man finds his wholeness and identity. In fact this meant that there was no such thing as "man" in the singular; there are as many kinds of "man" as there are cultures. The objective tool of reason is replaced by the subjective one of "commitment" and acts of the will.
American intellectuals did not seem to see the darker side of Nietzsche. He himself recognized that his cultural relativism meant "war and great cruelty rather than great compassion" (p.202). "Whether this value relativism is harmonious with democracy was a question that was dealt with by never being raised" (p.152). In fact, there can't be a respect for both human rights and culture "because a culture itself generates its own way of life and principles...with no authority above it" (p.192). Bloom warns that we need to "credit the possibility that the overpowering visions of German philosophers are preparing the tyranny of the future" (p.240).
Since the sixties, the vocabulary of Nietzschean ideas has been adopted at a superficial level by Americans such that they are no more than slogans (eg. words like "values" and "creativity"). Students do not and are not required to think them through. It's not even the embrace of relativism that Bloom finds to be the biggest problem, but the unthinking dogmatism with which it is held. This results, then, in the closing of the American mind when young people believe that there are no thoughts worth considering that they do not already know, no visions of the human experience worth exploring that they do not already possess.
The denial of any universals means that there is only the particular. If there is no such thing as "man" but only the "self" then what does Aristotle have to say to me? If reason is less important than feeling why should I care about what Plato says about justice? No wonder today's students are more concerned with self-fulfillment than with becoming wise.
So how are students to get excited again by the mysteries and possibilities of human experience? Bloom sees as the best solution the old Great Books approach, where the classics are read as the authors intended them to be read. This is no small difference from the typical approach in the humanities, where the classics are now kept. There they are treated as mummified museum pieces and read through the lens of modern presuppositions and political correctness. It is as if a great sign hangs over the door to the humanities that says "There is no truth, at least not here."
For example, it is claimed that Aristotle's "Ethics" teaches us not what a good man is but what the Greeks thought about morality. If it was read as it was intended to be read, students would be challenged to discover new experiences and reassess old ones. However now they are told that Aristotle can just be used to enrich the vision of the world they already have. Bloom is not saying that the claims of the great books are automatically true, but that we ought to wrestle with them in order to see that the picture of the whole may well be larger than the one we currently have.
Though he has argued that free inquiry and democracy itself are threatened when reason is devalued, Bloom is hopeful that liberal education is still possible. "The questions are all there. They only need to be addressed continuously and seriously for liberal learning to exist; for it does not consist so much in answers as in the permanent dialogue" (p.380).