A cri de couer regarding the modern university.
In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), philosopher Allan Bloom criticized the nation’s colleges and universities for fostering the notion of moral relativism instead of critical thinking and the pursuit of truth. More than 30 years later, Egginton (Humanities/Johns Hopkins Univ.; The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World, 2016, etc.) delivers a sequel of sorts, arguing that “we are in danger of losing our civic culture.” The flourishing of identity politics on campuses, while rightly providing much-needed benefits to marginalized groups, has led to a balkanization of our students at the expense of any sense of community. The roots of this problem can be traced to rises in individualism and inequality and a decline in civic discourse that have fractured society as a whole. The proper remedy, writes the author, is a return to a true liberal arts education, accessible to all and rooted in the ideas of equality and opportunity. No one observing the nation’s campuses in recent years would disagree with Egginton’s main diagnosis: Our students are splintering and refusing to listen to each other. Yet the author makes some divisive statements himself—e.g., efforts to repeal the estate tax are “un-American,” and modern-day cultural conservatives are comparable to members of “whites only” country clubs of yore—and his points often lack context or are misleading. Several times, he cites the dubious statistic that one in four or five college women are sexually assaulted during their time at university; the author admits that “the statistic has been widely debated and there may in fact be no way of knowing the actual numbers.” His assertion that a liberal arts education is “availably only to the wealthiest few” is an exaggeration, as evidenced by need-based scholarships, the G.I. bill, and other programs.
Egginton provides a helpful diagnosis of why today’s college students are divided. Unfortunately, the author’s own sowing of discord will do little to unite them.