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The extent of our present degradation owes its initial impetus to the universities of the 1960s. As Allan Bloom lamented in The Closing of the American Mind, the universities taught and graduated a vast cohort of “spiritually detumescent” students, who eventually rose to occupy the seats of authority and influence, training their successors—those who are calling the shots today—in the arts of reductive thinking. Perpetuating an “organized system of grievance,” they “have no idea of evil,” choose the wrong role models, and trade in “clichés, superficialities, the material of satire.” They have infected the minds of two generations of students with factoids and gross distortions while amping up a collective attitude of unmerited self-esteem. In a nutshell, we have been taught to speak the mind we no longer have. Bloom has been considered by many as a rigidly classical humbug, but the sequel has clearly proven him right.
The world situation has deteriorated markedly since Bloom wrote. The luxury of indifference, thoughtlessness or self-indulgence has become contra-indicated. Threats to our security and perhaps to our survival multiply on the horizon and we no longer enjoy the leisurely option of relying on emotion, partiality and pseudo-scholarly hijinks in the act of informing ourselves about domestic and international affairs. We live in an Age of Decadence, an epoch which, as Bloom points out, derives its worldview ultimately from Rousseau’s Confessions, intended to show that there is no such thing as original sin and that man has been corrupted from “the good,” as opposed to Augustine’s Confessions with its doctrine of inherent evil and the necessity for reflection, discipline and moral integrity to realize our human potential.
We need not convert to Christianity, as did Augustine, or to any other religion, to discover how to think. But we do need to take his counsel seriously, to listen to the voice he heard in the garden, tolle et lege, “take and read,” that is, to learn how to educate ourselves once again. Since it is highly unlikely that the Humanities departments of the modern university can be abolished, it seems we must educate ourselves outside the confining gates of an institution that has grown as corrupt as it is absurd. Perhaps an autodidact body of students and parents, as they are prompted to adopt what David Horowitz’s Freedom Center calls “dissenting books,” may even begin to incrementally recuperate what has been taken from us.
“The true canon,” Bloom writes in the subsequent Giants and Dwarfs, “aggregates around the most urgent questions we face…If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the plausible theses of our day, and turn our backs on the great dialogue, our loss will be irreparable.” What Bloom and important conservative intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Russell Kirk, Theodore Dalrymple, Bruce Bawer, Victor Davis Hanson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, David Horowitz, Andrew Bostom, Roger Kimball, and others who qualify as Bloom’s epigones tell us is that we have little choice but to become an informed citizenry, if we are ever to resist the intellectual and spiritual degeneration of the times and the sinister effect of the modern liberal university.
The theme song of the Sixties was “We shall overcome,” and in a thoroughly unexpected and destructive way, that is precisely what has happened. Today, the need to re-overcome, to overcome the overcoming, cannot be evaded. It doesn’t look good and it may well be too late. But there is no alternative. We need to establish a counter-counter-culture to repudiate and undo the effects of the counter-culture of the Sixties that has wrought so much harm. “Pretend I’m dead,” says the glutton Trimalchio in The Satyricon, “and say something nice about me.” This is perhaps the only condition under which we can say something nice about that epicurean period whose legacy continues to afflict us.
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