In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote “The Closing of the American Mind,” a warning that “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” Bloom’s book landed like a bomb in the middle of the culture wars of the 1980s, as he contended that the top universities in the country were no longer giving their students the type of education they needed in order to protect and preserve the best aspects of American culture.
At the time, there were major fights over many aspects of the curriculum, all centered around one basic question: whether the brightest young Americans should be trained in a shared culture that would expose them to the best of this country and Western civilization.
The election of Donald Trump should be a wake-up call to every elite institution in the country, from The New York Times to Harvard.
In general, of course, the Left won those wars. The college freshmen who were 18 years old in 1987 are now 47 years old — meaning that relatively few people under the age of 60 received a solid grounding in the humanities of the type Professor Bloom thought were essential.
They learned very little about how the Founders viewed the world, how the English-speaking world developed in a different direction from the rest of European culture, or how, and why, the Americans fought and won so many terrible wars. They learned very little about how the typical American thinks — what she considers to be fair (or unfair), why so many Americans believe in a Triune God, and why they are so much more tolerant of gun ownership and the death penalty than other Westerners.
Few of them were ever taught to see things from the perspective of Thomas Jefferson, or Andrew Jackson, or even Harry Truman — men who built their careers fighting on behalf of what they called “the people” against the wealthy and powerful. Few of them ever learned of the many defeats Americans suffered — how Washington and Hamilton spent much of the Revolutionary War running for their lives, how the British burned the White House in 1812, how many American families have suffered generations of poverty and despair.
Instead, they were taught, for the most part, that American history and culture were about as complex as a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. There were good guys (namely the groups that currently tend to vote for the Democratic Party in presidential elections), and bad guys (everyone else). There was no reason to study John C. Calhoun, or John Randolph of Roanoke, or even Robert Taft of Ohio — they were just villains, to be scorned rather than studied.
Oh, it was a lot of fun for the Left. No more worries about dead white men. Lots more readings on sexuality and gender.
Except now they look around, and see that Donald Trump will be the next president, and they realize they don’t even know their own country. They never studied it, they never learned about it — and now it’s too late.
What a contrast to how we used to train the future leaders of the nation. Consider three boys who certainly didn’t come from typical American homes. Theodore Roosevelt was born to a wealthy family in New York City, was mostly home-schooled, and attended college at Harvard, where he was elected to the Porcellian Club. His family was from the absolute highest strata of American life. And yet he had no problems interacting with cowboys from the Badlands, or giving stump speeches from the back of a railroad caboose in Middle America.
Franklin Roosevelt was born to another wealthy branch of the Roosevelt family, this one in upstate New York. He attended the exclusive Groton School — then as now one of the top prep schools in America. He also went to Harvard. He spent almost no time in the public sector, and was largely funded by his mother’s money for most of his life. Yet he could speak to poor farmers all over the South and the Midwest — the same people whose descendants just voted for Donald Trump. And when the time came for a prayer on D-Day, he issued a prayer that would bring tears to even the most conservative Southern Baptist.
[lz_infobox]”With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” — Excerpt of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer — June 6, 1944.[/lz_infobox]
John F. Kennedy was also born into a very wealthy family. His prep school was Choate; his college was Harvard; and he spent years traveling with his family in Europe, where his father served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. But in 1960, when he desperately needed to win the West Virginia primary, this wealthy Irish Catholic got 61 percent of the vote. Several months later, he carried the state against Republican Richard Nixon.
Now it is true that the two Roosevelts and John Kennedy are among the best politicians this country has ever produced. But it is also true that their privileged backgrounds did not prevent them from understanding the hopes and dreams of ordinary Americans — and from speaking to those Americans in language that the great majority of voters could understand.
Maybe these men cared more about the average American than the elites of today — I certainly think so. But I also think that before the changes that Allan Bloom protested in his 1987 book, American society did a much better job of preparing the future leaders of this country to understand the country they are supposed to lead.
If you want to speak for America — if you want to lead and govern America — then you need to understand America, and you need to understand all of it, not just your home town or your home section. I have no doubt that men like Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy were most comfortable among Harvard types of their own class. But the record is also clear that they understood the rest of the country as well.
The election of Donald Trump should be a wake-up call to every elite institution in the country, from The New York Times to Harvard. These institutions are failing the country, in large part because they don’t understand it. They need to try harder. If they don’t, populism could remain in the driver’s seat for a very long time.