The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

Legendary Teachers and Real Education
Peter Augustine Lawler - 04/28/11

A fine feature of Real Education by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus is its sensitive and altogether unideological treatment of professors who become legends. Among the legends they mention, one is still alive and teaching (Michael Sandel of Harvard). The others are Allan Bloom (during his heyday at Cornell), Michael Harrington (who taught at New York's Queens College), and Conor Cruise O'Brien (in the 1960s at NYU).

There's one darling of conservatives (Bloom), a socialist (Harrington), and two quirkily somewhere in between (O'Brien and Sandel).

Such teachers aren't “interdisciplinary”; they soar beyond the confines of the disciplines. They have, our authors observe, “enough confidence in their own ideas to say what they believed, not what an academic discipline demanded.”

The truth is that “Incredible, passionate, awesome teachers take the whole world as their oyster bed, even if their assertions aren't always backed by formulas or footnotes.” These four “awesome teachers,” I have to add, wrote as they taught, and each produced books that influenced the educated public, the world of ideas beyond the university. So they were viewed with considerable suspicion by the world of scholars. It's true that legendary teachers publish, but not primarily to contribute to the scholarly literature or some discipline.

“Needless to say,” our authors go on, “there's a risk of ego trips, as well as misusing classrooms for a rostrum." I've had just enough firsthand experience with Sandel and Bloom to be certain that neither seemed to be plagued self-doubt or self-esteem “issues.” Not only do such legendary teachers believe they have something of great significance to say, but what they have to say can transform the lives of students by helping them see who they are and what they're supposed to do. Such teachers, it goes without saying, are always enemies of relativism or proceduralism or reducing education to some measurable technique.

Legendary teachers are always in some sense evangelical. Bloom was an evangelist for philosophy, Harrington socialism, and Sandel justice. Legendary teachers are always realists (there's a real world out there we can know) and in some sense moralists.

The wonderfully accessible yet profoundly erudite books of Bloom and Harrington had a great influence on me.

I've written a fair amount on Bloom, but nothing on Harrington. But I was very moved by the honesty of Harrington's unjustly forgotten The Politics at God's Funeral. Harrington, once a serious Catholic, wrote about his version of Pascal's wager. The Christian Pascal observed that we're miserable in the absence of God, and so we have nothing to lose by betting on the possibility that he really exists. But, Harrington claims, God is dead; belief is no longer possible these days. So his wager is that socialism can do in this world what God promised in the next, overcome our loneliness and alienation through the establishment of a completely satisfying egalitarian community. For Harrington, it's socialism or nothing—or at least being stuck with being lonely, alienated, and otherwise miserable.

As Marx first said in "On the Jewish Question," daily life experienced under capitalism provides plenty of support for Pascal's claim that we're pointless accidents—whimsical, weightless productivity machines—in an indifferent universe. And Tocqueville (in the best book on democracy and the best book on America) said that the most truthful democratic individual experience is existing mysteriously (and strangely and wonderfully) for a moment between two abysses. Let's face it: There are plenty of good reasons—including, for example, the fall of communism and the impending implosion of our minimalist welfare state—why hardly anyone really believes in socialism in that evangelical way any more. But only an “awesome teacher” could have done so well in giving the most compelling case for socialism.

So I don't have the time or space to deal adequately with Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) now. It's a book about almost everything and almost without footnotes. His message: Pascal was wrong, we're not necessarily miserable without God. In a time when all serious morality has been discredited, relativism reigns supreme, and God or real belief is about dead, the alternatives are philosophy or nothing. And Bloom was as evangelical for philosophy as a way of life as Harrington was for socialism.

For me, thanks, in part, to thinking through the brilliant evangelical books of Harrington and Bloom, the bottom line is neither philosophy nor socialism. But I'm just as moved (I hope) as these awesome teachers by the challenge of Pascal. My own beginning is that real belief—and the personal reasons for it—are far from dead.

So Bloom and Harrington exaggerate the extent to which life in our world has been reduced to nothing, and people continue to live well not under socialism and without being primarily philosophers. But libertarians and other techno-enthusiasts beware: Good exaggerations are always instructive precisely because they contain much truth.

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