Thirty years ago, University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind. The book deconstructed higher education’s failure to prepare students with the knowledge necessary to lead enlightened lives. Bloom’s emphasis on reading the Great Books was met with adulation by conservatives, who viewed it as a declaration of traditional values, and with condemnation by progressives who thought the work was a perpetuation of social class inequities.
What started as a discussion about “what every educated person should know” ended in a contentious debate about the virtues of meritocracy versus democracy, as if the two ideas were mutually exclusive. When I was a junior professor, I was certain that Dr. Bloom was just another misguided old classicist. These days, however, I’m beginning to wonder if he may have been right all along.
In any age, ideas are assembled, disassembled and reassembled according to their usefulness and whoever has the power to move them. For example, what the founding fathers considered inclusive would now exclude over half of our current population. So, over time, ideas get updated, like versions of a computer program. Each version is an extension or a complete reimagining of the previous one.
Innovation is built upon ideas of every hue – old, new, strange, obscure. They never seem to fit at first but with time, and a little luck, these ideas may actually hold up while the rest of our world shifts and shakes. Professor Bloom cautioned that cultural relativism would have us mistake the teetering edges for the unmoved middle. He saw Plato, Marx and Freud as the compulsory bedrock upon which more advanced ideas could be balanced by an independent mind.
What I think Dr. Bloom was getting at was is that it’s not about political doublespeak, spin doctors, or fake news. It is about the closing of the American mind. We no longer collectively possess the ideas, the range of lenses, or the apparatus to think clearly, freely and independently. The constructive conflict of classroom debate was replaced by safe spaces and trigger warnings, and with it went the courage to confront the mediocrity of second-rate ideas. Ironically, this has left us without the ability to rightly judge fact from fiction. Bloom predicted that there would come a day when many Americans saw the truth as relative. That day is here.
We have always had people who use ideas to swindle and deceive. But there have also been those among us who are not so easily fooled. They think deeply. They connect the dots. They recognize the patterns. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see these people and even harder to hear them.
So let’s start looking for the next idea by asking a few questions to those who actually know about the last idea:
Where have we seen an idea like this before?
When has this idea been tested?
How will this idea actually work?
Who is proposing this idea?
Why are they trying to advance this idea?
What are some alternatives to this idea?
Like Professor Bloom, I too believe that great ideas, like people, are works in progress. Perhaps the first step to uniting our divided nation is to reestablish a common ground. It may be that we need to retrace some of our past – to revisit the great thinkers – before we can reopen our minds and recommit ourselves to finding a way forward – together.
Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of business administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.