- Strange Bedfellows:Allan Bloom and John Dewey Against Liberal Education, Rightly Understood
The educational theories of Allan Bloom and John Dewey could not apparently be more at odds. Bloom argued on behalf of the aspiration of philosophy to apprehend the truth, even if through a glass darkly. Dewey argued, in contrast, that philosophy was best understood as the application of man's capacity to alter behavior and circumstance in the pragmatic pursuit of societal and individual "growth." For Dewey, there was no truth that could be considered fixed and final, only provisional and practicable "truths"—and why, in an early work, he argued against "the quest for certainty."1
Thus, for Bloom, education necessarily involved engagement with the great texts of philosophy not as the collection of antiquarian knowledge, but as an entrée into the great and eternal questions that are not subject to alteration or transformation. To this extent, Bloom held that human beings possess a certain nature that is not subject to fundamental change; questions that were true and alive for Socrates remain fundamentally true for us as well, in spite of vast separations of distance and time. By contrast, Dewey held that humanity, like the world itself, was defined above all by "plasticity." A malleable substance, humanity no less than the external world was subject to alteration and remaking. The only "permanent" feature of human "nature" was its very alterability, and, in particular, the human ability to actively engage in that alteration.
For Dewey, Bloom's approach (like that of Robert Maynard Hutchins) represented some of the most objectionable assumptions about education. Dewey was mistrustful of education based in books—a basis that Dewey regarded as too easily becoming tradition-bound. Books, in his view were "the chief representatives of the lore and wisdom of the past," and hence necessarily conservative.2 Bloom, in turn, criticized Dewey explicitly for his progressive assumptions that blinded him to the wisdom of the past: "Dewey's pragmatism—the method of science as the method of democracy, individual growth without limits, especially natural limits—saw the past as radically imperfect and regarded our history as irrelevant or as a hindrance to rational analysis of our present."3 For Bloom, Dewey's view of education entailed an optimistic leap of faith about a limitless future and denigrated the wisdom of the past; for Dewey (and Deweyans, such as Benjamin R. Barber), a thinker such as Bloom was inclined to an exclusionist elitism that favored the leisured few over the democratic many.4 For Bloom, the heart of the university and liberal education is the library and the accumulated great texts that are preserved therein; for Dewey, it is the laboratory—that place of experimentation—evinced perhaps most clearly with Dewey's founding of the "The Laboratory School" at the University of Chicago.
The differences between Dewey and Bloom are so vast and obvious to provide endless fodder for contrast. However, perhaps because of the overwhelming obviousness of these differences, some fundamental similarities can be easily overlooked. Compared to each other, Dewey and Bloom are nearly perfect opposites, natural opponents in a long culture war that pre-dates the invention of that term in the 1980s, and in which Bloom was an incendiary combatant. However, contrasted together against yet another conception of liberal education, it is arguable that it is their similarities, and not their differences, that become more salient. While opponents often attributed to Bloom a kind of cultural conservatism that they found expressed in aspects of educational works by E.D. Hirsch—namely that our culture was deserving of defense and sympathetic understanding—what was often missed by many critics was Bloom's deep mistrust toward the claims of culture and his pervasive anti-traditionalism, a hostility that he shared with Dewey. For both Bloom and Dewey, liberal education represented a kind of liberation from the traditional and ancestral. To this extent, they might properly be thought of as intellectual cousins within a larger family of anti-traditionalism and rejection of culture; for all their profound differences, in the end they can be seen as united more fundamentally in their hostility to the claims of culture...