For those collecting UD‘s press clippings, here she is back in 2009 (I hadn’t seen it; UD thanks Shane for telling her about it) playing a condescending liberal in the Wall Street Journal.

What’s funny about the UD excerpt the author cites as evidence of liberal snobbery is that it’s an extremely close paraphrase of something his hero, Allan Bloom, wrote in the chapter Students, from The Closing of the American Mind. In fact, all over that book Bloom writes exactly what UD wrote – that a liberal arts education is high culture’s one big chance to catch you and save you from narrow provincialism.

Like UD, Bloom was attacking there not “an American upbringing,” as the author of the Wall Street Journal article claims, but any upbringing hampered by provinciality… which is to say almost any upbringing anywhere in the world at any time. Education is an obvious good, Bloom and I are claiming, because it offers to lead you out, into a larger world, from where you rather arbitrarily began.

In no way does education want to make you reject your roots or feel contempt for the smaller world in which you inevitably grew up. It wants to introduce you to a larger one.


I mean, look at old UD, reviler of American roots. Look closely. Do you live three doors down from the house you grew up in? UD does.

Now look at Sarah Palin, the WSJ writer’s home and hearth American roots heroine, preparing to move to … Scottsdale? What the fuck is she doing buying a house in go-go new-town Scottsdale? (Her daughter’s also bought a place in Arizona.) Doesn’t she share UD‘s love of her own deep American roots?

It’s just as stupid for the WSJ writer to conflate cultural broadening with anti-American snobbery as it is for UD to conflate buying a second home a great distance from your “rooted” home with a betrayal of your roots.

In fact Bloom’s famous book is largely about questioning roots. It’s about asking whether everything about the “American upbringing” the WSJ writer uncritically invokes is an obvious good. Bloom’s autobiographical essay in Closing, in which he recalls his amazement and excitement at seeing the University of Chicago for the first time, is moving precisely because, like so many writers of autobiographies on the verge of university, he is recording the moment when he glimpsed in himself the possibility of profound self-transformation – aesthetic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual broadening – through a serious liberal arts education.

Bloom is absolutely right that although life may provide other broadening experiences – travel, etc. – nothing is like the (to varying degrees at different schools) coherent four-year curricular discipline of the liberal arts degree. Nothing is like encountering professors who … well, remember, for instance, what Tony Judt wrote in his autobiography about the professor who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

Judt’s provincialism was Marxism; the university introduced him to a person able and willing to go back and forth and back and forth on the subject with seriousness and with respect for Judt in order to transform him. Liberal education takes a certain setting; it takes a certain patience; it takes a lot of seriousness. It has nothing at all to do with snobbery or condescension. In fact it is the opposite of those.

Trackback URL for this post:

6 Responses to “UD in the Wall Street Journal”

  1. Rita Says:

    UD, I doubt Voegeli is familiar with your generally more contrarian oeuvre, but that IHE post doesn’t really distinguish between being educated and being in college. Do you really think people should sit in college as long as possible, or that they should sit there as long as it takes to understand the limits of their upbringing? I’d imagine that majoring in communications at Idaho State for 30 years would not make you any less parochial than doing the same thing for three years if Idaho State had nothing to teach you (and even if it did, 30 years in a small town talking only with undergrads and communications majors might calcify new parochialisms).

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hi Rita: I haven’t re-read the IHE post in awhile, but I doubt it claims that education is only college education. I think what my excepted remark meant is that universities should be set up in such way as to allow every person who wants to to get as far toward a liberal arts degree as possible for that person. (Similarly, if a person wants a vocational education, we should be set up to provide that for her.) On one level it’s a kind of platitudinous thing to say – the sort of thing every President says when talking about the importance of education for the nation, etc. But on a more important level, it means to suggest that all citizens should have access to the sort of education Allan Bloom has in mind – if they want it, and if they turn out to be suited for it.

    There’s absolutely nothing snobby about preferring a well-educated, a broadly-educated, President or Vice-President, and people shouldn’t let themselves be intimidated into silence about this by populist commentators who call such preferences condescending. I’m happy that such silencing efforts – most absurdly on offer here – failed in the last presidential election.

  3. Rita Says:

    I know that you don’t think education is only college education, but the post Voegeli excerpts from doesn’t really suggest a difference. It says the opposite–“If they don’t get this in college, they’re not going to get it anywhere else.” Nor is it very clear from that post that you think there is any difference between the kind of education is offered to most college students in America (communications degrees at Idaho State) and the kind that Bloom got, except in terms of US News rankings.

    While Voegeli is wrong to lump you in with elitist signalers or whatever he wants to call his category of condescending liberals, it’s only because he lighted on this single, ambiguous blog post and evidently didn’t bother to look much further (even to ascertain your gender). You can blame him for sloppy research or leaping to conclusions, but I don’t think he’s quite the enemy you’re looking for. Like Epstein, he’s no anti-intellectual populist, and he’s not trying to silence defenders of high culture. (Has a Weekly Standard piece ever silenced anyone? If so, I could be on the verge of acquiring greater cultural power over my nemeses than I ever dreamed of.)

    If anything, they both entertain Charles Murray-esque doubts about how many American kids, as you say, “want it, and if they turn out to be suited for it,” but without Murray’s insistence on sorting them out at age 12. Defending Palin in ’08 allowed them to point out the opposite of the Palin problem (and vent some festering resentment against their liberal colleagues)–too much time spent in academia can result in political ideas at least as crazy (as radically parochial, even) as those of the wholly unschooled. But that’s not quite an indictment of the scholarly life you’re envisioning–Bloom’s or Judt’s–which is mostly lived away from political office-seeking.

    Since the pro-Palin academics not actually arguing that the uneducated in principle make better presidents than the educated, you seem to agree with them that educational pedigree is not quite the same thing as education. And you also seem to agree that what is worth fighting over is the latter, at least judging by how much more this blog is given over to the failure of institutions that call themselves universities to deliver a serious liberal education than to the tragedy of the children who don’t get into Yale and have to settle for Tufts–the eternal lament of the signalers. This leaves certain unresolved questions for both you and Voegeli–if it can be made open to all, what is a liberal education supposed to do for those who either don’t want it or aren’t really capable of it? All the exemplars you and he offer are academics, but it can’t be that all really well-educated people must end up being professors. What does the liberally educated person look like outside the academy? What happens to liberal education when its recipient goes off to become a lawyer or an accountant or a 7th-grade math teacher and is never called on to use it again? Populism and anti-populism are convenient ways of avoiding these questions by conflating existing some university curriculum with the all possible education–universities are either always and everywhere enlightening the benighted, or they are turning the just plain folks against their homespun values.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Hi again Rita: Actually, this blog has often said that the US has a remarkable number of excellent liberal arts institutions – places that offer great liberal arts educations. I’ve also said that under these excellent institutions are many very good ones, and under those pretty good ones…

    (To be sure, some among our tons and tons of colleges and universities are sports factories, for profit scandals, etc., and this blog also has a lot to say about them.)

    A liberal education can’t do anything for people who don’t want it; but professors and universities can try much much harder to draw students to it (I think very few people are truly incapable of getting some form of liberal education). Another thing I’ve said often on this blog is that too many professors passively transmit information (in-class technology tends to worsen this tendency) and not enough understand themselves to be educating in terms of the meaning of the word – leading, seducing, people out of where they happen to be to someplace more serious.

    In terms of the defense-of-Palin issue, the liberally educated person, above all, does not look like an ideologue. Matthew Arnold and others stress, in this regard, the value of neutrality – the capacity to regard reality with reason, fairness, and flexibility. Bloom further stresses the value of autonomy – the capacity not to move in lockstep with a political party or movement, but, having evolved a set of moral and political principles, to be capable of perceiving and responding to threats to them, even if this response threatens earlier affiliations you may have made. Clearly a lot of conservatives – members of the commentariat and members of the voting public – perceived the ill-informed, illiberal Palin as a threat to their principles, and voted accordingly.

  5. Shane Street Says:

    There is so much to debate here that my mind went into vapor lock. A practitioner, however indirect or loosely defined, of anything like modern lit crit calling on Bloom and the defense of traditional academic values alone could launch a flamewar worthy of Usenet at its height.

    But it’s the persistent yammering on about Palin that I find immediately troubling. I guess it doesn’t help to recount the facts: that she was a governor, of a state? That she had more experience of government than the man we elected? That events have shown Obama is an empty well-creased suit, in over his head? That he is failing so spectacularly that even ardent liberals are having trouble defending him (seriously, you rubes should start self-identifying, per Instapundit).

    Meanwhile, Palin has commented on our state of affairs, on her terms, making a good amount of sense: Debatable, but hardly ill-informed (I don’t know what illiberal is meant in this context). As the poster wrote: “It ain’t Harvard. But then it ain’t arrogant, condescending, and flat-out wrong, either. So she’s got that going for her.”

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Shane: I’m not understanding your comments – guess that does make me a rube… Do you mean it’s scandalous for me as an English professor to take Allan Bloom seriously? Lots of English professors take him seriously, mainly maybe to argue with him. But they take him seriously. He inspired a lot of books which tried to respond to his ideas about the academy.

    I admire him. He’s a great prose stylist, and while I don’t go for all of his arguments, I go for a lot of them.

    On Palin. Persistent yammering? I’ve had virtually nothing to say about her on University Diaries I, and only a very little at Inside Higher Ed. The only person I know who yammers on this subject is Andrew Sullivan, and he’s a conservative. Palin was interesting to me only when she threatened to be VP (and McCain was in his seventies). She’s of no interest to me now.

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE