In 1987, the late American philosopher Allan Bloom won astonished praise for the extraordinary sales racked up by his treatise, The Closing of the American Mind. People who traditionally paid philosophy little mind suddenly began to snap up this odd volume and -whether or not they actually read it -set it on display in their homes and offices. In retrospect, its popularity is not quite as amazing as it first appeared. It spoke to the values and ideals of educated conservatives. It championed the western canon; it jibed at the nihilism of Nietzsche (who's been blamed for most cultural heresies since the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, but about whom Emberley and Newell say remarkably complimentary things); and, it blasted away at feminism, campus radicalism and rock'n'roll.
Considering that neo-conservative America held political sway throughout the 1980s, but that it did so without any demonstrable vision or visionaries to lend intellectual credibility to its agenda, Bloom was perfect. William Bennett and William F. Buckley no longer had to be embarrassed by congressional Republicans, to say nothing of the actor in the White House; here at last was a scholar who told attentive readers what they longed to hear.
Now Canada has its own variation on the theme. Peter Emberley and Waller Newell's Bankrupt Education is about as ideologically close to Bloom's best-seller as a Canadian book can be. Alas, it is unlikely to become that same kind of marketing success, if for no other reason than that genuine Canadian conservatism does not lack for intellectual clarity and our neo-conservatives in, for example, the Reform Party are pretty much beyond intellectual embarrassment.
This is a pity, for Emberley and Newell have done an admirable job of defending traditional education, analyzing the social and economic forces that have undermined it, and spelling out the consequences if it is not restored. They do not, however, spin out only a theoretical tale of woe. Interpretations of the greats from Plato to Rousseau, Descartes to Marx are there, but Bankrupt Education also deals with teachers where they live and work.
Disgusted by “a dispiriting retreat from [the] heritage of universal scholarship, a narrow bureaucratic nationalism and inward-looking philistinism masquerading as fiscal conservatism or political correctness,” the authors pay close attention to contemporary policies and debates. Their conclusions are edifying: “Learning outcomes” they identify as being “rooted in some of the darkest processes of modernity”; “the `holism' of recent Ontario school reforms is,” they insist, “an empty parody of the authentic holism of liberal education...[for] the new pedagogy promises a spurious wholeness of abject conformity to the here and now”; and, as for the much-vaunted enthusiasm for critical thinking, Emberley and Newell say that “students are so ill-prepared by their high school education, so bereft of any knowledge of their own or any country's history and culture, that they...have nothing to be critical about.”
Powerful, erudite and firmly fixed in the daily world of teaching and learning, Emberley and Newell have done credit to their position. Theirs, as University of Toronto Bloomophile Thomas L. Pangle enthuses, is “a passionate, profound, and richly constructive new perspective…this book offers parents, teachers and students an urgently needed new educational philosophy and agenda.” Well, not quite. The perspective and philosophy if not the precise agenda have been around since Plato was a pup. Still, it is unsurprising that the language of novelty should be used to invite us to embrace their argument. After all, the fact that our language has become so muddled that we find “liberal” education supported mainly by “conservatives” is in itself some confirmation of their concerns.
Howard A. Doughty is Editor of The College Quarterly.