What does Allan Bloom mean when he says that the American mind is closing? His point is that, in the late twentieth century, students have difficulty grappling with complex ideas. Students are not being taught to ask hard questions about the concepts their culture cherishes and inculcates. The notion of equality, for example, has become, in Bloom’s view, virtually meaningless. Who would now dare oppose the principle of equality? Yet the easy acceptance of the term has resulted in an unwillingness to examine differences. Why is it, for example, that in Bloom’s experience white students quickly acknowledge the rights of black students and yet there is very little contact or understanding between the races? Why do blacks tend to associate only with one another? Why, Bloom asks, is there so little real integration on American campuses at the very time the idea of integration has triumphed? The answer, he argues, is that universities have fudged a whole range of issues involving equality. In order to promote “equal opportunity,” universities have rationalized different admissions standards for whites and blacks. The irony, as Bloom sees it, is that there can be no equality so long as black and white students are not admitted under the same rules. Preferential treatment, in other words, gives the lie to the very concept of equality that institutions of higher education profess to uphold.
Bloom believes that what is true for the concept of equality is also true for every other major value of the culture. America negates the worth of ideas by simplifying them. Ultimately, this reductive use of ideas destroys the ability to think. In the United States, it is enough to think like others, to feel comfortable with ideas so long as others share them. When Americans disagree, they take a relativistic viewpoint: People are allowed to have their own opinions, and one opinion is as good as another. Bloom bases his observations on his experience in the classroom and on the college campus. Very rarely does he see people stand up for the truth of their ideas, a truth that holds irrespective of their race, class, or cultural values.
Bloom asks: How is it that complex ideas have so little clout in American culture? Why is it that so few professors and students can argue with any sophistication about their ideas? Bloom’s reply is that Americans do not take ideas seriously as ideas. If he frequently turns to Plato for support, it is because Bloom sees in this philosopher an absolute devotion to the discovery of true ideas, ideas that will last for all time, ideas that have a sanction superseding any particular culture to which they might be applied.
Plato’s antithesis, in Bloom’s version of Western philosophy, is Nietzsche. As an atheist, Nietzsche has difficulty in accepting the...
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The Closing of the American Mind appeared at a time when several books were raising serious questions about American education. Like E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987), Bloom’s book suggests that American education has lost a common core of learning. At one time, these books argue, there was a shared concept of what it meant to be literate. Schools taught basically the same texts, and a student was graduated from college knowing roughly the same things as graduates from other colleges. Critics have attacked these books for exaggerating the degree to which Americans have ever shared the same college education, but many colleges have in fact reinstituted prescribed lists of classic works on the assumption that it is important to have a coherent curriculum.
The Closing of the American Mind is certainly not the first book by a professor to reach the best-seller list. In 1960, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (1960) also took American education to task— although his argument might be characterized as embodying the very relativism Bloom attacks. Goodman and Bloom are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, but both of their books call for radical changes in American education. They both see education as the one institution capable of transforming society.
Bloom has translated and edited editions of Plato’s Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile: Ou, De l’education, (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763). He is also the author of a book on William Shakespeare’s politics and a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The Closing of the American Mind thus reflects both his scholarly and his teaching interests, which are wide-ranging and somewhat unorthodox. That he chose to address a broader audience in a provocative style suggests how urgent and important he now finds the problems confronting American education. His publisher, Simon and Schuster, was not prepared for the overwhelming success of this important book. Part of its appeal, surely, stems from Bloom’s willingness not simply to share his knowledge but indeed to present himself as an authority. Very few professors, as Bellow suggests, would dare to present their ideas with such absolute conviction or to choose a title that engages a subject as broad as “the American mind.”