The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 existence of transcendental ideas that are ahistorical. All ideas, all cultures, in Nietzsche’s view, are the product of history. By grounding ideas in the development of cultures, Nietzsche deprived ideas of their eternal verity. An idea that is true in one culture might not be true in another. To Bloom, this view of ideas is anathema, but he recognizes that Nietzsche’s relativism has infected much of contemporary thought.

Bloom contends that the consequences of Nietzsche’s relativism have wrecked American higher education. When students revolted against universities in the 1960’s, attacking schools such as Columbia University and Cornell as institutions that merely expressed the values of the culture, they were acting as Nietzscheans. They were asserting that there was nothing sacrosanct about college, nothing that set it apart from the culture. As a result, students demanded changes to make colleges conform to the ideas of the time. This transformation was a tragedy as far as Bloom is concerned, for it meant that institutions of higher learning lost all of their authority to stand for ideas per se. Colleges became simply models of what is currently...

(The entire section is 1,147 words.)