Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147
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 fashionable. In the last section of his book, Bloom has bitter words for his colleagues, condemning them for giving in to student demonstrations when they should have affirmed the sovereignty of the university as the only institution in society that is dedicated to the study of ideas.
Throughout The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom writes as a philosopher concerned with the quality of his ideas. Although he also interprets history and functions as a cultural critic, his allegiance is to the life of the mind. He discusses most of the important thinkers in Western civilization. He has nothing to say about other parts of the world or about literature, East or West. He is also hostile to the social sciences. Given his devotion to ideas, this is not surprising. The social sciences deal with material culture, with how a social climate affects the way people think. Thus, by their very nature the social sciences encourage the relativism Bloom abhors. Because he is a Platonist, he cannot abide the notion that his ideas are bound by his culture, his class, and his race. He may not totally dismiss the social sciences or deny that his views have been influenced by his culture, but he strenuously opposes the notion that ideas are determined by culture or by history.
Needless to say, Bloom’s book was immediately controversial. Several reviewers found him stimulating because he is such a vigorous advocate for his ideas. He knows which texts are important and presents a forcefully argued view of Western philosophy. Bloom’s detractors find him very disturbing because he puts all of his emphasis on ideas. For him, it is very clear that Nietzsche has influenced contemporary culture for the worse. He does not stop to question whether ideas have as much power over people as he says they do. For example, if he is correct in saying that American is a relativist culture, did that relativism develop only because of the influence of ideas? Or are there material conditions that have contributed to the phenomena he analyzes?
Despite Bloom’s failure to address such questions, virtually all reviewers of the book—even those who question his views of Western philosophy—concede that he has responded to profound weaknesses in the American educational system. Bloom makes it clear that he is most concerned about the state of the very best universities in America. Several reviewers have been disturbed by what they consider his elitist approach. In Bloom’s educational universe, it is only the best schools and the best students who can lead and change society. Leslie Armour is representative of those critics who suggest that Bloom’s understanding of American college students is much too narrow: “His students from ‘the twenty or thirty best (U.S.) universities’ are nothing like my recent American students, who pursue the old questions with vim and vigor. Perhaps they do not belong to Bloom’s elite.”