The Closing of the American Mind
The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students is a publishing anomaly, an erudite biopsy of the soul of American culture that became a popular success. Six months after the book’s release, it continued to reside on the hardcover best-seller lists of The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Explanations of this performance were legion. The publisher suggested a happy coincidence with the rise of public interest in educational issues, pundits discovered an articulate conservative spokesman, and critics found a bellwether antirelativist, while wags delighted in the irony of a book about the decay of liberal education being devoured by the masses.
In the popular press, the book has been mined for its broadsides against rock music, casual sex, and the 1960’s. Yet, while attention has focused on Allan Bloom as a curmudgeon from the ivory tower, much of his central message has been missed, or misapprehended.
“Civilization or, to say the same thing, education is the taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions—not suppressing or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy—but forming and informing them as art.” It is Bloom’s contention, at least for students in the twenty or so greatest universities in the United States, that their passions have been co-opted by mindless music, while within the university, students are exposed only to the denatured, Disneyized thoughts of the greatest minds. Rock music has unleashed the passions; what passes for liberal education has excised them. The result, according to Bloom, is a whole catalog of woes. Students have become isolates, lacking any ideological reason for commitment to one another. There is among them a psychological return to the “state of nature,” before civilization, and it is expressed in the loss of fidelity in the love relationship, a casual openness to ephemeral values, a lackadaisical approach to truth, all aided and abetted by the modern academic smorgasbord, the university. Ultimately what is lost is the community of those in dialogue, as exemplified in the richness and magic of the Symposium (c. fourth century b.c.e.) of Plato, and thus the bedrock on which American democracy exists, that of the responsible, informed citizen. Writes Bloom,This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before.
Bloom writes from the academic trenches, looking back on three decades as an instructor at Cornell and Yale universities, the University of Toronto, and most recently as a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He characterizes The Closing of the American Mind as a “meditation on the state of our souls.” The soul is the seat of a person’s reason and the domain of the passions; it is that which aspires to virtue. The passions are what energize the reason; they are far different from mere bodily desires. Bloom’s lament is that in the last quarter century, students at the very best American universities have ceased caring for their souls and instead have substituted the idea of the self as worthy of all their attention. This is a monumental and devastating shift in perception. For the ancients, the soul was the locus of man’s aspirations and nature’s showcase. Nature herself was purposive; thus, the varied aspects of the soul mirrored the hierarchy of nature, and the flourishing of the human soul, the practice of virtue, was in full accord with natural teleology. Virtue, however, cannot be practiced in isolation; human society must exist and with it some form of government that, ideally, would serve to promote flourishing in the community of souls. As Aristotle had it, man’s nature is to be political.
With the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, triumphant science could find in nature nothing but matter in motion. Stripped of its teleology, nature no longer provided a reasonable explanation of the origin of society. Nature, in fact, was inimical to the individual, as political philosopher Thomas Hobbes maintained, and it followed for John Locke to suggest that man in the “state of nature” surely would trade that existence for life in society, even though it meant becoming law abiding (rather than a law unto himself). Self-preservation was the great gain.
As Bloom points out, Locke’s conception demanded too much from a demythologized nature. Nature, given Locke’s assumptions, could only be expected to produce men who were slaves to their desires, brutish beasts and not the rational individuals who seemed to populate Locke’s state of nature. This was the insight of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke had invented the self as a kind of unifying factor for the individual, a holding device for the welter of sense impressions bombarding the person. Without the self, as distinct from nature, man simply collapses back into nature, and his development of society and political institutions cannot be accounted for.
The dualism of René Descartes further cemented the bifurcation of self and body, with modern psychology staking its claim to knowledge of that self. What distinguishes man from mere nature is the self, and the self is ego centered, selfish. Rousseau, contrary to Locke, viewed nature not as man’s enemy but as a surcease from the artificiality of the city; for Rousseau there was at least some hope that the rift between nature and society might be overcome. Man must plumb the self, tapping into that yearning for pristine nature, for the self to live in harmony with the body.
Twentieth century America is heir to the Locke-Rousseau controversy. Bloom finds the Lockean in those who call for mastery of nature, who adjust...
(The entire section is 2483 words.)