The Closing of the American Mind
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2483
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 easily to civil society. The Rousseauvian knows that adjustment to modern society is difficult indeed; his is the domain of the melancholy psychoanalyst. The selfishness of the Lockean is found in his conception of nature as raw material, useful for the building up of his own property. That of the Rousseauvian is found in those who pursue pleasure to satisfy the self. The nature-society distinction has thus in the twentieth century triumphed over the ancient tension between body and soul. “For Aristotle, good regimes have rulers dedicated to the common good, while bad ones have rulers who use their positions to further their private interest”; by contrast, the modern state is charged with overseeing the selfish interests of those who make it up.
Bloom’s students mirror the modern state. They are pluralists with a vengeance, uncritically open to each new cultural deviation or fad but always reserving the right at any moment to turn their attention to a yet newer innovation. This is not a quest for truth or virtue, but proof of historicism’s supremacy. Historicism says that not only are the great thinkers of the past so molded by their own times that they have nothing to say to the present generation, but also that what the present generation values may be altered willy-nilly to suit the circumstances. “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” Such openness constitutes the closing of the (rational, critical) American mind.
Bloom devotes the first third of his book to a detailed description of the ethos of the university student. It is dominated by rock music. While students in France, for example, are steeped early in Descartes or Blaise Pascal and thus are shaped by their country’s literary tradition, American students are gyrating to the rhythms of Mick Jagger “tarting it up on the stage.” The deepest feelings of young people are not being given over to an examination of the literary and philosophical tradition that formed their psyches but instead are drained by the incessant drumbeat of sex. Rock is no more countercultural than a business degree; young people with their Walkmans are caught up in a “nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”
In the sexual lives of the students, it is all freedom and equality; gone are the charms of romance, the roles of male and female in marriage, the taste of infinity in intercourse. Sex is all very businesslike; one’s biology is one’s destiny. The new freedom has replaced traditional family commitment; the idea of sexual tension being mastered by the higher soul, in a mix of education and eros, is simply foreign. The passions are drained, the “flat soul” is made universal. Students are indulged by their society and their university experience finds them increasingly deaf to the wisdom of others.
Bloom, however, is not disingenuous when he maintains that his purpose is not the production of a conservative tract: “I am not arguing . . . that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them.” This is a key to the understanding of much of The Closing of the American Mind; Bloom inveighs against relativism only insofar as it voids consideration of more ancient explanations of the quandary of man. “A serious life,” he writes, “means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear.” A student may indeed choose nihilism, despairing that all the answers have come to nothing, but the cry of despair must come from the passionate soul. In the United States, nihilism takes a far different form from that taken on the Continent. Americans who find nothing at the center are candidates for therapy “to put them back in touch with themselves.” “It is nihilism with a happy ending,” says Bloom, “. . . nihilism without the abyss.”
The center section of the book is in fact entitled “Nihilism, American Style,” with Bloom describing how the German thinkers Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber have all cast long, dark shadows on American culture. The shadows, however, have produced not fear of the darkness; students, true to the American genius, have simply turned on a light. The brooding faces of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Freud and Weber are no longer wrapped in darkness; in the American light they are peaked, washed out. Yet their influence lives on in certain fundamental modern catch phrases. Heidegger’s existential dread (angst), Freud’s sexual motor, the id, Weber’s fact-value distinction, Nietzsche’s “God is dead” are all the lingua franca of modern American university students. The dread is shallow, however (it is easily overcome by another rock concert or a taste of the id), and students are free to be self-creative (the mere facts of nature offer no basis for any prescribed values), as, indeed, they are free to be the very creators of their world (God has been displaced). Historicism rules the day, and the Continental terror at man’s loss of the old, exhausted values is entirely missed by the American. Values become simply life-styles.
The German connection underlined the insights of Rousseau that reason itself, divorced from teleological nature, is never large enough to define man. Reason itself prescribes an end to reason. The implications of such a harrowing conclusion are lost on the American mind: “It is not the immorality of relativism that I find appalling,” writes Bloom. “What is astounding and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept such relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives.” It is left to “The University,” the third and last section of the book, to present perhaps the only counterforce to a final closing of the American mind. Yet in Bloom’s thinking, the prospects of the university again becoming the domesticator of the passionate soul are dim indeed.
The university must always put the great questions at the forefront, and do so by keeping alive the grand Western tradition found in the old books. Historicism must be banished not because a serious soul might find it tenable, but because it denies man access to his past. The university must keep reason alive, keeping alive as well the tension between the philosopher and the demands of the state. Whereas the project of the Enlightenment was to see the rule of the scientist-philosopher, Socrates in The Republic (c. fourth century b.c.e.) knows otherwise. “What The Republic actually teaches is that none of this is possible and that our situation requires both much compromise and much intransigence, great risks and few hopes. The important thing is not speaking one’s own mind, but finding a way to have one’s own mind.”
Bloom’s observation of the university in the 1960’s does not lend itself to hope. He accuses Cornell, where he was then teaching, of promulgating slogans in place of thought and of turning out homogenized students, emotionally committed to values that had floated in on the wind—equality, freedom, peace, world citizenship—and that could equally well float away again. Those instructors who sought to continue to transmit the content of the Great Books found themselves embattled and then made irrelevant.
The 1960’s fragmented the university, and it has yet to recover. Philosophy is only another subject arranged alphabetically in the catalog. Bloom hopes not for reform but that those who still cherish the books may continue to touch a few students. The translator and interpreter of The Republic (1968) and of Rousseau’s Émile: Or, on Education (1762; Bloom’s translation was published in 1979), both preeminent treatises on education, is certain thatThe real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth. . . . In fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good.
Bloom, then, writes not as an apologist for conservative politics, an absolute moral system, or even a rigorous Platonism, but rather as one who yearns to pursue the true and the good in an open university, where the old thinkers are taken seriously and where students once again may engage in passionate dialogue as their souls are formed and informed by a liberal education, preparing them for the “American moment.” Novelist Saul Bellow, in the foreword to Bloom’s book, is perhaps the optimist: “In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul.”
Form and Content
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
As its subtitle indicates, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students presents a provocative intellectual argument. Allan Bloom does not offer an overview of trends in higher education. His book is not a descriptive study; it is a polemic— that is, he takes a very strong position against what he sees as fundamental weaknesses in higher education. To buttress his arguments, Bloom relies on his own experience as a teacher at Cornell University and the University of Chicago, on certain classic texts in philosophy, and on his interpretation of current events.
The Closing of the American Mind has a foreword by Saul Bellow that is meant to define the kind of book Bloom has written. “This is not the book of a professor,” Bellow asserts, “but that of a thinker who is willing to take the risks more frequently taken by writers.” Professors, Bellow implies, tend to be cautious, to qualify their statements, and to refrain from sweeping generalizations. Writers, on the other hand, are boldly imaginative, trust their personal feelings, and make judgments on the basis of their own authority. The power of Bloom’s book, Bellow implies, lies in the fact that a professor, Allan Bloom, has forsaken the prudence usually associated with professorial writing and spoken out with a highly individual voice.
The Closing of the American Mind is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Students,” discusses the current state of college life, which Bloom deplores for its blandness and lack of intellectual rigor. In this part, the author explores the reasons for student apathy and ranges broadly among such topics as equality, race, sex, and love. Part 2, “Nihilism, American Style,” is more difficult. Here Bloom delves into the intellectual history that has shaped contemporary American culture. Readers not versed in the works of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche will probably find Bloom’s frequent allusions difficult to follow. Part 3, “The University,” deals extensively with Bloom’s own experiences at Cornell during the student protests of the 1960’s. He condemns the changes that took place then in the culture and in the university. Here, his invocation of such authorities as Socrates and Martin Heidegger may also mystify readers who do not have a strong background in the history of Western philosophy.
Throughout The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom is at pains to demonstrate that Western philosophy has a body of work that ought to be drawn upon to reinvigorate American culture. He sees in these classic works enduring values that have been obscured by relativism, which suggests that one point of view is as good as another. Such relativism has made it impossible for students to confront what they really think. Higher education, as his subtitle suggests, has been at fault much more than the students. Indeed, he dedicates his book to his students and implies that the professorate bears a heavy burden of guilt for leading this college generation astray.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85
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Kohn, Alfie. Review in Psychology Today. XXI (August, 1987), pp. 70-71.
Menand, Louis. Review in The New Republic. CXCVI ( May 25, 1987), p. 38.
Minogue, Kenneth. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. July 24, 1987, p. 786.
Nussbaum, Martha. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXXIV (November 5, 1987), pp. 20-26.
Pattison, Robert. Review in The Nation. CCXLIV (May 30, 1987), p. 714.