An Admiration of “The Closing of the American Mind”
After watching Evan Sayet’s video which is embedded in the post below, I checked out the Amazon site for the book he says he values so much – The Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom. The official reviews in 1987 when it came out were sneering. But the first two comments on the Amazon site are amazing and worth reproducing here. I hope I get the book for my upcoming birthday. hint hint hint to Stix and his brothers. Anway, I learned something just from reading these comments – I hope you do, too. I’ve bolded some of the best statements.
392 of 412 people found the following review helpful:
Bloom deserves to be read more carefully, January 8, 2002
Reviewer: A reader
When The Closing of The American Mind was published in 1987, it instantly ignited a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Conservatives hailed it as vindication of their long-ignored criticisms about American culture in general and higher education in particular. Liberals denounced it as elitist and intolerant, and they said Bloom wanted to keep students ignorant of other cultures so he could indoctrinate them with his. Neither side had it right. The Closing of The American Mind is, as Bloom put it in his preface, "a meditation on the state of our souls."
Both sides were wrong about the book because they didn’t read it carefully enough. Liberals read Bloom’s argument for philosophy as an attempt to purge non-white, non-European writers from the cannon on grounds of cultural purity. Conservatives read his plea as an attempt to run all the liberal professors out of academia and replace them with conservatives. But a careful reading of Bloom would quickly prove both of these interpretations false.
Bloom believed Plato’s cave was culture, whether that culture was western or not (after all, it was Plato’s description of his own culture that created the idea of the cave). Bloom’s argument was that students should be forced to read the works of the great philosophers because those writers are the only ones who dealt with the fundamental question of life: what is man. Bloom believed it was the university’s mission to equip students with the tools that would enable them to seek the answer to this question and to lead a philosophical life. Only the great philosophers were capable of introducing students to the deepest and most profound life, and without this introduction, students would forever remain in their respective caves.
Bloom never was a conservative, nor was he one who wished to impose his "culture" on others. Simply put, he was a scholar who wished to make his students think – to truly think – about the nature of their existence and of society. The goal of Bloom’s book was to show how Americans of all political persuasions, social backgrounds and economic conditions are debating within a narrow modern world-view and have simply accepted as fact a mushy blend of modern theory that repeatedly contradicts itself and stands in sharp contrast to an almost entirely forgotten world of opposing thought: that of the ancients.
In other words, Americans are incapable of true self-examination and self-understanding because they are ignorant of ancient philosophy, which poses the only alternative to the modern concept of man. What Bloom does with The Closing of The American Mind is expose the great Oz by asking him life’s deepest questions. Bloom asks the same questions of today’s professors and students that the ancient philosophers asked of themselves and their students. He finds that not only does no one have an answer, but no one even understands the questions.
Bloom’s confrontation exposes the modern American university for what it really is: one big self-esteem seminar where students are taught self-validation instead of self-examination. Professors are not forcing students to confront the most serious questions of life, but rather are handing them scrolls of paper certifying that the university has bestowed on them qualities which, in fact, they already possessed, those being "openness" and "tolerance."
Of students, Bloom writes, "The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable and natural rights that used to be the traditional grounds for a free society."
The university, he shows, does nothing to contest this belief, but feeds it instead. The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only "lifestyle."
There exist in the world polar opposites. Bloom lists "reason-revelation, freedom-necessity, democracy-aristocracy, good-evil, body-soul, self-other, city-man, eternity-time, being-nothing." Serious thought requires recognition of the existence of these opposites and the choice of one over the other. "A serious life 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," Bloom says.
He argues persuasively that the modern university does not force students to confront these alternatives at all, much less seriously think about them. Therefore, the modern university fails in its purpose, which is to create students aware of the vast array of possibilities that life offers and capable of choosing the good life.
Bloom has been harshly, and is still continually, accused of trying to force his own ideology on his students. But even a cursory reading of The Closing of The American Mind will disprove this silly accusation. Bloom simply wanted to make students think, to make them understand that there are different ideas of what man is and that they must confront these ideas if they wish to lead a meaningful life. This, he believed, was the university’s purpose because it is there and only there that students would be exposed to alternatives to the prevailing intellectual trends. Life will happen to the students, he said, they don’t need the university to provide it for them. They need the university to equip them for making the choices that will lead them to the best, most fulfilling life – the philosophical life. It is precisely for this reason that universities exist, and it is precisely this task that they now fail to accomplish.
Bloom’s book remains important a decade after its publication because of the depth of Bloom’s intellect and the thoroughness of his analysis. Only the last third of The Closing of The American Mind focuses on the modern university. Bloom spends the first two-thirds of the book explaining the modern mind-set and contrasting it with the ancient and the enlightened. He demonstrates the shallowness of the modern mind by repeatedly beating it about the head with Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. With this tactic, Bloom tears apart the vapid pop psychology that passes as deep thought and holds up the shreds for the reader to see their thinness.
But Bloom’s attack is also instruction. Through it he takes the reader on an intellectual history tour in which he tracks the evolution of modern thought. Focusing on key words in today’s usage, such as "lifestyle," "relationship" and "commitment," he retraces them through history to discover their origins and their true meanings. He then contrasts these words with the ones they replaced, such as "duty," "honor," "love." The depth and complexity of the ancient concepts overpowers the shallow convenience of the modern ones. Bloom tells how, when he showed this contrast to his students, they didn’t care. Worse, they recoiled at the very thought of being bound by duty or honor or love as opposed to being committed to relationships via contract.
This contrast is at the heart of Bloom’s book: whether humans are truth-seeking creatures who live for the purpose of pleasing God and discovering the good, or whether they are truth-creating creatures who live only for the purpose of satisfying their animal needs and preventing the bad. Bloom believes the former, modernity the latter. Bloom knew that his book would not solve the question or ennoble America. But it would reintroduce the question, which is all that he wanted the university to do. It is tragic that, as he predicted, the universities would cast him out as a heretic instead of making themselves his disciples.
Nearly all of us Americans say that we believe in liberty and equality. But how many of us would be able to defend these beliefs against an attack by a really intelligent anti-egalitarian such as Nietzsche? Our regime was founded on the idea that reason, not religion or brute force, should rule. It was not always obvious that such a regime was either good or possible, and arguments had to be made to convince people to support its creation. The Enlightenment philosophers provided those arguments. As Bloom notes, the Enlightenment brought the philosopher (i.e., reason) and the regime into harmony as they never had been before. (Socrates, the archetypical philosopher, had of course been executed for impiety.) Rousseau, while agreeing with the the fundamental Enlightenment idea of equality, argued forcefully that reason alone could not found and sustain a society, and in the process invented the modern idea of the bourgeois, the product of the reason-based society, hatred of which was an important element of both Marxism and fascism. But it was Nietzsche who provided the really devastating attack, arguing that listening to our heads rather than our hearts had killed what was really worthwhile in us, that we need to stop reasoning and start coming up with new "values."
The middle chapters of the book are the best overview of political philosophy that I have come across. Bloom understands Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Nietzsche as I believe they would have wanted to be understood. Especially Nietzsche, whose ideas are described with the utmost respect, even though it is implicit that if we are to keep our regime we ultimately must reject those ideas. The sections on "Values" and "Culture," which describe how some German ideas with a great deal of nobility in them mutated when they got to America, are riveting.
Bloom can see that our regime, even as it prospers economically, is in crisis. We Americans mouth the words of Jefferson, but really believe Nietzsche. We do not believe in the primacy of reason. Equality and liberty are nothing more than prejudices for most of us. They are merely "values," and if pressed, most of us would not be able to explain why we like those values better than other ones. Regimes decay for a variety of reasons, one of which is internal contradiction, as in the fall of the Soviet Union. The American regime, with its emphasis on human rights, liberty and equality, is based on the primacy of reason. If most Americans do not now believe in the primacy of reason, then our regime has an internal contradiction. I take Bloom to be saying that this contradiction has come about because those in a position to educate the rest of us have failed to do so. That is where the opening and closing sections on young people and university education come in. Those sections are interesting (and obviously near and dear to Bloom’s heart) even if not as informative as the middle chapters, and, even if the section on music is flawed as some other readers have pointed out, they provide concrete examples and describe consequences of the intellectual crisis.
"The Closing of the American Mind" is at the top of my all-time non-fiction list. To me, Bloom is as interesting to read as the thinkers whose thought he describes so well. I believe that in a few years his masterpiece will be seen as a classic of democratic political thought.
Julia And I’ll again recommend reading all of Benedict’s address at Regensberg last September, it also addresses the fading away of our Greek philosophical heritage so basic to classical Western thought. We are losing who we are and are throwing away our only way to defend Western civilization. The Islamists are more patient than we are.