Review of The Closing of the American Mind
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was published 30 years ago. Bloom, a little-known University of Chicago professor of political theory, found fame as the author of an immediate hit, present on the minds and mouths of students, intellectuals, and the common citizen alike. The Closing of the American Mind begins with a critical analysis of university students and then, by tracing its intellectual roots, finishes with a critical analysis of the modern university itself.
In Bloom’s judgement, the central problem afflicting students, the university, its professors, its administrators, and its curriculum, is its adherence to relativism and its lack of certainty in truth, and hence in good and evil. This denial of certainty, or perhaps this ironic certainty in the impossibility of certainty, is ultimately self-destructive and fails to produce responsible stewards of our democracy.
Bloom’s devastating critique of higher education ends with a challenge: to reconstitute the liberally educated human being for his own sake, and thus for the sake of our democracy. Bloom doubted that we were up to it, and, in reflecting 30 years on, we find that his doubt was well placed.
The meatiest portion of the book is the tracing of the intellectual history of the modern university. Bloom hastily and thoroughly distills the current predicament to the thought of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Weber, and Freud (with the former two making up the hardened core). The influence these men would have on American society came as a surprise. Indeed, Nietzsche would be appalled to find himself so embraced by Americans–particularly left-wing Americans– and yet his thought has pervaded American society and made its way into our vernacular.
According to Bloom, this American-style nihilism inspired by Nietzsche was “nihilism without the abyss” and “nihilism with a happy ending.” It’s in pursuit of knowledge of the self as unlocked through psychology and seen as “the mysterious, free, unlimited center of our being.” It turns out, however, that this concept of self as being exclusively inward, with no relation to the outer, is “pure emptiness.” This is so because it denies nature. Nihilism advances nothingness. Professors advance nothingness on their students when they teach that it means nothing to be a man, to be a woman, to be an American, etc. This nihilistic cause allows us to invent new natures (now called “identities”) and to abandon old ones in a vain attempt to satisfy that inner self that doesn’t exist.
In drawing attention to the “German Connection,” Bloom points out that we are unaware of these roots, putting us “in danger of forgetting” them.
The danger of forgetting our roots is another overarching theme of The Closing of the American Mind.
As students at a modern college we see this forgetfulness first hand, just from what is meant by “modern.” We are, with exceptions, modern students at a modern college staffed with modern professors and administrators, learning a modern curriculum. Colleges want to be modern to appear relevant and appealing to students. But in latching on to the fashionable pieties of the times, colleges– particularly liberal arts colleges–run the risk of abandoning the pieties essential to their mission. (An amusing example of forgetfulness is witnessed when the very department that should know piety best– Religious Studies–offers so-called foundational courses whose syllabi don’t include a single foundational religious text.)
What is this mission? To produce an “educated human.” But how does one become educated? Bloom had a prescription, and acknowledged that “the contemplation of this…is itself a proper philosophic activity.” His prescription is controversial (a synonym for ‘controversial’ could be ‘Straussian’) and met with skepticism: A return to the Great Books. As Leo Strauss said, liberal education is “education in culture or toward culture.” Culture means “cultivation of the mind” as provided by teachers–real teachers, not those who occupy academic departments, but rather the great minds who have left us their Great Books: a canon whose membership is subject to much debate.
That debate is, at least, interesting, unlike the debate on how we are to read this canon. For Bloom, the answer is simple: We are “to read them as they once were read–for the sake of finding out whether they are true.” Bloom gives the example of a reader of Aristotle’s Ethics who might say that it “teaches us not what a good man is, but what the Greeks thought about morality.” This approach, championed by historians and anthropologists, led Bloom to pointedly ask, “But who really cares very much about that?” Answering, “Not any normal person who wants to live a serious life.”
Bloom’s thesis that relativism is self- destructive because it leads to nihilism is witnessed 30 years later in the recent and fashionable push not so much for revolution–because revolutions at least require creativity–but for simply upturning for its own sake with no idea how to rebuild. When professors say that they want their students to “f*** s*** up,” or to “destroy the world they knew,” we should begin to worry that we’re failing liberal education. Putting aside my longings for a time when universities were bastions of erudition and when university professors could express themselves more articulately than your average rebellious teenager, we should return to seeing society the way Plato saw it: As a cave to transcend, not to destroy. Because if we destroy it, we also destroy the place from which we started and from which all people start. To espouse this distinctly recent iconoclastic heresy requires one to be entangled in a web of irony one cannot see and to make one guilty of a silly and self- defeating world-view that I gently and half- jokingly dub “Nihilism, Beloit-Style.”