Step 2. The Closing of the American Mind

allan bloom


The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, 1987, by  Allan Bloom.

Bloom  criticized the openness of relativism, in academia and society in general, as leading paradoxically to the great "closing" referenced in the book's title. In Bloom's view, openness and absolute understanding undermine critical thinking and eliminate the point of view that defines cultures.

Bloom attacks the moral relativism that has taken over American universities for the barrier it constructs to the notions of truth, critical thinking, and genuine knowledge. Bloom claims that students in the 1980s have prioritized the immediate, blind relegation of prejudice as inferiority of thought, and therefore have closed their minds to asking the right questions, so that prejudice may be eradicated through logic and critical thinking, as opposed to empty, baseless feelings. Bloom wrote, "Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. ... Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment. The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty."

Bloom details how the young American mindset, the books, music, relationships, and other aspects of American popular culture contribute to the sanctimony of what he perceives to be dull, lazy minds in American universities today. Bloom contends that the clean slate with which students enter universities at first made them more susceptible to genuinely embracing the studies of philosophy and logic. But because of  the improved education of the vastly expanded middle class weakened the family's authority, there came a gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the students Bloom encountered  in his teaching career. He credits the narrowing and flattening of the American college experience to these phenomena.

Bloom then delves into the Great Books dilemma. He believes that the great books of Western thought have been devalued as a source of wisdom—but more importantly, that  students have lost the practice of and the taste of reading. Because of this, students are unable to derive their beliefs from evidence, from central texts, or any print source at all. Bloom contends that without an understanding of important older texts, such as Plato's Republic or Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, modern students lack any reference point with which they can critically think about or address current events. Students are instead left with vague and abstract ideas of "good" and "evil".

Bloom notes that the addiction to music he observes in modern students is unparalleled, and has been for centuries. But even this, he says, contributes to the closing of the young American mind. He notes that fewer and fewer students have a surface level, let alone nuanced, understanding of classical music, and that instead, rock music is as unquestioned and un-problematic as the air the students breathe. Pop music, he believes, employs sexual images and language to enthrall the young and to persuade them that their petty rebelliousness is authentic politics, when, in fact, they are being controlled by the money-managers whom successful performers like Mick Jagger quietly serve. He regards the ubiquity of overly sexual overtones in 1980s rock music and what he perceives to be a subsequent corruption of young minds as a signal of parents' loss of control over the children's moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it. Bloom's conclusion about the effects of music on education is that its oversexualization in the late 20th century makes it very difficult for students to have a passionate relationship with the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education, since it only artificially induces the exaltation attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors ... like discovery of the truth.] Students no longer seek pleasure from the pursuit of learning. Because of the relationships students have with popular culture, their family, and their peers, they no longer come to university asking questions, seeking instruction, or with imagination.

The second part of the book "Nihilism, American Style". He introduces in further detail the concept of value relativism, mentioned previously only in the introduction. Value relativism, he says, plagues most elite institutions of higher learning. For Bloom, this dissolved into nihilism. He notices that students follow the path of least resistance when developing their values.  For students, he writes, "values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them, to find the truth or the good life." Ironically, when travelling this path without reason, Bloom opines, students still "adopt strong poses and fanatic resolutions."

Bloom also criticizes his fellow philosophy professors, especially those involved in ordinary language analysis or logical positivism, for disregarding important "humanizing" ethical and political issues and failing to pique the interest of students. Literature professors involved in deconstructionism promote irrationalism and skepticism of standards of truth and thereby dissolve the moral imperatives which are communicated through genuine philosophy and which elevate and broaden the intellects of those who engage with these imperatives. To a great extent, Bloom's critique extends beyond the university to speak to the general crisis in American society. He draws analogies between the United States and the Weimar Republic. The modern liberal philosophy, he says, enshrined in the Enlightenment thought of John Locke—that a just society could be based upon self-interest alone, coupled by the emergence of relativism in American thought—had led to this crisis. Bloom cites Friedrich Nietzsche's actions of telling "modern man that he was free-falling in the abyss of nihilism", and continues to espouse Nietzsche's commentary that nihilism in our contemporary democracy stems from value relativism.
For Bloom, this created a void in the souls of Americans, into which demagogic radicals as exemplified by 1960s student leaders could leap. (Bloom made the comparison to the Nazi brownshirts who once similarly filled the gap created in German society by the Weimar Republic.) In the second instance, he argued, the higher calling of philosophy and reason understood as freedom of thought, had been eclipsed by a pseudo-philosophy, or an ideology of thought. Relativism was one feature of modern American liberal philosophy that had subverted the Platonic–Socratic teaching.

Bloom contends that the failure of contemporary liberal education leads to the sterile social and sexual habits of modern students, and to their inability to fashion a life for themselves beyond the mundane offerings touted as success. Bloom argues that commercial pursuits had become more highly valued than love, the philosophic quest for truth, or the civilized pursuits of honor and glory. In "The University", he discusses how the environment in elite institutions has cultivated mere ambition over the search for truth. He says that proclaiming an affinity for reason does not alone define a university's worth, as the statement alone does not constitute true commitment to scholastic pursuits in the name of a greater truth. He contends that "the mere announcement of the rule of reason does not create the conditions for the full exercise of rationality". Universities serve as a reflection of the public and democracy at large.[citation needed] Because of this, they are slave to public opinion (per Alexis de Tocqueville).The public opinion—which serves as the final gatekeeper and the final headsmen for any movements the university may actually try to implement to advance the pursuit of critical thinking.

Bloom also notices a trend in which students notice the devaluing of free thought in universities. He writes about students at Cornell University, that "these students discerned that their teachers did not really believe that freedom of thought was necessarily a good and useful thing, that they suspected that all this was ideology protecting the injustices of our 'system'". Bloom asserts that American professors in the sixties "were not aware of what they no longer believed" and that this notion gravely endangered any capacity for progress towards free thought. Bloom insists that requiring from universities empty values like "greater openness", "less rigidity", and "freedom from authority" are only fashionable and do not have any substantive content. And in the face of growing civil rights conflicts, universities have a duty to instead actively pursue the task of "opening American minds". It is not enough, Bloom contends, for universities to "not want trouble".[It is not enough for universities to only hold reputation paramount in the face of campus disruption, and only in name espouse free thought and truth. This "unfortunate mixture of cowardice and moralism" will unseat the spirit of the university. Bloom concludes by reminding readers that the love of wisdom and truth must be kept alive in universities, particularly in this moment of world history.

Thirty years on Closing has lost none of its power or its relevance. If anything, the crisis Bloom identified has only intensified, with the renaissance of angry and  violent protests on college campuses and in urban areas, the growing vitriol and vulgarity of political discourse, and the rise of movements  which are skeptical of liberal democracy.
 America is in crisis and in the university, and Bloom offers a  diagnosis of the common illness infecting them both. That illness involves the crisis of the West, the loss of confidence in reason’s ability to discover truth and guide human action. The Specter of Jean-Jacque Rousseau still haunts us.
A crisis of reason is also a crisis of liberal democracy, which depends upon reason to moderate competing  ideological claims. Bloom writes, “bursts the mainspring keeping the mechanism of this regime in motion.” The disregard of reason and the cultural treasurers that have been handed do to us  as standards leaves people passionately “committed” to their “values” with no means to evaluate those values or understand their differences.

In the background of Bloom’s book is the fate of Weimar Germany. A liberal Western liberal democracy become transformed into a violent and repressive totalitarian regime. Could  the same thing happen to us? For Bloom, this transformation was not simply the result of contingent historical events such as the Treaty of Versailles or the Great Depression. Its roots were planted, in the romantic reaction of  Jean-Jacques Rousseau and to what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the borification” of human beings under liberal democracy.
In tracing the trail of ideas that led to the crisis of the West, Bloom reviews the thought of Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Nietzsche. These thinkers raise questions about the relations between the passions and reason, the soul and the body, the individual and community, science and poetry, politics and philosophy, reason and revelation.

Rather than give answers to these questions, Bloom, the teacher, invites his readers into philosophical experience by making a convincing case for the competing positions. At times, this makes it difficult to tell whether Bloom is advocating a particular position or merely summarizing it. The problem is similar to that facing Socrates when he is arrested by Polemarchus in the opening scene of Plato’s Republic: What reasons can be offered to someone who denies the power of reason altogether? 

In the second part of the book Bloom offers an analogy. A true political or social order requires the soul to be like a Gothic cathedral, with selfish stresses and strains helping to hold it up. Abstract moralism condemns certain keystones, removes them, and then blames both the nature of the stones and the structure when it collapses.

In the third part of the book  Bloom writes the following of the student protesters and their abettors in the sixties:
Indignation and rage was the vivid passion characterizing those in the grip of the new moral experience. Indignation may be a most noble passion and necessary for fighting wars and righting wrongs. But of all the experiences of the soul it is the most inimical to reason and hence to the university. Anger, to sustain itself, requires an unshakable conviction that one is right. Whether the student wrath against the professorial Agamemnons is authentically Achillean is open to question. But there is no doubt it was the banner under which they fought, the proof of belonging.
As it was in the sixties, so again today. Indignant anger has become a public passion. Yet Bloom shows how complex and problematic this passion is. Anger is distinctive to human beings (or rational beings), because it is not merely a physiological reaction to stimuli but is bound up with a judgment about right and wrong. But as Bloom points out, anger can also be the most irrational and destructive of passions, especially when it is directed toward perceived threats to oneself or one’s own. Bloom’s allusion to the central theme of Homer’s  Iliad illustrates this point: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus / and its devastation.” Ordinary animals do not nurse wounded pride, slash at rivers that get in their way, or spend days relieving their anger on the maimed corpses of their enemies. Homer’s description is not far from the atrocities committed in parts of the Middle East.

 The changes in liberal education outlined by Bloom have resulted  in the  Social Justice movement of 2020*. This movement emerged from elite universities, and its  premise is:  if you can change the cultural structures you can change society. The members of this movemet have  a simple Marxist based ideology: History is a power struggle between groups,  oppressor groups  and  oppressed groups. Established points of view are weapons that dominant groups employ to maintain their place in the power structure. Certain words are a form of violence that have to be regulated. Recently I used the word "retarded" and was upbraided. My explanation that the word comes from the Latin tarda which means slow, did not excuse my sin.

 The movement pays attention to cultural symbols, such as  to language, statues, the names of buildings and streets.  Like the sheep in Animal Farm they repeat slogans. Not, "four legs good, two legs bad", but “defund the police”  and "black lives matter", and symbolic gestures, like kneeling before a football game. It is performance art rooted in social media. Their other focus is on political correctness to cancel those not "woke" by pouncing on a "problematic" statement or gesture. I know of a supervisor in a large public library who had her job terminated for laughing at a "problematic" joke. This way power can be exercised over those in positions of authority by those without authority. These activists can claim that if you don’t like their tactics you are against racial equity or economic justice and imply you just might be a racist yourself and a candidate for burning at the stake. 
The  problem with the Social Justice theory of change, besides being entirely silly, is that it can not make actual change. Corporations will adopt some woke symbols and  have the Human Resources Department hold a few consciousness-raising seminars as the price for doing business.  Such Strum und Drang is thrashing about in issueless confusion.

The smoking gun behind  the Social Justice movement is without a doubt, higher education.  That most of the  colleges and universities are dominated by liberals is well document and there is no need to dwell on the obvious. I will offer two examples and move on.

First, a new item dated 19 June 2020

EAST LANSING, MI (WILX) - Michigan State University Vice President of research and innovations Stephen Hsu announced his resignation from his leadership position. Hsu has come under fire recently after he allegedly denounced scientific racism, sexism, eugenicist research and conflicts of interest. One of the comments came in a 2017 interview with Stefan Molyneux sparked outrage again when he cited a 2019 study in a blog post concluding, "there is no widespread racial bias in police shootings."
A petition was made earlier in June, calling for the removal of Hsu as Senior Vice President of research and innovations. The petition has since gathered hundreds of signatures.
President Samuel Stanley Jr. said he believes Hsu's resignation is best for MSU.
"I believe this is what is best for our university to continue our progress forward," said Stanley. "The exchange of ideas is essential to higher education, and I fully support our faculty and their academic freedom to address the most difficult and controversial issues. But when senior administrators at MSU choose to speak out on any issue, they are viewed as speaking for the university as a whole. Their statements should not leave any room for doubt about their, or our, commitment to the success of faculty, staff and students.”

Second, an incident from my own experience.  After retiring from a faculty position with a Kansas College in 1998 I took another position with a Texas University but continued to teach an online undergrad course for the Kansas College. The course was based on Kenneth Clark's book and television series, "Civilisation", as Clark concluded his coverage in the late 1960's I had added several new units. The course was popular and usually filled the first day of student registration and I enjoyed very much teaching the course and felt it was important to introduce students to the great art that underlies our civilization. But after five or six semesters I received notification that the humanities faculty had voted to remove the course from the college catalogue. The reason given: "The faculty has judged the course to be too Eurocentric." Had the course been "The Umayyad Caliphate" I would still be  teaching online.

All our mistakes have led us to a dismal 2020. We are a rudderless nation consumed by riots, beset with elite psychodrama, and cursed with an inward looking PC crusade. Our friends in Europe, if we have any, are likely dismayed and our enemies, which are many, smirking.

* The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994, a book about western literature by the Harold Bloom, in which the author defends the concept of the Western canon by discussing 26 writers whom he sees as central to the canon. Bloom argues against the "School of Resentment", which includes feminist literary criticism, Marxist literary criticism, Lacanians, New Historicism, Deconstructionists, and semioticians.

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