The Closing of the American Mind (Book Review)

I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books.   Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order.  Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program.  Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.

The Closing of the American Mind cover picture.

I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom.  Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare.  The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society.  He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.

Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers.  Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus.  However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc.  This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization.  Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.

Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.”  However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs.  He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.

I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom.  Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument.  If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males.  On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well.  Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage.  On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history.  There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.

One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293).  The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand.  Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler.  In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution.  I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church.  Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:

In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it.  Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)

However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme:  Enlightenment.  This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it.  By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy.  Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.

Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university.  Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.

For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan.  If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on.  To where?  I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.


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