The Closing of the American Mind

american mind by Viktor Koen

The Closing of the American Mind is a 1987 book by American philosopher Allan Bloom. It describes ‘how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.’ He focuses especially upon the ‘openness’ of relativism as leading paradoxically to the great ‘closing’ referenced in the book’s title.

Bloom argues that ‘openness’ and absolute understanding undermines critical thinking and eliminates the ‘point of view’ that defines cultures. According to Bloom: ‘Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them autonomously to seek that completion.’

His book is a critique of the contemporary university and how Bloom sees it as failing its students. In it, Bloom criticizes the modern movements in philosophy and the humanities. Philosophy professors involved in ordinary language analysis or logical positivism disregard important ‘humanizing’ ethical and political issues and fail 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 criticism revolves around his belief that the ‘great books’ of Western thought have been devalued as a source of wisdom. 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.

For Bloom, this created a void in the souls of Americans, into which demagogic radicals as exemplified by ’60s student leaders could leap. (In the same fashion, Bloom suggests, that the Nazi brownshirts once 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 liberal philosophy that had subverted the Platonic–Socratic teaching. Bloom’s critique of contemporary social movements at play in universities or society at large is derived from his classical and philosophical orientation. For Bloom, 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 one chapter, in a style of analysis which resembles the work of the Frankfurt School, he examined the philosophical effects of popular music on the lives of students, placing pop music, or as it is generically branded by record companies ‘rock music,’ in a historical context from Plato’s ‘Republic’ to Nietzsche’s Dionysian longings. Treating it for the first time with genuine philosophical interest, he gave fresh attention to the industry, its target-marketing to children and teenagers, its top performers, its place in our late-capitalist bourgeois economy, and its pretensions to liberation and freedom. Some critics, including the popular musician Frank Zappa, argued that Bloom’s view of pop music was based on the same ideas that critics of pop ‘in 1950s held, ideas about the preservation of ‘traditional’ white American society.’

Bloom, informed by Socrates, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, explores music’s power over the human soul. He cites the soldier who throws himself into battle at the urging of the drum corps, the pious believer who prays under the spell of a religious hymn, the lover seduced by the romantic guitar, and points towards the tradition of philosophy that treated musical education as paramount. He names the pop-star Mick Jagger as a cardinal representative of the hypocrisy and erotic-sterility of pop-music. Pop music 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 Jagger quietly serve. Bloom claims that Jagger is a hero to many university students who envy his fame and wealth but are really just bored by the lack of options before them. Along with the absence of literature in the lives of the young and their sexual but often unerotic relationships, the first part of ‘Closing’ tries to explain the current state of education in a fashion beyond the purview of an economist or psychiatrist—contemporary culture’s leading umpires.

‘The Closing of the American Mind’ was published in 1987, five years after Bloom published an essay in ‘The National Review’ about the failure of universities to serve the needs of students. With the encouragement of Saul Bellow, his colleague at the University of Chicago, he expanded his thoughts into a book ‘about a life, I’ve led’ that critically reflected on the current state of higher education in American universities. His friends and admirers imagined the work would be a modest success, as did Bloom, who recognized his publisher’s modest advance to complete the project as a lack of sales confidence. Yet on the momentum of strong initial reviews, including one by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in ‘The New York Times’ and an op-ed piece by syndicated conservative commentator George Will entitled ‘A How-To Book for the Independent’ it became an unexpected best seller.

The book was met with much critical acclaim. The success of the work attracted a wide spectrum of critics. Martha Nussbaum, a liberal professor of political philosophy and classicist, and Harry V. Jaffa, a conservative, both argued that Bloom was deeply influenced by 19th-century European philosophers, especially Friedrich Nietzsche. Nussbaum wrote that, for Bloom, Nietzsche had been disastrously influential in modern American thought. Jaffa pointed out the lack of attention Bloom paid to the moral role gay rights were playing in the lives of current students. According to Jaffa, while Bloom discusses contemporary social movements, particularly those that gained ascendancy in the 1960s, he is virtually silent on the gay rights movement. An outraged ‘assault’ on the book was continued by negative and impassioned reviews by Benjamin Barber in ‘Harper’s’; by the scholar of ancient philosophy and Nietzsche Alexander Nehamas in the ‘London Review of Books’; and by David Rieff in ‘The Times Literary Supplement.’ Rieff called Bloom ‘an academic version of Oliver North: vengeful, reactionary, antidemocratic.’ The book, he said, was one that ‘decent people would be ashamed of having written.’

The tone of these reviews led James Atlas in the ‘New York Times Magazine’ to conclude ‘the responses to Bloom’s book have been charged with a hostility that transcends the usual mean-spiritedness of reviewers.’ One reviewer, the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff writing in the scholarly journal ‘Academe,’ reviewed the book as a work of fiction: he claimed that Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow, who had written the introduction, had written a ‘coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades,’ using as the narrator a ‘mid-fiftyish professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name ‘Bloom.” Yet some reviewers tempered that criticism with an admission of the merits of Bloom’s writing: for example, Fred Matthews, a historian from York University, began an otherwise relatively critical review in the American Historical Review with the statement that Bloom’s ‘probes into popular culture’ were ‘both amusing and perceptive’ and that the work was ‘a rich, often brilliant, and disturbing book.’

Some critics embraced Bloom’s argument. Norman Podhoretz noted that the closed-mindedness in the title refers to the paradoxical consequence of the academic ‘open mind’ found in liberal political thought—namely ‘the narrow and intolerant dogmatism’ that dismisses any attempt, by Plato or the Hebrew Bible for example, to provide a rational basis for moral judgments. Podhoretz continued, ‘Bloom goes on to charge liberalism with vulgarizing the noble ideals of freedom and equality, and he offers brilliantly acerbic descriptions of the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, which he sees as products of this process of vulgarization.’ Camille Paglia, a decade after the book’s release, called it ‘the first shot in the culture wars.’ Linguist and libertarian socialist political theorist Noam Chomsky dismissed the book as ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’ for its canonistic approach to education. On the other hand, an early ‘New York Times’ review by Roger Kimball called the book ‘an unparalleled reflection on the whole question of what it means to be a student in today’s intellectual and moral climate.’


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