Closing of the American Mind
by Allan Bloom
This is the best argument for conservatism I’ve ever read. To be fair, it’s also the only one I’ve ever read, outside of the occasional David Brooks column. And let’s be honest: Bloom is about as elitist and conservative as you can get. But he makes the position seem very enticing with his brilliant argumentation and his penetrating logic as he delves into the state of the late 20th century American citizen. It doesn’t hurt that he has a staggering breadth of knowledge on just about every single Western philosopher ever.
Even though it probably woulda sailed over my head, I wish I had read this book before going to college because I might have gotten a lot more out of my education if I had some clue as to where to start. As it is, I recognized myself in most of Bloom’s descriptions about the students who were seeking some sort of higher life-altering experience of knowledge and subsequently being left high and dry by university administrators and faculty.
I found myself agreeing with Bloom’s main thesis on the importance of the humanities (i.e. the “Great Books” and authors) in the liberal education, and their catastrophic decline in the modern university canon. I even agree that maybe college shouldn’t be considered for everyone as merely a de facto extension of the factory schooling technique that has turned our high schools into wastelands of learning. In fact, Bloom’s writing is so engaging throughout, and his depth of knowledge so impressive, that I found myself forgiving his obvious political slant and occasional inconsistencies. There were several, however, that merit mention:
At his worst, Bloom comes off as a lonely, bitter, out-of-touch old codger. This is evident in the ways that he talks down about his naive students and their quaint notions of “commitment” in the age of free love. He clearly despises the hippie movement and has done a good job of developing a logical justification. It left me with a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Which came first, the logical sociological insight against the ravenous hippies, or his personal distaste?
More puzzling is Bloom’s glib dismissal of the family as anything other than a societal convention. While granting that the mother-child bond is “perhaps the only undeniable natural social bond,” (p.115) he dismisses the father out of hand as having no conceivable reason to care for his child other than some abstract desire to attain eternity through his progeny. This is, frankly, stunning. I admire cool intellectual detachment as much as most intellectuals, but to deny that there is a lasting value to human emotions such as paternal love, or even to ignore the biology of the family situation seems wildly out of character for an otherwise rational discussion. It’s all the more curious given Bloom’s apparent sympathy for the Nietzchian anti-rational position. If Bloom is recognizing the value of revelation and passion in our pursuit of knowledge, how can he deny such an irrational impulse as fatherly love? And a few pages later (129), arrogantly scoffing at their capacity to “care”?
The next problem I had, on p. 248, was perhaps a minor point but illustrative of either Bloom’s ingenuousness or his deceitful argumentation. Comparing the old (faith-based) to modern (reason-based) political regimes, Bloom actually manages to lament the disappearance of the aristocracy, because, “This means that there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles [democracy:] as well as no respectability for them.” Incredibly, Bloom completely ignores the fact that the corporations — it’s by no means a stretch to say that they form a modern aristocracy — both oppose democratic governing principles and wield far more power than the supposed mob of “the people,” the rule of which apparently haunts Bloom’s nightmares but otherwise has little relation to reality.
Another disturbing part is Bloom’s persistent characterization of the 60s radicalization of the universities with Nazi Germany. Okay, I’ll admit there are parallels. But Bloom, writing in the 80s, seemed to be predicting a catastrophe that — had “the movement” really been as similar to Nazi Germany in the first place as he insinuates — should have already occurred a decade before. The fact that it still hasn’t occurred a quarter century later makes the claim all the more outlandish. There’s also the fact that Bloom excuses Heidegger’s support of the Nazis because he supposedly did it “ironically.” While this may be true, it is a complete abdication of academic responsibility to ignore (and excuse, in Bloom´s case) what an ironic statement of support for a cruel dictatorship might cause in practical results, i.e. in reality. Both Heidegger’s and Bloom’s apologetics strike me as weasel-words at best.
Then comes Bloom’s glib statement (p. 320) that “You don’t replace something with nothing.” Talking about the criticism of the university curriculum in the 60s, he says, “The criticism of the old is of no value if there is no prospect for the new.” While this may be true for the universities, to issue a blanket statement on the matter is quite simply wrong. Bloom, an apparent sympathizer of Nietzche’s nihilism, should know better. Just from the example he gave of Hitler several pages before, I can say that the Nazi regime is an example of something that would have been better replaced by anything. . . yes, even nothing.
Another minor problem I have is what seems to be a misuse of Socrates. I don’t pretend to know more about Plato’s writings than Mr. Bloom, but I thought it was pretty accepted that as Plato matured, his writings became less about accurately documenting Socrates’ dialogues and more about using his mentor as a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. This makes the Republic, Bloom’s favorite book, distinctly Platonic, and not Socratic, although he seems to worship Socrates based on the ideas there. This is pretty well explained and criticized in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (see my reviews of Vol. I and Vol. II), of which Bloom had to have been aware when he wrote this.
The following problems I have are more major. First, Bloom displays a strange ideological inconsistency throughout the book. I’ve already mentioned his hypocrisy when it comes to nihilism. But there’s another point where he pointedly praises Goethe for bringing the active life to the forefront for the first time. Bloom celebrates Goethe’s claim that DOING is superior to CONTEMPLATING, but he does this in the midst of one long, contemplative tome that has little to do with action. For that matter, every philosopher falls before this definition of superiority, a fact that Bloom ignores. How does Goethe’s stance fit in with the rest of the Socratic philosophers that thought nothing was higher than thinking about truth and values?
The inconsistency continues with respect to Bloom’s praise of the creative and the creators, the artists, which he defines in Part Two as something truly rare. He clearly detests the fact that the word is so overused these days to describe what is unquestionably NOT creation. (This is during a diatribe on “language pollution” which I actually liked and agreed with.) During this section he casually disdains the scholars who merely study what other men created. Of course, he doesn’t mention that he’s doing the same thing: critiquing instead of creating. What exactly is he creating here? Same problem as the Goethe passage.
Perhaps the thing that most bothered me about the book is that Bloom actually conflates the meaning of openness and closedness when elaborating on the title of his book. Try this passage from the introduction:
If openness means to “go with the flow,” it is necessarily an accomodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it. True openness means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present.(p.42, my emphasis)
This quite miraculously turns what most objective bystanders would call Bloom’s closed-minded conservatism into “openness.” It’s a rather neat trick, and even convincing unless you stop to think about it. Then you just think, “Wait a minute, that’s not right at all.” A more flagrant passage occurs toward the end of the book:
In a democracy (the university) risks less by opposing the emergent, the changing and the ephemeral than by embracing them, because the society is already open to them, without monitoring what it accepts or sufficiently respecting the old. There the university risks less by having intransigently high standards than by trying to be too inclusive, because the society tends to blur standards in the name of equality. It also risks less by concentrating on the heroic than by looking to the commonplace, because the society levels. (p.253)
Let me paraphrase since his lingo is a little difficult to follow: A truly open university must oppose everything progressive while upholding tradition and should only concern itself with the most brilliant students while ignoring mediocrity. (He is also claiming that universities are somehow behind the curve on what society accepts, which is ridiculous in its own right.) This is a very convenient position for a conservative elitist to take — it amazingly reinforces with iron-clad logic every reactionary idea he stands for.
That leads to the final problem I had with this book. Bloom adopts the Nietzchian angle that rationalists can’t ultimately sustain their position, because all reason is fundamentally drawn from the irrational. At one point he says something to the effect of, “Reason is nothing more than an excuse for one’s irrational desires/passions,” so all rationalist positions are ultimately self-serving. Yet here he has presented us with a very reasoned argument for why conservatism needs to rule our universities. One must presume that he’s aware of the logical implications — that his own argument falls into the rationalist trap and is really nothing more than masturbatory self-congratulation — but if he is, he never lets on.
I wanted to rate this book lower just because I disagree with the author a fair amount of the time, but the book was so enjoyable that I couldn’t help myself. And it definitely made me think, which I always value.