Book Review: The Closing of the American Mind

I finally finished this book this morning, having started mere days after I finished my comprehensive exams. For about three hundred sixty of its three hundred eighty pages, I wasn’t sure what its thesis was going to be, and frankly, the place that Bloom lands in the end is hardly a satisfactory solution to the grand pessimistic labyrinth that he lays out. I also found that the sweeping range of meanings contained in Bloom’s designation “The Left” did not leave much for the word not to mean, and thus it took some doing to imagine that “The Left” was any sort of real entity, much less a threat. But first some summary.

The famous opening sentence of the book struck me as somehow off. For the sake of precision, here it goes: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (25). I don’t have trouble imagining that this was true in 1987 in elite private universities, but twenty years later, at least in the schools where I’ve taught, most of my students have not themselves been relativists, though they’ve heard that all of their teachers will be. (When I come after them with Plato in my hand, they find out pretty quickly that absolutism is far scarier. But I’ll talk more about Plato later.) The first act of Bloom’s book then sketches a profile of the American university student in 1987, and not much has changed since then. The students aren’t out to cause trouble but don’t necessarily defer to their teachers for admiration of their wisdom but rather humor us while in their “core” classes until they get to the real business of college, namely learning a trade. Most of the students aren’t all that interested in reading as self-exploration but listen obsessively to recorded pop music as an act of self-expression. They assume that women have capabilities and potential roughly the same as men’s, and ethnic background is more a hobby than an identity; Polish students and Italian, Scots-Irish and German, mingle without much ado. I think he overplays the extent to which every ethnicity but black mingles; twenty years later in a state university, the Indians and Chinese and Koreans tend to have their corners in the UGA mess halls as much as do blacks. More about that in a moment. But he does peg the fact that for the most part, college students are consumers first, and they seem to think of their classmates as potential sources of enjoyment.

I have to admit that at first I did not understand Bloom’s antipathy towards black students, and now that I’ve finished, it’s more intelligible but still unacceptable. Towards the end of the book Bloom recounts a hostage situation instigated by black radicals at Cornell, where he was a professor, and if his account of things was right, then the humanities faculty did indeed react without any of the courage or clarity that should become professors of the humanities. Nonetheless, Bloom attacks the very presence of black students at Cornell while leaving alone the Vietnamese, Japanese, and rural white students who, in my experience, need just as much help learning to think in the idioms of university intellectuals, and I expected more than such tunnel-vision from a fellow teacher of Plato.

The bulk of the book is an examination of philosophy from Machiavelli roughly to Heidegger, and his approach is inconsistent though interesting. Sometimes I got the impression that Bloom was a Neil Postman-style Enlightenment devotee, but then other times I thought he was a latter-day Platonist not happy at all with the legacy of Locke. (I’ll admit that on some days I’m one of the latter myself.) Not one to defer to famous writers, I will say that none of his analyses of Spinoza, Locke, or Rousseau struck me as particularly wrong-headed; on the contrary, he gives treatments to Marx and Nietzsche that leave no doubt in my mind that he has not only read them (not many who gripe about “Marxism” and “nihilism” exhibit the same) but given them serious and respectful consideration as thinkers. His style is just so contrarian that, in the maze of critiques of these figures (who themselves disagreed violently among themselves), a Bloom-position was hard to discern.

In the brief chapter simply called “The Sixties,” my confusion about “The Left” reached its apex. On one hand, Bloom opposes people who would intrude upon the university’s life by means of intimidation, finds consumer culture’s abandonment of reason in favor of raw option philosophically untenable, scoffs at kids who think that simple hedonism is “liberal” or even “revolutionary,” and thinks that televised protests are worthless politically and make celebrities out of those without the spirit to become heroes. As far as that goes, I’m with him. On the other hand, Bloom criticizes historicism at every turn, and I consider myself a thoroughgoing historicist. This complaint of mine is not isolated to Bloom; more often than not, people who talk about “The Left” as monolithic leave me wondering whether I’m among the enemy.

I will say again that, if Bloom’s accounts of his colleagues’ reactions to the intimidation of faculty and administration by Black Power agents is true, then he deserves a moment of contempt for them. He is absolutely right that intimidation by Right or Left is simply unacceptable, a species of the tyrant’s appeal to the masses over against the learned, and I would hope that he would think the same of phenomena such as Horowitz’s attacks on university professors by means of state legislatures. Since Bloom has no love for Joe McCarthy (unlike some self-appointed conservative pundits), I imagine he would take the side of the university on that one as well.

Eventually Bloom lands on Great Books curriculum as the best way out of the consumerism that characterizes the post-sixties university. Now I’m no foe of Great Books. My own alma mater, Milligan, takes pride in its humanities program (instituted in the same span of time as the rise of Black Power), a curriculum spanning every student’s first four semesters and forming a kernel of common reading that makes Milligan a community in a sense that other schools where I’ve taught simply aren’t. That said, I’m going to take issue with the last bit of this essay not with Bloom’s “conservatism” (I’m rarely clear on what that word means) but with his secularism.

Bloom is no doubt aware of Christianity; he has no doubt read his Augustine and Aquinas. Nonetheless, he treats Christianity not as the revolutionary intellectual and spiritual shift that it is in Hegel’s history of philosophy but simply as one more thing that happened in the world surrounding the philosophers. In Bloom’s account of things, philosophy’s goodness comes from its uselessness, its refusal to make things happen. As far as this book goes, that refusal is a common thread that holds true in pagan and Constantinian contexts, irrespective of “religion,” all the way to the Enlightenment, where philosophy became democratic, when conceptions of “human nature” began to shift. As a Thomist (in the Aquinas sense this time, not in the Jefferson sense), I think that the grander shift came not with Locke’s abandonment of Plato’s elitism but with Augustine’s grand fulfillment of classical philosophy when he integrated it into the grander schema of Christian revelation. That move, which makes faithfulness and charity rather than family situation and Roman-style heroism the core of political organization, does not do away with the old aristocracies but nonetheless renders them empty, shells which Locke all too easily discards. That development, which Bloom handily ignores, is fully available to a historicist (especially a Christian one), but someone who thinks that “human nature” is a category largely unaffected by the rise of Christian theology could not be expected to grab onto that.

All in all, I found the book interesting, and it’s not a bad introduction to the history of philosophical anthropology. The attacks on “The Left” leave something to be desired (as do most attacks on “The Right”), but in the end he advocates the teaching of Plato, and I can’t quibble with that. In fact, I started planning this fall’s lessons on Republic just the other day.

When I think about teaching Republic, I realize that in doing so I join a company of teachers that includes not only Bloom but also C.S. Lewis and Alfred North Whitehead and perhaps even Saint Ambrose. It’s a heady realization. Perhaps that’s why I look forward to it every fall.

Cross-posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia.

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Filed under Books, Kids These Days, Plato

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