“The Closing of the American Mind” Reconsidered After 25 Years


“My fellow elitists,” Bloom famously began, to an uproar of cheers from the audience. It was December 7, 1988 in a lecture hall at Harvard University, one year after philosopher Allan Bloom authored the influential book he was presenting on: the presumptuously titled The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The culture wars had begun.

Initially written as a reflection on Bloom’s own academic career in the University of Chicago’s prestigious Committee on Social Thought, the book was not expected to be a game changer. But, after being reviewed by several important critics, it was widely read in and outside of academia, selling close to half a million copies in hardback and remaining at number one on the New York Times Non-fiction Best Seller list for four months. On account of its popularity and highly influential message, one critic has called Closing “the first shot in the culture wars” that still rage on between liberal and conservative critics and academics 25 years later.


The Bitter Flavor of Absolutism

Bloom’s central argument in Closing was that Truth had lost prominence in our society. He begins his work with a bitter diagnosis of the college students who walked into his classroom:

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… The students’ backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some are atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. [1]
 

Bloom is clear from the very beginning that his book is not the politically conservative diatribe many critics took it to be. Rather, it is a diatribe about truth. Bloom observes that since the 1950s, primary and secondary schools have touted the values of “openness” and “acceptance” above all else. To modern students, these values are signs of civilization and tolerance in contrast to the years of intellectual “absolutism” that has marred human life for all of history reached its zenith in the early twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes. For Bloom, Western culture’s newfound appreciation for tolerance has a major flaw: it inevitably devolves into relativism. Bloom writes,

Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and be really right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
 

In hopes of becoming a more accepting and tolerant society, we have all turned off our truth detectors and started indiscriminately soaking up the ideas that come our way. But, Bloom objects, all ideas are not created equal; some are false, some are true, and it is unworthy of the human brain to stop caring which are which. Like his hero Socrates, Bloom cared, and he thought American higher education ought to as well.

Bloom notes that our society uniformly condemns people like himself who claim to have working truth-detectors and writes them off as “absolutists” and “despots.” Such people, Americans say, were responsible for horrible episodes in human history, from the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust, and a shift away from absolutism toward openness is the only way for us to move forward. Why on earth would we want to go back?

Bloom defies this logic with a call to the past—to reading the Great Books of philosophy and literature in which Western civilization is rooted. Though the Great Books are a highly respected way to teach today—it is practically heretical to say otherwise in my classes at U of C—they were slipping away from academia precisely in the time Bloom was writing. Hundreds of colleges had recently instituted graduation requirements for classes on “non-Western cultures” and “diversity.” These colleges were fighting back against the old boy’s club of philosophy and literature that had dominated academia for centuries. 1987 was also perhaps the high point of the Reagan years, and the first recognizable stage of the so-called “culture wars” in which controversy over issues like abortion, gun politics, homosexuality, and separation of church and state divided America into two distinct “cultures” that to this day have not been reconciled.

As far as liberals at the time were concerned, Bloom’s claim that students today needed to return to the Great Books was outright conservative propaganda. At the time Closing was written, Bloom’s intellectual heroes were by no means popular or appreciated outside of academia. Aristotle justified slavery and misogyny. Machiavelli was flat-out evil. The Bible is full of egregious behavior. The thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger is associated with Nazism. Rousseau and Hobbes defended social contracts that justified backward governments. Socrates himself proposed brainwashing the citizens of his utopian Republic and imposing a 1984-esque “guardian” class to keep citizens in their place. How could someone defend the authority of these texts when they strike us as so plainly elitist and obsolete? This is the question Closing seeks to answer.


Bloom’s Socratic Appeal

Though Closing made Bloom a controversial figure in academia, he is best known for his prized 1968 translation of Plato’s Republic, which remains the authoritative translation to this day. This book perhaps best encapsulates Bloom’s unending praise for the Western tradition of thought that began with Socrates. He wrote in the preface to the 1991 second edition of his translation,

When I teach the Republic now, the reactions to it are more urgent and more intense than they were when I was working on this translation and this interpretation [in 1968]. The Republic is, of course, a permanent book, one of the small number of books that engage the interest and sympathy of thoughtful persons wherever books are esteemed and read in freedom. No other philosophic book so powerfully expresses the human longing for justice while satisfying the intellect’s demands for clarity… When non-philosophers begin their acquaintance with philosophers, they frequently say, “This is nonsense.” But sometimes they say, “This is outrageous nonsense,” and at such moments their passions really become involved with the philosophers frequently culminating in hatred or in love. Right now Plato is both attractive and repulsive to the young. [2]
 

From here, Bloom goes straight into what was perhaps the most critically discussed subject of Closing: music. Bloom disdains popular music for requiring no analytical response from its listener—it is all just “nice”—unlike great classical music, which one simply can not listen to without turning inward and forming opinions. Bloom writes on music in his preface to the Republic,

Precisely because music is central to the soul and the musicians are virtuosos at plucking its chords, Socrates argues that it is imperative to think about how the development of the passions affects the whole of life and how musical pleasures may conflict with duties or other, less immediate pleasures. This is intolerable, and many students feel that the whole Socratic understanding is subversive of their establishment. As I said, the Republic is perennial; it always returns with the change of human seasons.
 

Allan Bloom leading a class at the University of Chicago

The “subversiveness” of Socratic dialogue leaves nothing untouched—not even rock music. Great Books are an effective tool for Bloom because their ideas are so profound—or outrageous—as to necessarily provoke response. Unlike, say, modern works on feminism or religious toleration which one can only passively absorb because these themes are by their natures not contestable, the Great Books incite argument and cannot even be comprehended without philosophical introspection. When students read Plato, Bloom observes, they suddenly have a personal stake in the argument. Instead of passively entertaining all ideas and respecting their classmates’ opinions as equally true and valuable, they suddenly latch on to contestable ideas. They attack others’ underlying assumptions and are forced to evaluate their own. They are either wildly attracted to or outright repulsed by arguments—there is no lukewarm or indifferent option. For the first time in their lives, students scrape solid Truth with their fingertips. Their minds suddenly open.


Critical Responses to Closing

On Closing’s 25th anniversary, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, a former student of Bloom’s at Chicago, wrote on the book’s tremendous influence in The American Conservative. Deneen notes that even though he was personally disillusioned with Bloom by the time he left Chicago and has many problems with Closing, he still assigns it regularly in a seminar he teaches on education. For all of its flaws, the book is simply a milestone in the history of higher education and philosophy itself. Deneen writes on Closing’s violent reception:

The Closing of the American Mind spawned hundreds, perhaps even thousands of responses—most of them critiques—including an article entitled “The Philosopher Despot” in Harper’s by political theorist Benjamin Barber, and the inevitably titled The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine. Partly spurred by the firestorm initiated by Bloom’s book, perennial presidential candidate Jesse Jackson led a march through the campus of Stanford University shouting through a bullhorn, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Passions for campus reform ran high, and an avalanche of words, articles, denunciations, and ad hominem attacks greeted Bloom’s defense of the Western canon. [3]
 

Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago

But this liberal backlash was caused largely by a drastic oversimplification of Bloom’s nuanced and deeply Socratic argument. In labeling him a “despot” whose only goal was to impose misogynist and patriarchal texts written exclusively by dead white men, Bloom’s liberal critics overlooked the reasons why he valued these texts in the first place—they all strove for their own versions of Truth without collapsing in on themselves the way relativist works today do. Bloom himself said,

Any superficial reading of my book will show how I differ from both theoretical and practical conservative positions. My teachers: Socrates, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Nietzsche—could hardly be called conservatives. All foundings are radical, and conservatism has to be judged by the radical thought or events it intends to conserve. [4]
 

Bloom advocated neither conservative texts nor conservative readings of texts; he advocated a critical reading of texts that in its paradoxical “radical conservatism” essentially removed it from his day’s political spectrum. Yet, Bloom wrote Closing in an incredibly nostalgic tone, lamenting the days of values and principles, and thus became linked to cultural conservatism. Deneen retells a passage from Closing that explains the problem Bloom perceptively observed:

Near the beginning of Closing, Bloom relates one telling story of a debate with a psychology professor during his time teaching at Cornell. Bloom’s adversary claimed, “it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students.” Bloom compared that function to the activity of an older sibling who informs the kids that there is no Santa Claus—disillusionment and disappointment. Rather than inspiring students to replace “prejudice” with a curiosity for Truth, the mere shattering of illusion would simply leave students “passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself.”

Bloom relates that “I found myself responding to the professor of psychology that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays—with the general success of his method—they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything … One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.” Bloom’s preferred original title—before being overruled by Simon and Schuster—was Souls Without Longing. He was above all concerned that students, in being deprived of the experience of living in their own version of Plato’s cave, would never know or experience the opportunity of philosophic ascent.
 

These students are the “impoverished souls” Bloom refers to in his title. In trying to accomodate the whole world around them, they have been denied a chance at building and shaping their own souls—that is, their thoughts, opinions, and identities. But what then is a healthy soul? For Bloom, one with passionate opinions and even prejudices. He writes,

Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. They are divinations of the order of the whole of things, and hence the road to a knowledge of that whole is by way of erroneous opinions about it. Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment.
 

Socrates famously claimed that he was the wisest man in Greece because he “knew that he knew nothing.” But, importantly, he still struggled for knowledge and never settled into sophistry—the ancient world’s version of today’s relativist complacency. In his dialogues, Socrates methodically revealed errors in the logic of his interlocutors and exposed how little any actually knew. But he crucially resisted the easy out of settling for illogic: he always asked a further question and his dialogues all end without definite conclusions. Still, this intellectual jousting is not useless. For Socrates, as for Bloom, it is the only way to learn. To think seriously about ideas, one must first have a personal stake in them. Only on account of discriminating passion will error ever be revealed.


Closing’s Relevance After 25 Years

This brings us to the last component of Bloom’s controversial title: “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy.” American democracy is by its nature a melting pot of diverse people and views that led us to value acceptance and toleration. By this logic of assimilation, however, all views and opinions are toned down and mollified so as to be acceptible in public space. For Bloom, America has so softened its demands for truth that it is politically incorrect to disagree with another person’s opinion. Yet, leaving false opinions uncontested does not engender consensus of belief—it engenders a dearth of it. Bloom’s ultimate concern is, “When there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?”

“They were open to the good,” Bloom writes of Greek philosophers, but they also “had to use the good, which was not their own, to judge their own.” The ancients developed objective standards by which to evaluate their own lives, and Bloom thinks this strongly tested and strengthened their souls. Moreover, this project of finding the good and thus enriching one’s life was the central aim of liberal education and philosophy itself up until the twentieth century. By the time Bloom wrote Closing, the American university was essentially a warming house for Wall Street and practically all colleges had given up on the project of instilling its students with character and goodness.

Much to Bloom’s chagrin, the Left constantly references the insistence of America’s Founding Fathers on toleration and freedom of opinion and speech—but Bloom thinks they entirely miss the point. He writes on our constitutional freedoms in respect to religion and knowledge, “No weakness of conviction was desired here. All to the contrary, the sphere of rights was to be the arena of moral passion in a democracy.” Passion is perhaps what Bloom finds most glaringly absent from modern liberal education, and Closing is both an elegy to its departure and a call for its return.

25 years after its publication, The Closing of the American Mind poses great challenges for our universities and society more broadly: to defend individual identity against the threat of conformist democracy and to reason passionately against the threat of idle openness. It deserves to be read alongside great works of philosophy and literature, perhaps now more than ever.

The 25th Anniversary Edition of The Closing of the American Mind is available for purchase on Amazon.com.


Jon Catlin
 

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a second-year in the College at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. His ongoing scholarly project consists of mapping the impact of historical catastrophes on philosophical, religious, and literary traditions, with particular attention to the Holocaust. In between issues of The Atlantic and The New Republic, Jon spends his time exploring libraries and teaching young people philosophy.


Attribution

[1] The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, Allan Bloom. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
[2] The Republic, Plato, translated with a preface by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
[3] “Who Closed the American Mind?” Patrick J. Deneen, The American Conservative
[4] “Allan Bloom,” Saul Bellow, This Recording

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  • ghostx

    The Republic is, of course, a permanent book, one of hte small number of books that engage the interest and sympathy of thoughtful persons wherever books are esteemed and read in freedom.
    ‘the’ is misspelled.

  • Adam Harris

    So this got posted on Reddit, and I think it’s an awesome article. But I ended up taking this a whole different route. It seems to me that we do live in a relativist world, but what has happened is not the absence of truth, rather a flat our replacement of truth with opinion. Truth now is whatever I say it to be, and in the age of the internet and endless seas of information, here are 500 facts that I say support my idea. Somehow the internet has compounded the lack of truth seeking to produce the changing of opinion to truth and removing people’s ability to debate the validity of an idea. Today, writing on election day, it seems as though there are two really big caves and somehow these caves are yelling at one another but are unwilling to come out and talk in the light of day.

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