Following up from the review Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book,” I figured that I’d finally get around to reading Alan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind,” which goes into detail about the collapse of American intellectual life, especially following the unrest in the 1960s. Bloom even takes a couple pot-shots at Adler’s Great Books program within the text itself, which I didn’t anticipate.
Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, and later taught literature at Cornell until his death in the early 1990s. Despite the connection to Strauss, Bloom never considered himself a neoconservative, although this book was very influential to neoconservative thought. A writer at the American Conservative has discussed the issue of the neocons and Bloom in the context of the second Iraq war.
When he published this book in 1987, reviewers considered it the first shot fired in the ‘culture wars’ — a battle that the right eventually lost, despite some minor victories here and there.
Why is this book still relevant? In part because it discusses the tension between aristocracy and democracy as it relates to education. Bloom writes on p. 25:
Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being. This intention is more or less explicity, more or less a result of reflection, but even the neutral subjects, like reading and writing and arithmetic, take their place in a vision of the educated person. In some nations the goal was the pious person, in others the warlike, in others the industrious. Always important is the political regime, which needs citizens who are in accord with its fundamnetal principles. Aristocracies want gentlemen, oligarchies men who respect and pursue money, and democracies lovers of equality.
Bloom goes on to note that the new regime in higher education dedicated itself to undermining the political values of the old republic, critiquing its founding fathers and documents into oblivion, and then finally replacing it with a morass of ‘openness’ which conveys no coherent program.
The author decries the decline in ethno-centricity with a self-contained argument on p. 36:
Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths — to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself.
If you are curious about the influence of the Frankfurt School, Bloom only goes a little bit into the details of what happened, taking care not to start “finding German professors under every bed.”
Much of the text also rests on de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” along with copious references to the ancients and others. This book became somewhat known for its critique of rock music as corrosive to the values of students, but what’s less noted is the professor’s noticing the decline of the family among the student body.
Bloom describes the modern generation as one of gears without any teeth, spinning by themselves, alone, without any method of coordinating with each other, no common reference points, and no values to speak of besides self-gratification. Such people are then “unable to set the social machine in motion.”
The author criticizes feminism in particular from cutting off students from their authentic tradition (p. 105):
All the romantic novels with their depictions of highly differentiated men and women, their steamy, sublimated sensuality and their insistence on the sacredness of the marriage bond just do not speak to any reality that concerns today’s young people. Neither do Romeo and Juliet, who must struggle against parental opposition, Othello and his jealousy, or Miranda’s carefully guarded innocence. Saint Augustine, as a seminarian told me, had sexual hang-ups. And let us not speak of the Bible, every no in which is now a yes. With the possible exception of Oedipus, they are all gone, and they departed in the company of modesty.
Students who have experienced the dissolution of family tend to be affected in profound ways:
…they are less eager to look into the meaning of their lives, or risk shaking their received opinions. In order to live with the chaos of their experience, they tend to have rigid frameworks about what is right and wrong, and how they ought to live… all this is a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear.
When these students arrive at the university, they are not only reeling from the destructive effects of the overturning of faith and the ambiguity of loyalty that result from divorce, but deafened by self-serving lies and hypocrisies expressed in a pseudo-scientific jargon. Modern psychology at its best has a questionable understanding of the soul. It has no place for the natural superiority of the philosophic life, and no understanding of its education. (p. 117-118)
One reason why the book is not neoconservative despite the Straussian influence is the general distrust in the world-democratization project of the Americans, and his consciousness of the differences between cultures along with how that impacts political ideas.
The love affair between the left and terrorists of various persuasions makes more sense in the context of Bloom’s observations on the links between will to power and how impressive it is to the last men of history:
The violence has a certain charm of its own, the joy of the knife. It proves decision or commitment. The new order is not waiting, but has to be imposed by the will of man,; it is supported by nothing but the will. Will has become the key word, both Right and Left. In the past it was, to be sure, thought that will is necessary but secondary — that cause came first.
This of course comes up all the time in contemporary debates that place that romance with the knife above actually making the right decision about how to use that knife.
Facile theories tend to win out over the alternatives, because no one has sufficient grounding to comprehend the latter:
Because there is no tradition and men need guidance, general theories that are produced in a day and not properly grounded in experience, but seem to explain things and are useful crutches for finding one’s way in a complicated world, have currency. Marxism, Freudianism, economism, behavioralism, etc., are examples of this tendency, and there are great rewards for those who purvey them. (p. 248)
With the collapse of tradition, we have found ourselves in a political situation that has reversed many of the gains, at least from a philosophical perspective, of the enlightenment, at least from Bloom’s perspective.
The innovation of the Enlightenment was the attempt to reduce the tension and to alter the philosopher’s relation to civil society. The learned society and the university, the publicly respected and supported communities of scientists — setting their own rules, pursuing knowledge according to the inner dictates of science, as opposed to civil or ecclesiastical authority, communicating freely among themselves — are the visible signs of that innovation. The earlier thinkers accepted the tension and lived accordingly. Their knowledge was essentially for themselves, and they had a private life very different from their public life. They were themselves concerned with getting from the darkness to the light. Enlightenment was a daring attempt to shine that light on all men, partly for the sake of all men, partly for the sake of the progress of science. The success of this attempt depended on scientists’ freedom to associate with and speak to one another. And freedom could be won only if the rulers believed that the scientists were not a threat to them. Enlightenment was not only, or perhaps not even primarily, a scientific project but a political one. It began from the premise that the rulers could be educated, a premise not held by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren. (p. 251)
Of course, if we look at the political scene of today, prize-winning scientists like Shockley and Watson have been marginalized, and other scientific pursuits have been suppressed. Arguably this suppression is what motivates the ‘dark enlightenment,’ and little more. It is a response to the political harrying of rational inquiry, and its perversion towards leftist political ends.
The Enlightenment project is over, whether or not the general population wants to admit it. Democratization has made it so that the commitments of political life are drowning out any competing commitments to rational inquiry. The political rulers of today are intimidated by the free coordination between scientists, which is why the mob works continuously to prevent it.
The book closes with a re-telling of the terrorist campaigns of the 1960s on the campuses, along with the folding of most of the professors and administrators to those conflicts, often fought upon racial lines. He criticizes in particular the corrosive effects of racial affirmative action.
The common curriculum went down without a fight, but as we know from Nock, that decay had already begun many decades previously.
This is a rather long and dense book, but it seems critical for understanding what has happened to intellectual culture in America through the 20th century. Going through this book, however, is less time consuming than re-treading the same discussions and explorations that have already been made by previous authors.
The response to the problems laid out should be reasonably clear: you put teeth back on those gears to develop a functioning society that can displace the dysfunctional society of dis-coordinated individuals. It is less a matter of reform, because most of the people who have made a definitive break with western civilization have no desire to return themselves back to that form.
There are arguably many problems with Bloom’s perspective on learning and on truth, but that is less relevant to the book’s current context and my personal interest in it.
It is really better to coordinate the people who wish to remain with the long record of the west, to form an alternative to the negative, suicidal program of the left. Once that coordination has happened, it will be more possible to break away from the already-broken, and begin to mold our people back into what more closely resembles good form.
This is easier to say than it is to do, because building up that culture was and is the work of hundreds of generations of men.