“The Permanent Questions Are Still Permanent:
A Reflection on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind”
Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the young, and their education”, ultimately reflects on a problem that goes back to Socrates: the tension between the philosopher and the regime that he or she inhabits. Because this problem is a perennial one, this book is just as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago, and it will remain relevant so long as there are people who courageously seek answers to the permanent human questions about the true, the good, and the beautiful. While philosophy has always been at odds with various factions, attitudes, and opinions within society, the crisis of philosophy in liberal democracy today is that the institution that had become its last home, the university, has embraced those premises of the regime that threaten the philosophic way of life. Through his discussion of students, the universities they attend, and the ideas that have come to animate the American regime, Bloom challenges us to reconsider the nature and purpose of a liberal education, as well as examine whether we are living truly human lives.
“The essence of philosophy,” according to Bloom, “is the abandonment of all authority in favor of individual human reason” in “the quest for and even discovery of the truth according to nature.” The person who undertakes this quest is generally moved by a sense of being incomplete and has a desire – indeed, an Eros – to achieve wholeness through knowledge of the truth. Therefore, he or she must maintain, initially at least, that there is a truth to be found and reason is capable of finding it. Although the true philosopher will never find perfectly satisfactory answers to the permanent questions – “Socratic dialectic.. always culminates in doubt” – the philosophic enterprise does promise liberation from one’s previously held opinions, typically false and typically those of society-at-large. As Bloom states, “One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.”
Today’s brand of American democracy, however, has formed the souls of its inhabitants in such a way as to make them especially resistant to making the Socratic turn. In observing the students of elite U.S. colleges and universities, Bloom recognized that the vast majority of young people lack both prerequisites for the philosophic life. First, they lack the belief that there is an objectively good and just life to be pursued. As Bloom claims in the Introduction, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student… believes… that truth is relative.” Second, most undergraduates lack the angst and yearnings that would drive them to seek answers to the permanent questions; “The eroticism of our students is lame.” This condition of their souls has resulted from growing up and living in an environment that is relatively comfortable and pervaded by a “mood” that Bloom describes – and explores in Part II – as “American nihilism… [a] nihilism without the abyss.” The students’ unreflective relativism, access to immediate gratifications, and pursuit of happiness in “ways determined by [the] language” of this nihilism have seriously enervated their interest in the permanent questions, and consequently, their disposition towards liberal education.
The ways in which the lives of today’s undergraduates reflect this “American style” nihilism differ little from those that Bloom observed in the 1980s. For starters, students are still addicted to rock music – if Bloom could have only seen the iPod. Likewise, televisions, DVD players, and video game systems are to be found throughout dormitories, and the Internet, with its plethora of mindless delights ranging from YouTube to Facebook to Homestar Runner provides added distractions from reading and contemplation. Furthermore, with an ever growing gym culture, it is still quite accurate that “students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But… they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.”
Students’ relationships, another target of Bloom’s critique, can also indicate and contribute to their being “flat-souled.” His observation of the “pervasive feeling that love and friendship are groundless” does apply to the lives of some students, though it is somewhat exaggerated since he is arguing in terms of the philosophic life. While few undergraduates at elite universities become friends in common pursuit of wisdom via philosophy, there are not a few students, many of whom share religious, political, and other convictions, that forge friendships that go beyond superficiality; and there is a portion of students that actually dates during college and gets married after graduation. Yet at the same time, the “privileged debauchery,” to quote a friend, exhibited in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons should not be understated. Many college parties resemble what Bloom writes of the “youth culture” of rock music: “so loud [that] conversation [is] impossible, so that much of friendship must be without the shared speech that Aristotle asserts is the essence of friendship and the only true common ground… illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas… are the basis of association.”
Another factor that discourages students from pursuing a liberal education is their own Lockean diligence. Like their fellow citizens, American undergraduates are good “Lockeans: recognizing that work is necessary… and will produce well-being.” Bloom notes that students who “have a fixed career goal” and are “obsessive[ly] concerned” with “[g]etting into… elite professional schools” are generally not open to a challenging, life-changing liberal education. Moreover, with people graduating from college in greater numbers, the top MD, JD, and MBA programs and prestigious entry-level jobs have become increasingly competitive. As a result, students feel an immense pressure to make top grades and do time-consuming internships to pad their resumes, making them, in many cases, more overworked and overstressed than when they enter the “real world,” an important reality of college life that Bloom somewhat overlooks. Even students who would be interested in contemplating the permanent questions simply lack the necessary leisure. Combine this state of affairs with the students’ desires to satisfy their “natural inclinations” and “passions,” though in a “balanced,” reasonable, “Lockean” fashion – in other words, to have a social life – what results on elite campuses is a hyper form of liberal democracy, in which “Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to… look into the abyss.” Sunday through Thursday, many students are up until 2:00 a.m. hitting the books, only to descend into bacchanalia on Friday and Saturday, and then repeat the cycle during the following week.
The fact that numerous forces within the American regime fashion and encourage souls to be so remarkably impervious to philosophical inquiry gives even greater urgency to the university’s purpose, which is, “in the first place, always to maintain the permanent questions front and center.” Yet because the university has embraced elements of the same anti-philosophical spirit that has influenced most students, even those few undergraduates who go to college desiring a liberal education may be left disappointed. According to Bloom, the university “must provide [students] with experiences they cannot have [in democratic society] …The universities never performed this function very well. Now they have practically ceased trying.”
The university manifests its aversion to seriously facing permanent questions in numerous ways, beginning with the standard “core” curriculum. Bloom argues that for courses to provide a student with a liberal education – as opposed to a technical or vocational one – they must have “the specific intention to lead to the permanent questions, to make the student aware of them and give him some competence in the important works that treat of them.” Yet most universities do not present to students in the curriculum a “vision… [or] set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is” and the alternative ways of facing the permanent questions. Relativism has rendered all comprehensive responses to such questions to be of equal worth. Therefore, the content of introductory courses can vary depending on the instructors’ tastes, and students are free to fulfill their core requirements in remarkably haphazard ways. For example, a student may fulfill the literature requirement with courses on gothic horror and Italian autobiographies of the twentieth century and graduate without having studied seriously Shakespeare or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This problem relates to and is exacerbated by the university’s division into natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and further subdivision into departments, which entails that the various disciplines “do not address one another” and “The problem of the whole… is never systematically posed.”
In addition, the university tends to avoid serious confrontation with the permanent questions about truth and justice because doing so necessarily entails praising certain ways of life and criticizing others, the latter of which now connotes intolerance. As Bloom explains in his discussion of what “openness” has come to mean in liberal democracy, “indiscriminateness is a moral imperative because its opposite is discrimination.” To avoid appearing judgmental with respect to certain issues, universities have embraced some of the language and premises surrounding value relativism. Consider, for example, the way in which elite universities eagerly support students to form groups representing their cultural heritages. This is a perfectly safe route in a liberal democratic regime that values peace and seeks to avoid conflict, since “culture” actually originated in an attempt to maintain “the old attachments to family, country, and God” while ignoring that “real differences among men are based on real differences in fundamental beliefs about good and evil, about what is highest, about God.” The same can be said about institutional efforts to promote “dialogue” with no end beyond enhanced mutual-understanding, a far cry from dialogue in the Socratic sense that aims to distinguish true opinions from false ones.
Along with describing how the radicalized democratic spirit has flattened the souls of America’s youth and corrupted the university, in Part II, Nihilism, American Style, Bloom provides the intellectual history behind this mood’s development. Although Bloom’s analysis is interesting in its own right, perhaps more importantly, this section justifies his later claim that “Philosophy is still possible.” The command to “know thyself” will always exert a claim on human beings, and Bloom shows us how to pursue this knowledge by engaging the great thinkers, whose thoughts have been preserved in great books, who also took this mandate seriously. As Bloom states, “We need history, not to tell us what happened, or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible. This is our educational crisis and opportunity.”
For all its discussion of apathetic students and the debasement of institutions of higher learning, The Closing of the American Mind is really a book about the state of philosophy and its future in the United States. Towards the end of the book, Bloom remarks that the “story [of philosophy] defines in itself our whole problem.” Provided human nature does not change, there will always be souls inspired by the permanent questions. Concomitantly, there will always be forces in their regime that conspire against the pursuit of the truth. Therefore, the key question for the elite American university is whether it will once again provide a safe home for philosophy and encourage a liberal education for students. While the future in this regard is far from certain, the fact that people continue returning to Bloom’s book after twenty years is at least one promising sign.