“Bloom’s Closing Revisited”
It may well be that a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.
Fifteen years after his death, Allan Bloom still commands a rapt audience. This past April, his thoughts once again filled a University of Chicago lecture hall. Though he was a brilliant essayist, translator, and educator in his own right, he is remembered for his New York Times Bestseller.
On the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, we are confronted by a sort of intellectual imperative to re-examine the arguments contained therein. However, I wonder if I – as former St. John’s College student and someone whose present coursework at the University of Chicago consists principally of the study of the Greek language and of dead white males – should truly have much first hand experience of “the state [of] intellectual pluralism at today’s universities.” Nonetheless, my experiences as an American youth and as a student on various campuses have prepared me to attest to the veracity of much of Bloom’s analysis. However this may be, twenty long years after Bloom’s devastating critique, I can feel some confidence in asserting that humane learning does still continue in North America – though not as we should like it to be.
The Closing, 2007:
As someone born in the 1980’s, I write as a second generation student of Bloom – myself, a student of a student of Bloom’s. Though dedicated “To [his] students,” Bloom’s Closing was purchased in droves by the parents of his students, who yearned for insight into the minds of their close-lipped sons and daughters. Twenty years later, my generation has accidentally become the new – although, perhaps anticipated – audience of this book.
Few of us still revel in the music of Mick Jagger. Yet we are in the peculiar position of both living the world that Bloom describes and are simultaneously prepared with the critical tools and insights presented in Bloom’s Closing. Like the generation of the late 1960’s, we too are the generation afraid to say to his lover, “I love you.” But we are the first generation to know that we are afraid to say the words, “I love you.” We are the first generation both to fit Bloom’s description and to be equipped with – i.e., to know well – Bloom’s criticism.
Bloom’s book, I believe, helped me to articulate and understand my upbringing and beliefs of youth. It provided me some of the language and analysis not yet present in my own thoughts. Though I am tempted to say that this very observation sufficiently attests to the truth of the criticism, it might be objected that Bloom’s book simply became for me a false hermeneutic by which to understand my experiences of post-adolescence. To this I would rejoin that although the trans-Atlantic etiology of the cultural crisis Bloom describes may be up for debate, his description of the phenomena is as insightful as it is accurate. I have sufficient insight into the psyche of my post-adolescence to attest to the accuracy of Bloom’s portrayal.
Today, any child can flatter his hollow intellect in declaring everything to be culturally relative. But this is simply the “insight” of the lazy. It is non-philosophical and strictly dogmatic. Unwilling to confront difficult questions, they instead withdraw into their pseudo-intellectual cave. In zealously undermining all traditions of men, modern theory has created a void, which presently yearns to be filled. The truly educated and civilized yearn for higher things.
Bloom – following Tocqueville – aptly teaches that the founding principles of our society (freedom and equality) exist in a fundamental tension with one another. Unfettered and unrestrained freedom can be, and frequently is, inegalitarian. Freedom commands that the dictates of equality be muted, but equality will not have this.
The confusion over the relationship of the one to the other (freedom to equality) probably manifests itself as a confusion in our own minds regarding what is good. Owing to this confusion, these principles were further radicalized in my mind. They came to mean for me permissiveness and license, and the unseating of authority. For reasons still difficult to articulate, I grew, unawares, into an adolescent who believed in no ultimate principles but the principles of self-indulgence and Karamazovian sensualism, the expression of “individuality,”and the pursuit of worldly gain or the satisfaction of my vanity (which seem to be one in the same thing today).
Have America’s youth become a mass of relativists, of nihilists, of hedonists, of materialists? Perhaps. But underlying it all, they are simply in a state of confusion stemming from a more fundamental confusion about the appropriate ends of a human being. But, as Bloom has so aptly put it, “All this is a thin veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear.” Worse yet, American democratic culture appeared to be permissive of this confusion. Is it a coincidence that every American adolescence is haunted by pangs of loneliness, alienation, and dejection? Bloom accurately saw this in our preference for Catcher in the Rye – my favorite novel of youth – and Camus. We may be said to have become souls without longing, as Bloom had originally titled his manuscript – emotionally absent, psychically impoverished, and “flat-souled.”
The State of Education:
There is no word for “culture” in Greek. The closest word, one might say, would be the word paideia, or “education.” As such, a scholar of the classical world, would see the failures of a culture inextricably linked to that culture’s education. Having co-opted the method of the social scientist, Bloom examined the psyches of the “sample” available to him: the best and brightest in American universities. The psyches of the students at America’s elite universities are an image of the state of American culture, insofar as they are the product of a very high, intellectual tradition filtered down through the schools.
According to Bloom, we face today a profound educational crisis, coextensive with the crisis of our civilization. That crisis consists in the observation that we have formally defeated reason through the use of reason. Whatever we might understand liberal education to be, it is at least clear that it has partly – or in some cases, altogether – withered and died at some of America’s most prestigious universities and colleges.
There no longer exists a coherent image of what it means to be an educated human being. The departments within academia today deny the natural unity of human thought, yet they present their individual, partial perspectives as complete and comprehensive. The “new kind of education,” which Bloom saw, militantly sought to reduce all highs in man to lower motives, thereby stunting the growth of the minds of our nation. Multiculturalism in the humanities – for the mere sake of multiculturalism – has further obscured our purposes in education, having become an end in itself: openness to the “Other.”
What is Liberal Education?:
As stated above, education plays a reciprocal role with culture. Strangely, however, Bloom departs from the subsequent inference that Dewey had made, that higher education should become the handmaiden of liberal democracy. In point of fact, Bloom’s book was written in implicit but essential opposition to Dewey. Higher, theoretical thought – and hence, the university – is not naturally in the service of the city. Rather, at its best, it is the healthiest aristocratic element within a democratic society, promoting what is best and highest in man, without concern for the common denominator.
As Socrates is symbolic of the function of the university, the civilized and “humanizing” themes of a true liberal education involve the Socratic-Aristotelian question of the good life for a man. Education is said to be truly liberal (i.e., liberating) only if it promotes that single life that exercises that part of man that is peculiar to man, his mind. Humane learning should be dedicated to higher things and provide those “ideals” to which we might aspire.
True liberal education must actively engage us as human beings. Liberal education has as it end “the goal of human completeness,” but we may only fulfill our humanity in the use of reason. Philosophy – or any simply theoretical science – may be indefensible in terms of utility, but it represents something in man that establishes him as a being worthy of dignity. The static quality in all considerations of man is his nature. Humane education must pose those sempiternal questions which belong to man as man.
The very essence of liberal education for Bloom is the cognitive liberation borne of the knowledge of alternatives. True intellectual freedom is awareness of alternatives, a breadth and wealth of perspectives. However imperfect that tradition may be, the “best [minds] of the past” provide us with more reliable standards of thought and life than the ephemeral and present pieties and opinions. Thus philosophy is most needful, insofar as it is the function of philosophy to dismantle popular pieties and received opinions in the ascent from opinion to knowledge; darkness to light.
All this requires a return to the philosophical books undergirding our society. However, we must not read Rousseau, Socrates, or writers of their ilk as historical artifacts, but rather as living ideas. In order to treat of them seriously, we must understand them as they understood themselves. In so doing, we are under obligation to lay aside our faith in the superiority of modern knowledge, which we can do in recognition of the fact that the progress of the modern mind has borne rotten fruit: it has given us value-relativism and nihilism. This is what liberal education can do for us, but always with an awareness that liberal education is not essentially instrumental. (Even the things most needful can be also non-instrumental in the last appraisal.)
The Future of Humane Thought:
Humane learning is not yet dead in North America. Today one place with which I am familiar is that tiny enclave called “political philosophy” within many of North America’s departments of political science. There, scholars of the highest caliber still treat of the classics, with the seriousness of a Machiavelli. It is troubling, however, that this group represents a specialization, which definitionally seems to defy the concept of humane learning. Nevertheless, this group, and others like them, have answered the imposing question, why study Greek books? They have taken to heart Bloom’s exhortation:
For the first time in four hundred years, it seems possible and imperative to begin all over again, to try to figure out what Plato was talking about, because it might be the best thing available.
Today, there are still those who come to the university yearning for that je ne sais quoi that will complete them. There are even those who, like myself, came to the university eager to push through to a JD, MBA, or MD but somehow got diverted along the way by the ideas they encountered there. Today, it is not entirely uncommon to find eighteen and twenty year-old lovers of Mozart or Bartok – some of whom are without much formal music training or encouragement from their parents. Some of us do still long for the Continent and everything high which it represents. We long for Europe: to visit, to study, to live. Contrary to Bloom’s pronouncements, some of us do use Aristotle both as a means to understand ourselves, but also as source for reflection on our own practical or theoretical quagmires.
Humane learning is not altogether dead or dying in North America.