Tag: The Closing of the American Mind

Quote of the Day: The Closing of the American Mind

 

“In looking at [a teen-ager leaving home for the first time] we are forced to reflect on what he should learn if he is to be called educated; we must speculate on what the human potential to be fulfilled is. In the specialties we can avoid such speculation, and the avoidance of them is one of specialization’s charms. But here it is a simple duty. What are we to teach this person? The answer may not be evident, but to attempt to answer the question is already to philosophize and to begin to educate….

“The University has to stand for something. The practical effects of unwillingness to think positively about the contents of a liberal education are, on the one hand, to ensure that all the vulgarities of the world outside the university will flourish within it, and, on the other, to impose a much harsher and more illiberal necessity on the student– the one given by the imperial and imperious demands of the specialized disciplines unfiltered by unifying thought….

The Closing of the American Mind: 30 Years Ago

 

Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is a very strange book. In part an extended reflection on pop culture and in part a critical history of philosophy, it is also in part a personal memoir. Thirty years ago – when, as a favor to Nobel-Prize winner Saul Bellow, Simon and Schuster published his friend’s book – no one, least of all Bloom himself, expected it to attract much attention. But that it did – and more. For it became a phenomenon. In fact, for nearly a year, it was the talk of the land, and it sold like hotcakes. Bloom, who had always lived beyond his means, soon found it almost impossible to do so.

I doubt that a high proportion of those who purchased Bloom’s bestseller managed to get through or even much into its second part. This section of Bloom’s tome – entitled “Nihilism – American Style” – is brilliant, and the writing is quite lively. But to even begin to understand the argument, one must be a Kulturmensch with at least a passing familiarity with writers such as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Heidegger; and those who got bogged down in the early pages of part two are not likely to have gone on to part three: “The University.” It was the book’s first part, entitled “Students,” that electrified the American public.

Philosophy may have been too abstruse a subject for most of those who purchased the book. But nearly all of them had children or grandchildren; and, thanks to the proverbial “generation gap,” their offspring were for them a puzzle and a source of considerable anxiety. The chapters that Bloom devoted to the character of American college students before the late 1960s, to the role that an encounter with classic literary and philosophical works often then played in the intellectual and moral development of the ablest of these, to the impact that rock music came to have on the next generation of students, and to the larger significance of the sexual revolution – these were for older Americans a real eye-opener. For the first time, they had more than an inkling of what they had on their hands.

Self and Soul

 

Prompted by the great Casey, I re-read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. First read it years ago, but I’m older now, and reading it again brings very different reactions.

One argument is that the modern world has done away with the Soul and has replaced it with the Self. That’s a quick way of describing a conviction I’ve held for a long time. A soul is an individual connected to God and the rest of the universe, striving to find harmony with all of it. A self has no such connection; it’s just a command center (with little control) over a sea of conflicting and confusing interior psychic currents. Or, as Bloom suggests, a soul is on the roof pondering the mysteries of the heavens, but a self is in the basement snooping around in the dark for Freudian rats.

Allan Bloom and the Culture of Indignation

 

allan bloomHere is a passage I ran across while reading (I’m ashamed to say for the first time) The Closing of the American Mind:

[I]f a student can — and this is most difficult and unusual — draw back, get a critical distance on what he clings to, come to doubt the ultimate value of what he loves, he has taken the first and most difficult step toward the philosophic conversion. Indignation is the soul’s defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. It justifies putting Socrates to death. Recognizing indignation for what it is constitutes knowledge of the soul…

If I’m reading him correctly, Bloom’s point is that the first step toward thinking deeply about an issue is to understand why we instinctively — i.e., before thinking it through — expressed indignation at someone else’s opinion.