Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, A Summary

I have almost finished reading Bloom's Closing of the American Mind and, while I am sure I will have more to say in way of criticism and discussion in the future, for now I feel the need to summarize what he has written. The book is heavier reading than I expected, and I anticipate that the finer points may become blunted with the passage of time unless I commit his general thesis to writing while it is still fresh in my mind. Any corrections or comments are welcome.

Bloom argues that in modern culture, people have become homogenized; differences are shallow and culture presently contains only the most superficial elements of what culture used to mean.

Parents have lost control over their children's moral discipline with television and music replacing an anchored morality with relativistic moral theories. There are new morals for new times, and the old generation might get out of the way if they refuse to lend a hand.

Modern American interest in music, other people, relationships, religion, and love, lacks that which gave these things meaning and value. They are now immediate and appreciated for the most superficial elements they possess: love and Eros are really just sex; musical complexity, shades of meaning and passion are really just the heavy, brutish sexualized beat of rock. Making these sublime aspects of life immediately tangible and attainable by everyone, we have robbed them of their height; the ascent to the pinnacle of the mountain has been plowed to a plateau that is the lowest common demoninator.

American democracy has led to an egalitarian push to say that every child is creative, exceptional and genius. As soon as someone develops truly into these things, as a Beethoven or a Shakespeare, democracy pushes them back into the pack, because everyone standing out means no one really can.

In modern society's greatest success, the Enlightenment, Locke and his compatriots cast off the shackles of a social order led by a monarch (the type of society which put Socrates to death) who endangered the scientist/philosopher by trying to fit him into the social system and control his thoughts. They deliberately replaced monarchy with liberal democracy, which saw as the most protected, and the most sacred, the untouchable, the scientists and philosophers, who ultimately ran the society as puppeteers. However, natural science went its own way with its freedom, leaving the unifying meta-system, philosophy, in the cold. While Kant bridged the gap, giving natural science and reason its limits and providing a framework for everything else, Rousseau, and, later Nietzsche and Heidegger, saw the weakness of reason and the contemplative life. They saw action as superior to thought. Thus, in a backlash against the contemplative side of the scientist/philosopher, and against the Enlightenment in fact, they took advantage of the natural sciences and eschewed the historical consciousness called for by the Enlightenment (a prime example is the philosophical climate of the Soviet Union). Viva Activa was better than Viva Contemplativa. Values are relative, and there is no way for one to pass judgment other than action. It is this reaction that ushered in the collapse of the University as an independent, sacred ground for thinkers with true academic freedom. It is here that the University became simply another arena in which the cultural and political theories and parties acted out their battles.

And it is precisely this backlash against the Enlightenment that has come to the shores of America, decades after Heidegger's capitulation of the German University. In the American sixties, as in the twenties in Germany, the University has lost its sacred status as the source of contemplative thought and open, free discourse. The Black Power movement is only a powerful example of what is happening and continues to happen. Bloom quotes Marx, that "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." In Germany, it was the right, here, it is the left, but it is the same dismantling of the University and the contemplative life in both cases. The professors are unable to defend the University because they have lost vision of its purpose. They try to give the public what it wants, because they have forgotten what it means to educate, to raise above the mundane and create a beacon of academic freedom and honesty. They strip core classes of languages, history, philosophy, and they thus turn their schools into vocational schools, not meant to educate and ennoble, but meant to give economical and political power to their charges.

In addition, a new interest in morality rose in the student body (which was indicative of general society). This was not the quiet morality of doing no evil, telling the truth and respecting elders -- the brand of morality that makes sacrifice every day, which Kant claimed is understood by the child but takes a lifetime of humble goodness to achieve. Rather, this new morality was the morality not of keeping laws, but of breaking them in the name of a higher law. It was a constant crisis, not acknowledging true morality, and seeing the moral struggle only in the epic, they type of struggle which in reality is truly rare. (We can see this today with University students championing the major moral causes as their own, while living personally amoral lives. They are "nice", they exude a childish veneer of pleasantness, but have lost Polaris in the search for truth.) Aside from its own problems, this morality had the unfortunate result of allowing students to blithely equate morally between the Beast of Belsen and the secretaries of the War Draft Board. (To my mind comes immediately the ridiculous assertion held on many University campuses and in society as a whole that Israel is as apartheid South Africa was, or that IDF commanders are Nazis. When we see things so starkly, and see our moral banners as the apex of moral struggles, we tend to blur the distinctions between situations, and judge passionately instead of rationally.)

The loss of purpose in the American university is mirrored by the inability of the students to see anything in life as worth striving for, as of higher moral or cultural value than anything else they see around them. The High Culture of society, embodied in the University has become lost and that institution simply reflects now the low culture of society.

The University has excelled at pigeon-holeing increasingly specific fields of knowledge, demonstrating an ability to split the atom, cure cancer, aggregate lexicons of lost languages, collate and study massive amounts of data in psychological studes. It remains, however, unable to define a basic path to a general education of its students. This path, Bloom states, is the concept of the Great Books. Reading these works without the historicism of the humanities, rather as living documents that speak to modern society, is the only way to provide a passion and interest in a holistic application of education to the students. However, most faculties ignore this method, or despise it.

The fact is that natural science sees itself as the sole posessor of true knowledge. It handles empirical fields, the ones that see matter as unified and humans as matter. They see the Great Books as a spiritual quest, but not immediately impactive of their study. On the other hand, the study of that which makes a human human, what is known in religion as the soul, this study is split into humanites, viewing it as an art (Rosseau), and the social sciences, which prefer to view it as a science (and itself as the next rung on the ladder after biology), and qunatifiable (Locke). These two disciplines disagree over their very subject matter. The latter views the Great Books as inapplicable to itself as they are in essence a science (desiring to attain the status of the natural sciences), while the former is embarrassed by what is exposed in the Great Books, rascism, elitsm and sexism.

The destruction of the University and the cheapening of the human experience is what America must struggle with. History will judge her, and we must act to provide the University with a reason for existence, and the student a true depth resultant from a true education. (I believe Bloom's statement here may be reflective of his feeling toward modern humanity in general, not just America.)


Holy Hyrax


Now you made me want to read the book :)



LOL -- enjoy, it's good. I don't buy everything in it, and obviously coming from a religious perspective, there are things I think he is wrong on, but it certainly makes a number of important points and pulls political philosophy into a sharp focus.