Read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom Free Online
Book Title: The Closing of the American Mind|
The author of the book: Allan Bloom
Edition: Simon &Schuster
Date of issue: 1987
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 427 KB
City - Country: No data
ISBN 13: 9780140112177
Loaded: 1436 times
Reader ratings: 4.8
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Perhaps this book deserves five stars -- it did, after all, shake me up a bit, the way the best books do. Bloom is rightly concerned with a problem I see in my own classrooms: the assumption that, since all views are to be tolerated in our modern liberal democracy, all views are equally valuable; furthermore, since all ideas are equally worthy of consideration, none of them are worthy of consideration. It is difficult to say anything of real importance about poetry, literature, art, religion, philosophy, etc., because the arts and humanities have become matters of personal taste, which we regard as sacrosanct. This problem is exacerbated by a tepid vocabulary pervading our discourse: instead of "love," for example, one is more likely to speak of "commitment;" instead of ideal "virtues" we have arbitrary "values." Bloom argues that these words, and others like them, result from an impotence of ideas, issued from a university system that cannot articulate its own worth, or the worth of its subjects in the humanities. So, instead of the tolerant "openness" we assume to be good, we have "a great closing":
Openness used to be the virtue permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power. The unrestrained and thoughtless pursuit of openness, without recognizing the inherent political, social, and cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless.
It's easy to see why, as any Google search or Amazon review is likely to tell you, this book was popular with conservatives when it was published in 1987. Unfortunately, a critique of the liberal position that "accepts everything" sounds like the beginning of the type of socially conservative rant that blames, say, homosexuality or immigration or atheism for the endemic ills of our country -- a rant that ends, inevitably, with a call to “traditional values,” in particular those alleged to have been held by our Founders in their supposed intent to establish, above all other considerations, a Christian nation. A personal confession: it was impossible for me to read this book without hearing the echo of conservative and evangelical voices that would find legitimacy for their doctrine in Bloom’s argument.
But this book cannot be conservative in the sense that we understand conservatism today. Yes, Bloom treats with disdain the sort of openness that questions nothing, the sort of openness that, by default, must regard reason as the enemy of choice, disregarding how any individual choice relates to the good. But Bloom explicitly desires and calls for a different kind of openness, an intellectually honest openness, an openness grounded in reason and real engagement with the tension between complex ideas. This tension is more important than any settled conclusion one might ultimately draw from the ideas that created it:
Equality for us seems to culminate in the unwillingness and incapacity to make claims of superiority, particularly in the domains in which such claims have always been made—art, religion, and philosophy. When Weber found that he could not choose between certain high opposites—reason vs. revelation, Buddha vs. Jesus—he did not conclude that all things are equally good, that the distinction between high and low disappears. As a matter of fact he intended to revitalize the consideration of these great alternatives in showing the gravity and danger involved in choosing among them; they were to be heightened in contrast to the trivial considerations of modern life that threatened to overgrow and render indistinguishable the profound problems the confrontation with which makes the bow of the soul taut. The serious intellectual life was for him the battleground of the great decisions, all of which are spiritual or “value” choices. One can no longer present this or that particular view of the educated or civilized man as authoritative; therefore one must say that education consists in knowing, really knowing, the small number of such views in their integrity. [Italics mine]
The religious right and conservatism in its most popular and perverse form fail, as much as relativistic forms of liberalism, to establish anything like tension or tautness within the soul of man: it’s all ideology (which Bloom dismisses as mere “prejudice”), an invasion of the spiritual and the religious by “quacks, adventures, cranks and fanatics.” If Bloom finds the post-Enlightenment retreat from Christianity troubling, it is not because he regards Christianity as an expression of ultimate truth, but because the retreat from religion into the embrace of the natural sciences was so complete that matters of the soul, the good, the ideal were vanquished. The Bible, in Bloom’s conception, is not a good book because it is Right, or because it conclusively presents an ultimate and indisputable Truth, but because people once
found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duty in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past... When [graduates from modern universities] talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing by cliches, superficialities, the material of satire. I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. Without the great revelations, epics, and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside. The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.
It seems to me that a good deal of conservative/religious discourse these days neglects a “respect for real learning” and consists instead of “superficialities” no better than those uttered in the name of liberal openness. All of this to say: the sort of conservatism from which Bloom argues leads away from what we might call contemporary conservatism—a system in which all of history and scripture serve merely to confirm one’s own prejudices, which are themselves unable to answer the problems of the soul, nature, and the good.
Meanwhile, it feels old-fashioned to read such words and phrases: soul, virtue, eros, the good, etc. And yet one fears that without them, something in academic studies, particularly within the humanities, is missing. My own graduate school experience was, at times, a long descent into theory: we were to understand literature and poetry as expressions of, say, Lacanian psychoanalysis. There were many post-modernists in our group, an earnest handful of historicists, deconstructionists, and post-feminists, each asking a set of very particular questions. We were trained to become specialists within the field of literature, and though our pursuits were too narrow to have very much in common, there was one question we all considered anathema to serious literary studies: what did the author intend? No surprise, then, that Bloom considers it the most important question:
The effort to read books as their writers intended them to be read has been made into a crime, ever since the “intentional fallacy” was instituted. There are endless debates about methods -- among Freudian criticism, Marxist criticism, New Criticism, Structuralism and Deconstructionism, and many others, all of which have in common the premise that what Plato or Dante had to say about reality is unimportant. These schools of criticism make the writers plants in a garden planned by a modern scholar, while their own garden-planning vocation is denied them. The writers ought to plant, or even bury, the scholar.
Though Bloom’s book was a bestseller in 1987, the state of the humanities does not appear much improved – just this weekend I read about “the growing field of digital humanities,” in which students search massive databases of literary texts to find patterns in language. It may no longer be necessary to actually read literature, to understand how writers spoke to the big questions, and to each other, or what they actually had to say: now, students can use “computational methods to zero in on the places in ‘Paradise Lost’ where John Milton is alluding to the Latin of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid.’” Elsewhere in the university, the field of neuroaesthetics -- a combination of literary and neurology studies -- uses literature to map the brain, to discover which “underlying mental processes are activated when we read.” The author is dead, the text is dead, and what the university now values in literature or philosophy is not anything so quaint as ideas or reason or even imagination, but the measurement of electrical impulses in our own brains. Self-knowledge begins with the neuron, not the soul. The natural sciences, Bloom might say, with regret but not surprise, have triumphed utterly over the humanities.
This seems like so much intellectual and spiritual gloom and doom, but reading The Closing of the American Mind was, for me, invigorating, partly because Bloom makes such a compelling case for reading, or rereading, classic works by their own lights -- I found myself tossing titles by Rousseau, Tocqueville, Locke, Plato, Aristophanes and others onto my Amazon wish list -- and partly because his concerns are likely to inform how I teach my own literature classes.
(Parenthetically: I deducted one star from this review because a good number of pages in Bloom’s argument are devoted to the idea that an academic misreading of Nietzsche contributed to an academic misunderstanding of Plato and Aristotle, resulting in a relativism of the humanities that was exported to the culture at large. This was hard to follow, and my paraphrase may be mangled, but I suspect that, even if I had understood its nuances, this line of thinking is not the argumentative keystone Bloom seems to think is it.)
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Read information about the authorAllan David Bloom was an American philosopher, essayist and academic. Bloom championed the idea of 'Great Books' education, as did his mentor Leo Strauss. Bloom became famous for his criticism of contemporary American higher education, with his views being expressed in his bestselling 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind.
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