on 7 April 1999
Bloom begins with the problem of liberal education at the end of the 20th century - in a world where students are taught from childhood that "values" are relative and that tolerance is the first virtue, too many students arrive at college without knowing what it means to really believe in anything. They think they are open-minded but their minds are closed to the one thing that really matters: the possibility of absolute truth, of absolute right and wrong. In explaining where we are and how we got here, Bloom presents a devastating critique of modern American education and its students, an intellectual history of the United States and its unique foundation in Enlightenment philosophy, and an assesment of the project of liberal education.
Far from being just another critic of the latest postmodern fad or the ongoing excesses of academic relativism, Bloom has his eye on the ages - his subject is our place in history and our relationship to the canon of philosophy handed down to us over centuries. This book isn't about the last few decades of academic decline, it's about the last few centuries of philosophical upheaval and uncertainty.
Bloom's pessimism about the future prospects of liberal education (and Enlightenment liberalism generally) isn't entirely warranted, but then that's partially because so many of Bloom's readers have taken his warnings seriously and labored to reverse the academic trends he identified so clearly. If the light at the end of the tunnel is now dimly visible, in large part we have Bloom to thank for it.
on 7 January 2013
Allan Bloom's thesis is that a University was historically a place where universal (hence the name) truths about human life were debated in the departments of humanities (hence the name) between various protagonists of opposed ideas in order to differentiate the merely fashionable from the moral concepts that are applicable in all ages and cultures, and under all political regimes. He claims that this is no longer the case, and that a surrender in the 1960s and 70s to fashionable liberal (left-wing in a European context) relative moralities has left the humanities as a poor relation in the pursuit of truth to the natural sciences (mathematics, physiscs, chemistry, biology) and science's dependent technological professions - engineering, medicine, and the law. He compares this surrender to a similar surrender in German universities to the right-wing views of the Nazis in the 1930s.
I found his ideas surprisingly modern, and feel that they have travelled better than other ideas that were around at the time of its gestation: the inevitability of world Communist domination, for example.
His central and passionate argument is for a return of civilised debate between political opponents to identify absolute moral truths, instead of mud-slinging between left and right and between those with no religious beliefs (atheists) and those for whom religion is central to their lives - Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others. He says that an increasing trading of insults and a refusal to engage in such debates is evidence of The Closing of the American Mind.
Some of the adverse reviews of this book twenty-five years on seem to confirm his worst fears.
"the book is a disgrace and an outrage . . .
meandering, incoherent, rambling babble . . .
ranting and raving on paper . . .
a bitter, hate filled man . . .
personal-grudge-filled . . ."
on 24 October 1996
Although a few years old, Bloom's _Closing of the American Mind_ is still a tour de force in assessing the state of American thought. Bloom contends that our society suffers from a neurotic open-ness to almost any opinion except the opinion that some positions have (innately) more merit than others. We are intolerant of the concepts of good and value in our thought life and in our spiritual world. Bloom recommends a rerurn (or progression, possibly) to a worldview that is at once more rigorous and ultimately more "open minded" in the truest sense.
on 18 August 1997
Professor Bloom, in my opinion, generalizes a bit too much in describing the "modern" American student. One of those myself - a sophomore undergrad at the time of "Closings" publishing - I thought Bloom hit and miss when referring to the "average" American student.
However, he does an unbelievably good job in describing the ills in the "social sciences" and how we have arrived today at a place where graduate students study comic books and MTV is a weighty topic of intellectual speculation and where old masters like Aristotle are almost dissapeared (Does this reflect poorly on Aristotle or on ourselves?). For anyone who wonders at where we went wrong in the twentieth century, Bloom is like a breath of fresh air in the unwholesome swamp of the modern research university. Much of what I felt during years of instruction/indoctrination as a university student is plainly and eloquently laid out by Bloom - he seems to give voice to what was inchoate in my soul on this important issue.
It is not easy reading - even for the well educated. But nothing worth doing was ever easy, and if you want "fun" and "light" you can always open up a comic book again. On the other hand, if you really want to stretch your mind and engage certain "Big Questions" (whether you agree with Bloom or not), then read "The Closing of the American Mind."
It was the most important book I have read in years. Bloom may overstate his case at times, but there is the essential kernel of truth in what he says, in my opinion. Great intoduction also by Saul Bellows.
on 22 March 2010
This book, written more than 20 years ago, remains extremely relevant for today. The basic thesis of the book is that what happened in the 60s to the cultural and educational landscape (particularly in the universities) and has since then gathered pace, has undermined the foundations of American civilisation (and I would add Western Civilisation). But what is the problem. For Bloom it is the ideology of relativism - where there were once share values and mores, the only thing now shared by all is that "there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or visions of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?" Writing here from the UK, it is astonishing how successful the new ideology has been; thus here in the UK, all the major political parties (including the conservatives) buy into the ideology of the primacy of the individual's right to be whatever wants to be. Thus, all parties advance the most flaky notions of what the basic foundation stones of society are - the most obvious one is that the family has become well just whatever you want it to be, constituted by whoever, whether transient or permanent, who cares: lets call it family if the participants wish it to be so called. This is an excellent book and one wonders what additional barbs Bloom would have to make about the state of the culture more than 20 years. No doubt he would be as entertaining as ever.
What Bloom is really almost angry about is that the new relativism embracing an openness to all things inevitably leads to what the ancients called acidie - a kind of spiritual indifference to life or what Bloom refers to as listlessness or a deformity of the spirit. If all things have the same value, why seek and search for truth - why seek to live a virtuous life, why seek to learn from the wisdom of the ancients, Socrates, Plato, Artistotle, Aquinas etc - all those who have contributed so much to our understanding of what it means to be a human being. By contrast, for Bloom, "True openness means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present". What Bloom is getting at is the danger of a basic ideology which makes us crassly indifferent to the grandeur of being. And Bloom says something that will get people's hackles up: "Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are...The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty." But, the curious thing is that no one including our relativist political leaders really has no values. Thus, here in the UK, "tolerance" for all types of lifestyles has become the Great Value - it literally towers everything - thus a UK minister tells catholic schools that it must now give information about abortion facilities and their access and should provide information about sexual lifestyles in a non-judgemental value. But where is the philosophical basis for making this so called "tolerance" an overarching value? As Bloom notes "It is not the immortality of relativism that I find appalling. What is astonishing and degrading is the dogmatism with which we accept relativism, and our easygoing lack of concern about what that means for our lives".
Bloom's canvas is a large one - not just education but practically every foundation stone of life is examined, noting that "The dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief". But Bloom's primary focus is undoubtedly education. He notes that "the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency - the belief that the here and now is all there is" and "deprived of literary guidance, students no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even image that is such a thing". . But for Bloom: "the substance of my being has been informed by the books I learned to care for"
I noted his comments on music with interest but did not feel he had much to contribute.
Bloom's most pointed comments are on eros and relationships, noting that "Students these days are pleasant, friendly, and if not great souled, at least not particularly mean-spirited. Their primary preoccupation is themselves, understood in the narrowest sense" - he notes later: that they are "flat-souled". He notes that students "can be anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular". He notes that as sex has become "no big deal", it has also become passionless, trivialised, de-eroticised and demystified, leading to a "crippled eros". He laments the loss of modesty. But the key issue is provisionality in sexual relationships: "To strangers from another planet, what would be the most striking thing is that sexual passion no longer includes the illusion of eternity" and a young person "can now choose, but he finds he no longer has a sufficient motive for choice that is more than whim, that is binding". But Bloom is not just interested in the deterioration in sexual relationships but he notes the loss of symbolism for fathers: "There is nothing left of the reverence towards the father as the symbol of the divine on earth, the unquestioned bearer of authority". And Bloom notes the wreakage created by divorce: "The important lesson that the family taught was the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings". But, also the impetus for marriage has disappeared as men have their cake and eat it.
I am not at all qualified to give an opinion on his philosophical analysis of what is the causation of all this, particularly his analysis that the importation of German philosophy into a culture ill-suited to digest and understand it is the principal cause but I did find his comments on Locke and Rousseau to be both interesting and entertaining. But, I feel that he is right when he says "the novel aspect of the crisis of the West is that it is identical with a crisis of philosophy".
Bloom takes a big swipe at the ideology of "the self": "To sum up, the self is the modern substitute for the soul". He notes that "America has no-fault automobile accidents, no-fault divroces, and it is moving with the aid of modern philosophy towards no fault choice". But the so called "life-style" choice comes in for his greatest criticism: "lifestyle is so much freer, easier, more authentic and democratic. No attention ahs to be paid to content". Thus the word "lifestyle" becomes the democratic abstraction for justifying all sorts of hedonistic behaviour.
Democracy comes in for criticism and in this respect Bloom echoes CS Lewis. Democracy "causes a particular bent which, if not actively corrected, distorts the mind's vision" and "The deepest intellectual weakness of democracy is the lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life". He notes the use of "slogans" and the chasing after the "shiny new theory".
Bloom the reminds us of the fear of death and the relation to eternity and notes man's grandeur: "Man is the particular being that can know the universal, the temporal being that is aware of eternity, the part that can survey the whole, the effect that seeks the cause".
The sixties come in for particular attack, One comment I found most interesting was his noting that sacrificial morality "was not the morality that came into vogue in the sixties, which was an altogether more histrionic version of moral conduct". I was reminded of the attacks on Pope Pius XII which began in the sixties and continue unabated to this day. The fact that under Pope Pius XII's leadership, the Catholic Church managed to save about 800,000 Jews is regarded as not significant - rather Pope Pius XII is derided and regarded as shameful for not attacking Hitler and his regime publically from the balcony of St Peter's i.e. Pope Pius XII did not engage in moral histrionics, ergo he is not moral!
The University, as an institution, comes in for the greatest criticism - he deals with so many issues, grade inflation, the fragmentation of philosophy departments into specialism, preferences for certain sections of the community but generally one gets the impression that philosophers in universities no longer believe in living the Socratic examined life or at least have no passion for it.
on 21 May 2007
The theme of this book is about Post-Modernism, and its disastrous effects on modernity.
Post-modernism is essentially relativism, the strange belief that there are no certainties to our knowledge and understanding, This is a widely held belief system in the social sciences.
To some degree the counter-enlightenment which is what Post-Modernism is (ie, following the enlightenment) has always been with us, its current incarnation is the a direct result of the failure and falsification of Marxism, and its socialist offspring.
Most of the Post-Modernist thinkers are essentially former hard left academics, such as Michel Foucault and Richard Roty ( a man who seeks to redeem the National Socialist philosopher Martin Heidegger btw)
What in essence is being taught to our young people, is not to discriminate in any way shape or form. If there is no objective truth (as the Post Modernist claim )then you cannot say that one thing is better than another, i.e one religion is no better than another, one culture is no better than another, or more importantly, one experiment shows much clearer results than another. thus you have a generation that finds critical thought and objective truth a little hard to grasp.
Without being able to discriminate you undermine the whole basis of the scientific method,( a engineer for example has to chose the best materials for a buildings construction) but Post Modernist social scientists don't much like this idea of constructing reasoned argument on sound evidence, Karl Popper offered them a way of doing so with the idea of piecemeal social engineering, they ignored him, falsely believing that Thomas Kuhn had offered them a more relative view of the world, without the need for critical reasoning.
(Kuhns view of science btw is a very conservative one despite it being embraced by large parts of the so called progressive left, as he points out in the 3rd edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)
If you believe that truth, beauty, morality, Justice are real material things than you will understand the thrust of Professors Blooms argument. If you cant then you need to shift your paradigm, as Professor Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his work, if you are locked in one paradigm then you cannot have any understanding of another paradigm or Commensurability as he puts it, and you will find it impossible to make a clear choice, and in essence thats the crux of the problem.
on 18 June 2016
There has been increasing concern expressed within many liberal democracies recently about whether the very concept of free speech in universities is under threat from those of a left-liberal position who think that any individual who holds a view of the world that somebody might disagree with, find challenging, disturbing, or might even just cause them to reflect on their own view of the world, should be prevented from speaking within the university, or sacked if they are employed by the university. Bloom explores, in considerable detail, the roots of all this in Amercan universities and shows how they were capitulating to student demands to control the curriculum, and even who should, or should not, be employed, some fifty years ago. Alongside this capitulation to student demands, Bloom details how the left-liberal movement gradually rejected all texts, knowledge and learning from the past as being no longer of any relevance or value. This began to sow the seeds of a powerful movement which has been, and remains, determined to undermine and discredit all the institutions, traditions, and even the culture of liberal democracy in a cleverly disguised attempt to create a permanent, and ongoing, state of revolutionary political struggle. (Other writers have identified the roots of this movement as arising from a gradual realisation by the extreme left, during the 20th century, that the hope of proletarian revolution, in order to overthrow the capitalist system, was forlorn, and that therefore what was required was a systematic determination to discredit, and even overthrow, the institutions and traditions which the capitalist system, according to the extreme left, uses to perpetuate its oppression of humankind). Bloom shows how the result of all this has been the slow death of any concept of liberal education, often encouraged and given credence, tragically, by those who regard themselves as being liberal-minded individuals. Rather than opening people's minds, universities have increasingly become places which are actually closing people's minds, as the entire corpus of thousands of years of scholarship are rejected, and more and more debates about all sorts of issues are closed down, using political correctness, or safe space arguments, as a defence. In effect Bloom seems to think that what we are witnessing in liberal democracies is not just a relentless dumbing down, and even silencing, of intellectual enquiry and debate but, even more fundamentally, a process of self-destruction which we appear to be largely blind to. Meanwhile those sounding the alarm bells increasingly find themselves facing ridicule, denigration, or even dismissal from their employment, simply for having raised their concerns. Having witnessed the relentlessly catastrophic consequences of totalitarianism during the 20th century, and of ISIS in the early 21st century, what Bloom describes strongly suggests that we are largely blind to the creeping totalitarianism in our own back yards, as so many societies have been in the past, and that our blindness will be our undoing, in the same way that it has been the undoing of earlier societies which failed to realise what was unfolding in their midst. If Bloom is right we urgently need to wake up to the reality of the very serious threat which we face, namely the threat to freedom of thought and speech and, by implication, the threat to freedom itself, in what we like to think is liberal democracy. Bloom clearly thinks that our universities are relentlessly being hijacked to become centres of a political struggle which is characterised by increasing levels of intolerance, aggression, and even violence, in its attempts to achieve its goals. Critics of Bloom clearly see him as being out of touch, out of date, and irrelevant. If you find yourself concerned about what appears to be unfolding in liberal democracies, and particularly in universities in so-called liberal democracies, read this book and decide for yourself. Whilst Bloom is writing entirely about American universities in the last fifty years, its relevance to what appears to be going on in universities within all liberal democracies in the 21st century is abundantly clear.
on 19 November 1998
Allan Bloom has a soul, which sets him apart from most of the posers who teach in our universities and regularly commend each other for their "compassion" and "open-mindedness". I went into university with a generally good disposition towards school and learning---I came out disillusioned with professors who have a lot of surface compassion but nothing to show underneath (in strong intellect or hearts), and believe me I tried to find it because I wanted to find it. I wanted to believe after my baptism into the college "culture" that they had something more to tell me than "everything's relative, even though we're sure that tradition, Christianity, and men are evil." Well, they dressed their lectures up with vague PC-watchwords and complex (didactic) explanations, but it all boiled down to fatally flawed philosophies, what Bloom illuminates in this book. I only wish I'd read it BEFORE I went to university, I might have laughed my way through classes rather than search for a beating heart beneath the veneer of academia. I thank God (oops!) that I had a few truly open-minded professors who encouraged or at least entertained opinions against the prevailing university thought. I am now a happy graduate thanks to those brave souls, as Mr. Bloom's students give him similar thanks for making the age-old questions exciting and *consequential* in their lives.
on 10 January 1999
This is THE non-fiction book for me. It is the most complete discussion on the wholeness of man, and why American students are "flat-souled." Some items are a bit dated, but the over-all thesis holds up suprisingly well. This is a book that rarely gets a three star rating. You will either love it, or hate it. Those who dislike it, usually write ridiculously long self-serving essays on how "broad-minded" they are, while making sophmoric dismissals as to it's content. Well, any book that irritates so many a decade after it's first printing, must be doing something right. Three cheers for Allan Bloom!!
on 26 February 1998
Closing is the best book I have ever read by an American author and you probably have to search back to Nietzsche or Voltaire to find a thinker as independent from what is considered "politically correct" in his time. Bloom makes a very compelling case of the fact that equality is plainly a democratic prejudice and not a discovered truth. Tocqueville states that the USA cannot produce a Pascal, however, it did produce an A. Bloom. Closing is, IMHO, a Monument to Intelligence. However, it is not only an "interesting book" or a conversation subject, it has given me hope that there are still some persons (although very few) that vigorously question most of the precepts that we have been forced to accept for what are mainly political reasons. Closing is truly a "breeze of fresh air for those who are tired". Closing is a 10, and it should be read by every intelligent person in the USA.