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The American Mind: Closed After All These Years

The Closing of the American Mind turned 30 this year.  The fact that every five years now there is a retrospective is a testimony to its staying power, though it may also say something about the number of middle-aged writers on the right who cut their teeth on the book in their salad days.  I count myself a member of that motley crew, having read and superficially understood it as a college junior and then periodically gone back to it many times over the years with gradually increasing background knowledge.

Some elements of Allan Bloom’s analytical framework are frankly inadequate.  He is too perfunctory in dismissing the contribution made to knowledge about human nature by the sciences, and his Great Books/Thinkers list is missing a figure the right makes a grave mistake in ignoring:  Darwin.  Rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research into the foundations of human behavior and social order offers some of the sturdiest support for conservative politics, and the right would do well to embrace these findings.

The book’s second section (“Nihilism, American Style”) lays out the complex intellectual history undergirding Bloom’s description of the state of the university, and its obscurity for readers not already thoroughly grounded in the ideas it presents is only its most obvious weakness.  Too much is made to depend on the lasting importance of the insights of Locke and Rousseau on human nature, and too much in contemporary behavioral science shows that their systems will not bear that weight.  Locke thought human beings were essentially unmarked at birth by our animal nature, and Rousseau believed it was only social institutions that make us selfish and competitive.  The Darwinian evolutionary perspective tells us considerably more of lasting importance about what we are and what the social world likely can and cannot do to alter that.

Despite these blind spots, in all the most important ways the book has scarcely aged at all.  The first (“Students”) and the final (“The University”) sections remain invaluable for an understanding of the predicament of higher education in America, and serious thinkers on right and left should reread them from time to time to remind themselves of what has gone wrong and how it happened.

Bloom claims the culture of today’s college students is radically impoverished, and he provides examples from the favorite books they no longer have to the fatuous music they enjoy that have been doing the good work of infuriating cultural levelers now for three decades.  But is he right?  Almost certainly, and things are only getting worse.  I have known innumerable students distributed more or less evenly across my nearly 20 years teaching in universities who perfectly fit Bloom’s description, but it is clear to me that something important has changed recently.  These days, students are not simply ignorant of the sources of their culture. They no longer feel the responsibility to address this ignorance (which is in any event a more or less unavoidable consequence of youth), and they are quick to attack the things they do not understand for not fitting into their Twitterized cognitive frame for understanding all things.  One depressing example will perhaps suffice.  A student of my acquaintance at an elite liberal arts university, commenting on the Musée du Louvre after a first visit in which she found she was not intellectually prepared to have anything more than a bewildering experience, did not wonder what she might have missed in her youthful immaturity or how her expensive education had cheated her by not better preparing her for such encounters.  Instead, she blithely dismissed one of the world’s great collections of art as “a museum of whatever.” Her scornful summary evaluation:  “#overit.”    

The final two chapters (“The Sixties” and “The Student and the University”) constitute the book’s core, and the brilliant light they give off has not faded with the years.  Here, Bloom methodically exposes the 1960s counterculture’s caustic corrosion of American higher educational culture by focusing intently on the infamous 1969 armed campus takeover by black nationalist students desirous of the creation of an African Studies program at Cornell, where Bloom was employed at the time.  This catastrophic failure of everything a university should be is the inevitable and indeed the intended result of the seemingly innocuous and democratic mantra of ‘inclusion’ and ‘openness’ at the curricular level.  If bedrock educational values cannot be asserted and competing ideas cannot be comparatively evaluated by reference to an objective ruler for discerning the good from the bad, the inexorable result is a murky, relativist haze in which the only remaining mechanism for choosing is the volume, the emotion, and the physical force generated by the jostling competitors.  In this context, students with rifles become interlocutors just as legitimate as any others, and we reap what we have sown in the fields of progressive political resentment. Rioting students and their irresponsible faculty advisers at Middlebury College and elsewhere, are you listening?

The response to the publication of the book in the scholarly world was predictably combative in an emotionally ideological manner, neatly summarized by Martha Nussbaum’s preposterously turgid read in the New York Review of Books.  But the situation was different in the non-scholarly press, and the interpretive space between where we were in 1987 and where we are now is effectively gauged by looking there.  Thirty years ago, the New York Times’ Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed the book fairly, even favorably, and Robert Pattison at The Nation wrote at least one phrase sufficiently positive to merit its inclusion among the back cover blurbs.  Try to imagine the book under the gentle ministrations of the bombastic writers at those two publications today, and try to imagine it not being denounced within a few phrases as Satanic or worse.  Just try.

In the end, the value of Bloom’s case lies in his deep learning and intimate contact with the cultural values that created the Western universities.  He fully recognized how insufficient it is to denounce the mess we have made of late, though that work of demolition is required.  We must also know what we ought to be doing instead.  What, he asked, are the questions to which competent universities should be attempting to speak, the questions by which properly-situated students should be motivated?  His humble suggestions:  “Is there a God?  Is there freedom?  Is there punishment for evil deeds?  Is there certain knowledge?  What is a good society?” His fear, which I share, was that we might be too far gone to even begin to fathom what we miss in evading or short-changing these questions.

 We’re “#overit.”

Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America [1].

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The American Mind: Closed After All These Years"

#1 Comment By Chris Cosmos On July 21, 2017 @ 8:07 am

Bloom’s book and articulate defense of, frankly, Western civilization made a deep impression on me since I came out of the radical left of the 60s. The book caused me to look more deeply at my assumptions and realize that my own radicalism was firmly planted in the our civilization and to cut off my roots would doom the left. As I saw the constant advance of identity politics replacing the class politics I favored I realized Bloom’s genius at raising and alarm.

Another thing Bloom and other critics don’t look at is systems theory. Using that framework allows us to see that left, right and center are all needed for a healthy society to achieve a maximums of integrity (the right) and a maximum of adaptability (the left) and a means to negotiate the split (the center). Yet, each of these elements are broken–the left has become rigid and cannot adapt, the right focused on radical change and the center ignoring it all with radical denial and a focus on being entertained by trivialities.

#2 Comment By grumpy realist On July 21, 2017 @ 10:23 am

Um, in relation to that “rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research into the foundations of human behavior and social order offers some of the sturdiest support for conservative politics” I take it you never heard about Social Darwinism?

It didn’t work very well the last time we tried it, either.

#3 Comment By Kevin Smith On July 21, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

Thank God we have the legacy of Bloom and other Straussian scholars to preserve the “Great Books” tradition of culture and deep exploration of texts in these troubled times!

#4 Comment By TheIdiot On July 21, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

How does this culture, or that student, gain anything through Darwin? Until recently, I held a lot of promise in EO Wilson’s theory of humans being eusocial, like bees and ants. But what does that really get us? Skinner’s Walden II? Extrapolations of science, for that matter any social science, is more contingent on faith than is a belief in God. But we are all blind to our faith based beliefs. Much better to ponder why Socrates thought he knew nothing than to trust those that think they know all.

#5 Comment By Charlie On July 21, 2017 @ 4:48 pm

Books record the values we consider essential for our western civilisation: they are our memories, guide and plans for the future.
The western mind started closing after WW1, when the main subject for the liberal arts were classics and/or maths declined and degrees in English increased
Prior to WW1 a scholar was a gentlemen therefore it required a knowledge of latin, greek, maths and the ability to defend a lady’s honour which meant boxing, rowing, fencing, shooting and riding were important.
Mens sana in corpore sano
English translation:
You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death, and deems length of days the least of Nature’s giftsthat can endure any kind of toil, that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks the woes and hard labors of Hercules better than the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus. What I commend to you, you can give to yourself; For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.
In original Latin:
orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.fortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponatnaturae, qui ferre queat quoscumque labores,nesciat irasci, cupiat nihil et potioresHerculis aerumnas credat saevosque laboreset venere et cenis et pluma Sardanapalli.monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certetranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae.—Roman poet Juvenal (10.356-64)
Juvenal wrote in late 1st/early 2nd century when Romans began to worry about luxury undermining their spirit.
The development of hedonistic effete Aesthetes and Bloomesbury Group in the 1920s mocked the need for physical toughness. Lord Byron prided himself on his bare knuckle boxing, fencing and cudgel fighting skills. While the WW1 poet Robert Graves was boxer, mountaineer and infantry officer. In WW1, The Artists Rifles was regiment recruited entirely from artists: can on imagine that now !

The massive expansion of the universities post WW2 meant that most liberal arts lecturers lacked the intellect to cope with Latin, Greek and Maths ( Trivium and Quadrivium ) or even the Medieval History which required Latin and early French. The development of social sciences by the Frankfurt School provided a perfect field of study for mediocre minds both lecturers and students: all that was needed was to parrot Marxist clichés. The Frankfurt School have pushed a hedonistic lack of self control in order to produce a dissolute chaotic society which it is easy to take control. In particular, the FS has pushed a contempt for physical courage and patriotism. A study of the classics would reveal that leadership in Rome or Greece required a willingness to fight for the state and was a pre-requisite for citizenship and voting. The Greeks created the Gymnasia to keep people fit for fighting.
When the universities were taken over in the late 1960s, if it had been in the early19C, most lecturers would have been trained in bare knuckle boxing and would have stood up to the thugs. A scholar had to be gentleman which meant standing up to thugs to preserve civilisation.
Darwin said it was not the strongest or most intelligent but most responsive species which survived. A scholar trained in Latin, Greek and Maths plus bare knuckle boxing, fencing, riding, cudgel fighting shooting and rowing would have the intellectual and physical abilities to respond quickly to changes.
The reality is that conservatism has become an effete surburban plutocracy much like the senatorial classes of late 4th Century who became indifferent to the plebian classes having been reduced to debt serfdom. The plebians produced the tough Roman soldiers. Regan understood that the Republicans had to attract the aspiration hardworking and patriotic blue collar workers as does Trump and Bannon. If the Left create further riots, then the effete suburban plutocrats will be slaughtered in their homes the same way wealthy Romans died in their villas at the hands of the barbarians. Why should blue collar police officers die protecting effete plutocrats who despise them?

#6 Comment By Matjaž Horvat On July 21, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

“rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research”

More like thousands upon thousands of pages of wild speculations and just-so stories. It’s hardly surprising there isn’t a month that goes by that some Darwinian claim or prediction is falsified. Here’s just the latest: [2]

#7 Comment By Martin Mugar On July 21, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

I enjoyed reading about the student’s response to the Louvre.”overit”. I wrote this piece about MassMoCA which is a three ring circus full of entertainment value. This is what the Millennials want when they go to a museum. My take on it is in the middle of this essay. [3]

#8 Comment By SteveK9 On July 21, 2017 @ 9:33 pm

Matjaž – the link you provide has nothing to do with the theory of evolution. Maybe you should actually try reading the ‘Origin of Species’ universally recognized as one of the greatest intellectual achievements in human history.

#9 Comment By andy On July 21, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

Sadly, the answer to each of the questions posed in the final paragraph is, “What does this have to do with me getting a good paying job?”

#10 Comment By connecticut farmer On July 22, 2017 @ 9:46 am

Coincidentally, I was thinking of Bloom and “The Closing” only about a week ago while reading an account of Middlebury. I read “The Closing” it when it was first published. Bloom was steeped in classical Greco-Roman literature and culture so at times the book was hard going for those of us less knowledgeable (i.e. his distinction between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” culture). Nevertheless, he never strayed from his main objective, which was to illustrate the extent to which American higher education has gone down the toilet.

And, yeah, we’re “”#overit.”

#11 Comment By polistra On July 22, 2017 @ 10:23 am

“Understanding the sources of culture” has zero correlation with appreciating and ALLOWING culture.

The Greatest Generation rarely went to high school let alone college, yet they were capable of appreciating and ALLOWING poetry and orderly music.

First we have to get rid of the tyrants who are CENSORING orderly culture and FORCIBLY IMPOSING chaos. Then we can worry about the totally irrelevant sources.

#12 Comment By STAN KORDELA On July 22, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

Thank you for your work at presenting insight. It is not only refreshing to read… also inspirational for standing in the future.

#13 Comment By Bob K. On July 22, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

Darwin and his evolutionary perspective are gone.

Tom Wolfe just threw the last shovels full of dirt on the grave of that “evolutionary perspective” in his “The Kingdom Of Speech.”

#14 Comment By Jim On July 22, 2017 @ 5:36 pm

Reminds me of a conversation I had with a 19 year old student after Stanley Hauerwas spoke at our college. His topic: “Why Cheating is Worse Than Murder on a College Campus.”

Afterwards, I asked the student what she thought.

Her reply: “I didn’t like it?”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just didn’t.”

#overit has been around a while

#15 Comment By John_M On July 23, 2017 @ 12:51 am

C P Snow was on to something in his Two Cultures book. I did graduate Physics, with lots an lots of math before I went into Engineering and picked up a lot of the physical sciences along the way. Unless Physics majors only took the minimum Math and Physics courses, they were not eligible for Phi Beta Kappa – not diverse enough.

I see Bloom as another follower of the Great Books school – and I don’t have that much respect for it. They have systematically undervalued science and applied mathematics. I will read history. My cousin who is a political science professor at MIT uses a great amount of game theory in his analysis of decision making.

I admit, I don’t really read novels – or watch TV or movies. I read Astrophysics papers for amusement and am currently trying to learn Geometric Algebra as well as new work related information and skills – and I am not young.

And in response to Andy, given the job market, any course of study that does not also provide some form of valuable skill is rather inprovident. Study what you want, but make sure that you pick up skills that are marketable as well. And make sure your education is broad enough that you have the foundation to learn new skills as your opportunities rise and the job market changes.

#16 Comment By TR On July 23, 2017 @ 9:25 am

It’s painful to think that grumpy realist believes that the author’s comments have anything to do with Social Darwinism.

#17 Comment By Jimothy On July 23, 2017 @ 11:06 am

First rate comment!

#18 Comment By Jeremy Sheeler On July 23, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

The fact that you can write this sentence – “In the end, the value of Bloom’s case lies in his deep learning and intimate contact with the cultural VALUES that created the Western universities” – says to me that you probably should reread the book again. Talking about morals and beliefs as mere “values” was, for Bloom, the very foundation of the problem of the modern university and the cause of the decline of the West.

#19 Comment By Geezer On July 23, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

I take it you never heard about Social Darwinism?

The folks at [4] have an article on the subject.

I like this part:
“The term ‘social Darwinism’ has rarely been used by advocates of the supposed ideologies or ideas; instead it has almost always been used pejoratively by its opponents.”

#20 Comment By Matt W On July 23, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

Kids today! Why they won’t even stay off your lawn. They listen to silly, loud music and they have such stupid clothes!

And they don’t know anything about (insert something here)

This is not exactly new…

#21 Comment By Dr. K On July 24, 2017 @ 10:05 am

Riley writes: “In the end, the value of Bloom’s case lies in his deep learning and intimate contact with the cultural values that created the Western universities. ”

Which means that Riley didn’t understand the book, he’s just using it as a piece of propaganda for left-bashing. How does one get in intimate contact with a “value”? Could one be in distant non-intimate contact with a “value”? “What is a value”, anyway?

As a former undergraduate student of Bloom, I could assure you that he often said that he had no values, because he thought the whole concept of “values” was suspect. In his preface to his translation of Plato’s Republic, Bloom he criticizes the translator H.D. P. Lee for assuming that the “good and beautiful” could be translated as “moral values”: “In fact “values”, in this sense, is a usage of German origin popularized by sociologists in the last seventy=five years. Implicit in this usage is the distinction between “facts and values” and the consequence that ends or goals are not based on facts but are mere individual subjective preferences or, at most, ideal creations of the human spirit. Whether the translator intends it or not, the word “values” conjures up a series of thoughts which are alien to Plato. Every school child knows that values are relative…”

And what are “cultural values” as opposed to just plain old “values”?
Bloom’s argument was the notion of “culture” was peculiarly modern: “a culture is a cave… This point of view [of Greek philosophy], particularly the need to know nature in order to have a standard, is uncomfortably buried beneath our human sciences, whether they like it or not, and accounts for the ambiguities and contradictions I have been pointing out. They want to make us culture-beings with the instruments that were invented to liberate us from culture. .. Culture, hence closedness, reigns supreme.” (p. 38).
“And now the mother-word itself—culture—has also become part of empty talk, its original imprecision now carried to the point of pathology.” (p. 184). “Culture ” in the modern sense was first used by Immanuel Kant, w ho was thinking of Rousseau when he employed it, particularly about what Rousseau said of the bourgeois. “(p. 185) Which means that Rousseau can’t be dismissed as quickly as Riley would like. “The idea of culture was adopted precisely because it offered an alternative to what was understood to be the shallow and dehumanizing universality of rights based on our animal nature.” (p. 192). All this is part of Bloom’s discussion of the use of words like “values” and “culture” which tend to be used thoughtlessly, as Riley has done.

#22 Comment By Charlie On July 25, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

Thank you.
Dr K, interesting comments. If Bloom said he had no values because he considered them suspect , did he consider cowardice or treachery as vices or virtues? The Greeks considered their character was different to the orientals. In particular they considered oriental luxury,servility towards tyranny , flattery and capacity for treachery opposite to Greek honesty and frugality. They considered beauty to be a product of balance and proportion and civilised life required self control.

The ideas of culture and values may be recent by the idea of Greek character being different and superior to oriental character defines how they perceived themselves.

I would consider that culture and values are product of character. The uniqueness of Sparta is due to her character and even Athens considered living a Spartan existence as virtuous. To view Greece through the prism of late 19C German philosophy is going to distort reality.

The rejection of classical values by those following the FS, Gramsci and Alinsky is because they know a society imbued with them will defeat them. The majority of middle America respects self control, moderation,physical courage, patriotism, and an absence of ornate speech but an effete dissolute feeble metropolitan conservatives has failed to uphold these virtues under the onslaught from democrats influenced by FS, Gramsci and Alinsky.

The left are paper tigers: they may threaten but they will not physically attack but apart from a few like Milo they have largely been intimidated into acquiescence.

At the Battle of Jaffa. Baha’ al-Din, a contemporary Muslim soldier and biographer of Saladin, recorded a tribute to Richard’s martial prowess at this battle: “I have been assured … that on that day the king of England, lance in hand, rode along the whole length of our army from right to left, and not one of our soldiers left the ranks to attack him. The Sultan was wroth thereat and left the battlefield in anger.

In the 1960s, when the left was using intimidation to take over universities , where was the conservative prepared to face them down?
The American Mind shut because the left closed it and the Conservatives were unwilling to fight with sufficient astuteness and ruthlessness for long enough to keep it open.

#23 Comment By Publius Veritas On August 12, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

Hmmmm. “Students with rifles…”?

Tell us, Alex, is it liberals or conservatives successfully supporting legislation allowing students to carry loaded guns on our campuses?

#24 Comment By Alexandra Moldoveanu On August 16, 2017 @ 3:08 pm

I am sorry to say this but the student is right about the Louvre. Its exhibition techniques are so 19th century: massive collections of objects in display cases. When I last visited it a few years ago it looked like a nicely arranged warehouse. Obviously with paintings there is nothing to do but put them on walls and it is enough to tell their story, but what about the rest? Look at Quai Branly or Musée de l’Immigration (I didn’t appreciate the latter’s conflation of refugees with economic migrants and the “we have to accept everybody” message but otherwise it is a great museum).

Louvre manages to be boring and overwhelming at the same time. There are too many things in it just for the sake of having a huge collection. It would be more useful and more respectful for all those different eras and civilizations to not have them packed like sardines in a single building. And to offer visitors something in addition to mere access to objects. A museum is supposed to educate and it’s not unreasonable to criticize Louvre for not even trying to do that.