The Closing of the American Mind

by Allan Bloom

Paperback, 1988

Status

Available

Call number

973.92

Collection

Publication

Penguin Books Ltd (1988), Paperback

Description

In this book, the author (a distinguished political philosopher) argues that the social/political crisis of 20th-century America is really an intellectual crisis marked by obvious declines in appreciation of humanities, a drop in the qualitative output of our university systems, and a disquieting disconnect between today's students and the spiritual and cultural traditions of their heritage.

Media reviews

ALLAN BLOOM, a professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago, is perhaps best known as a translator and interpreter of Jean Jacques Rousseau's ''Emile'' and Plato's ''Republic,'' two classic texts that ponder the relationship between education and society. In ''The
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Closing of the American Mind,'' Mr. Bloom has drawn both on his deep acquaintance with philosophical thinking about education and on a long career as a teacher to give us an extraordinary meditation on the fate of liberal education in this country - a meditation, as he puts it in his opening pages, ''on the state of our souls.''
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User reviews

LibraryThing member GaryWolf
When it comes to the contemporary study of Western decline, there is hardly a tome that compares with Allan Bloom's tour de force, "The Closing of the American Mind." Writing in the mid 1980s, he skillfully unravels the knot of factors that have contributed to the current malaise. Nothing escapes
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his scalpel: feminism, narcissism, affirmative action, cultural relativism, and the collapse of academia are all sliced and diced, exposed in their entire historical and ideological depth.

Bloom (1930-1992) fought on the cultural front lines, teaching in the social sciences at some of the most prestigious American universities, including Cornell, Yale, and the University of Chicago. His testimony regarding the transformation of the student body is sobering:

"Today's select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture. The soil is ever thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain the taller growths."

The students he dealt with at those elite institutions were the opinion-makers of the future, who would later set the tone for the nation's cultural life. His "today's students" are, in 2008, entrenched in academia, the arts, industry, the media, etc. They justify Bloom's pessimism; it is now clear that the "taller growths" could not be sustained.

A theme that runs through the book is the evaporation of the critical spirit. Academics have distanced themselves from evaluation of ideas based on timeless, universal criteria derived from man's faculty of reason. In the past, Western thinkers were open to discussing diverse ideas and cultures, but with the intent of criticizing them. They sifted and compared and appraised, in order to separate the good from the bad.

Now, with the critical spirit in ruins, one is pressured to be open to all ideas and cultures equally. The evaluation stage is omitted. This has had a disastrous effect:

"Openness used to be the virtue that 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, or cultural problem of openness as the goal of nature, has rendered openness meaningless....Openness to closedness is what we teach."

Bloom observed that the students had become detached from the great works of literature. These works, based as they are on the critical spirit, have no relevant message in the new amorphous intellectual environment. The students are intelligent, they can read, they can analyze a text, but their upbringing and early education leave them without the experience of strong attachment to a great book.

A person who has had such an experience can re-experience it many times during a lifelong quest for cultural enrichment. But without it, the great books (as well as the great works of art) become virtually inaccessible. A generation earlier, writes Bloom, students were at least familiar with the Bible, which provided some ground on which an appreciation of literature could be constructed. When families ceased to transmit this basic heritage, not to speak of the great works in the arts and sciences, a cornerstone of the intellectual edifice crumbled.

"The cause of the decay of the family's traditional role as the transmitter of tradition is the same as that of the decay of the humanities: nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth. So books have become, at best, "culture," i.e., boring. As Tocqueville put it, in a democracy tradition is nothing more than information. With the 'information explosion,' tradition has become superfluous....In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old, and--as the very model for a vision of the order of the whole of things, as well as the key to the rest of Western art, the greatest works of which were in one way or another responsive to the Bible--provided access to the seriousness of books. With its gradual and inevitable disappearance, the very idea of such a total book and the possibility and necessity of world-explanation is disappearing."

Bloom's deconstruction of feminism includes an interesting analysis of how it interacted with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The sexual revolution liberated nature, whereas feminism attempted to crush and manipulate nature for its own ends. It constituted a return (with a vengeance) to the old regime of repression and restrictions, but of course with a new twist:

"Male sexual passion has become sinful again because it culminates in sexism. Women are made into objects, they are raped by their husbands as well as by strangers, they are sexually harassed by professors and employers at school and at work, and their children, whom they leave in day-care centers in order to pursue their careers, are sexually abused by teachers. All these crimes must be legislated against and punished. What sensitive male can avoid realizing how dangerous his sexual passion is? Is there perhaps really original sin? The new interference with sexual desire is more comprehensive, more intense, more difficult to escape than the older conventions, the grip of which was so recently relaxed. The July 14 of the sexual revolution was really only a day between the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and the onset of the Terror."

A good chunk of the book is a voyage through the history of Western thought, to determine the roots of the eventual collapse of the intellect in general, and the study of the humanities and social sciences in particular. Bloom does a masterful job of treating complex themes in a coherent and readable manner. This includes a discussion of the problems peculiar to liberal democracies, with their tendency to venerate equality and utility. This poses a terrible difficulty for the university, which must struggle to preserve detached pursuit of the truth, carried out by the scholar, or "theoretical type," as Bloom calls him. This is someone who can see across time and space, offering us insights that are not tainted by the ebb and flow of public opinion and political expediency.

Today, the theoretical type is on the brink of extinction, especially--irony of ironies--in the university, the one place established to protect and nurture it. There has been an "egalitarian resentment against the higher type...deforming and interpreting it out of existence." The man of reason, the true scholar, is under siege:

"Marxism and Freudianism reduce his motives to those all men have. Historicism denies him access to eternity. Value theory makes his reasoning irrelevant. If he were to appear, our eyes would be blind to his superiority, and we would be spared the discomfort it would cause us."

I conclude with a passage on the relationship between freedom of thought and tyranny, which rings true in our day, as the vise of politically-correct thought control tightens its grip:

"Freedom of mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside."
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LibraryThing member HarryMacDonald
A pissy, pretentious diatribe whose only spark of imagination comes in the Author's decision to tar his many pet-hates with the brush of anti-intellectualism, instead of simply hauling-out the old blunt instruments of "totalitarianism", "elitism", "reverse racism" and the like. The title is clever
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in its way, as who isn't -- at-least publically -- for free thought and intellectual growth? But having opened a promising door, Bloom slams it should by offering his own orthodoxy. Ho-hum. Over the years, a piquant irony has become almost absurdly evident, namely that some the very institutions which Bloom trashes have repeatedly and continually made it required reading, thus, of-course, giving Bloom a vested interest in the very thing he scorns
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LibraryThing member ehines
I disagree with many of the points Bloom is trying to make, but I think a) the book is a very good conversation starter; b) that the conversations it starts are ones we really ought to be having; and, c) that his main point about intellectual standards having substantially slipped is well-taken.
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There is certainly a bit of the "bitter swing to the right" here that we can see in a number of other authors of Bloom's generation (Kingsley Amis, for instance), and Bloom DOES sound pompous sometimes, but these are minor faults in a book that attempts to grapple with some of the big questions of culture and pedagogy in a refreshingly honest (though sometimes blinkered) way.
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LibraryThing member ztutz
I found this book off-puttingly pompous. I wanted to like it, since I agree with its premise, but it was tedious.
LibraryThing member johnredmond
I'm no longer in precisely the same place today, but this was a big book for me. Opened up new vistas to philosophy, political theory, and even eventually theology (though that was certainly not Bloom's concern). An argumentative (even polemic) history of western thought. A much more serious book
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than its massive popularity and (melo?)dramatic opening might indicate. IIRC Bloom opens with a word picture of modern college students seen as modern day savages dancing to jungle music! From Bloom, you can move on to Leo Strauss.
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LibraryThing member kant1066
Unless you were attending a university when this book was published, or have a special interest in the general ongoing dialogue we call the culture wars, "The Closing of the American Mind" may not be on your radar. When it first came out in 1987, it caused quite a fracas and became, I'm sure to
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everyone's (including Allan Bloom’s) surprise, a bestseller. It's difficult for me to imagine a book by an unprepossessing University of Chicago professor on the debilitating effects of Heidegger and Nietzsche on higher education becoming a bestseller today. This may only serve to bolster Bloom's case that the "liberal" attitude of openness has gone a few steps too far.

Or it might be the direct effect of Bloom's "voice" - which is, despite what any of his intellectual confreres say, by turns elitist, rankly unegalitarian, and possibly anti-democratic in content; in tone, he often comes off as the curmudgeonly old grandfather shaking his newspaper at you and telling you to get off of his lawn. I personally have no problem with the elitism or anti-democratic attitudes when it comes to teaching. There are, quite simply, some books that are better than others, and some ideas that are better than others, and having to pretend otherwise is simply to play the ostrich's game of sticking our heads in the sand. The better books should be taught for the moral education of the student body while inferior books should be set aside (surely to be picked up by many people who, after graduating from university and having been introduced to the greats, choose to eschew them and read pulp instead.) I, like Bloom, regret that recent American culture has lost the sense of education as a kind of moral training. Bloom's critics, however, also do him the grave disservice of hitching his tone onto the wagon that is the content of his intellectual argument. Who's going to take this cranky old man seriously - who sees an uncontrollable sexual release in a young teenage boy unashamedly gyrating his hips to rock 'n' roll, who unabashedly and unashamedly blames affirmative action as one of the contributing factors in the decadence of the contemporary American university, and whose explanation of the breakdown of the American family (if there indeed has been such a thing) is, quite charitably, described as "old-fashioned."

Bloom's argument is large and multifaceted; no review of a few hundred words could deal with it in all its complexity. What it claims at its base, though, is that certain attitudes popular in the sixties and seventies - universal acceptance, universal tolerance, the slow erosion of critical faculties - which eventually came to shape the minds of university students and even how university are administered. He claims, after Nietzsche, that we live in a time "beyond good and evil" - that is, where we have ceased not only looking for the differences in good versus bad (he archly points out that we describe nothing as "evil" anymore), but that we don't even know how to discern those differences. For Bloom, the moral education must consist of "a vision of the moral universe, reward for good, punishment for evil, and the drama of moral choices." That is, at the very least, an education in critical moral discernment. He argues that this is all but gone.

He claims - dubiously, I think - that he noticed a steep drop in the number of students who were interested in the "Great Books" from the time when he first started teaching in the United States in the early sixties to the time of writing this book. At many stages in his argument, Bloom seems to have counterfactually reimagined a world in which students walked into the university already well-versed in Plato, Homer, Stendahl, and Hegel, Aristotle, eager to be filled to the brim with The Wisdom Of The Masters. I think everyone was exposed to Homer in high school, but how many of us took it "seriously" - what Bloom would call seriously? Were they familiar with the importance of “xenia” and the “oikos” in Homer? (And no, you don’t get translations of those words.) I can speak from personal experience that many of teachers themselves didn't have the intellectual background to teach Homer this rigorously.

Richard Heffner, one of Bloom’s interlocutors following the popular press cavalcade after the release of the book, suggested during his interview with the professor that being an elitist might mean “thinking some questions are better answered by Hegel than by Joyce Brothers.” By that measure, I would imagine the vast majority of intelligent people are in fact elitists. Knowledge properly used and appropriately fostered quite simply makes you a better person. I think even the most obnoxious paladins of popular culture would admit that there is intellectual territory that Oprah’s Book Club hasn’t yet broached.

You may vehemently disagree with much of what Bloom has to say, or at least how he says it (it would put you in good company), but this comes highly suggested for anyone who thinks that answers to life’s “higher and deeper” questions deserve our most serious consideration. It serves as an honest refutation against the idea a few easy shibboleths of our times: that all answers are equally good, all educations are equally fulfilling and worthy, and all truths are equally valid.
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LibraryThing member dham340
Decided to read this to see if it was relevant at all. The sad answer is yes, but it flaws are even larger with age.

Most of bloom's arguments are of the "get off my lawn" sort of grumpy old men. Nearly all of part I falls into this category.

Part 2 is more philosophy than anything else and bloom's
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mastery of it is unquestionable.

Part 3 is mixed: in some ways dated, in some ways more relevant.

Regardless, bloom's contention: that a liberal education does not exist is even more true now than it was back in 1987. Despite his call to arms over 25 years ago, almost nothing has been done. The vast majority of america's universities are simply mechanisms one endures to get a job (or, given the most recent economic conditions, not get a job).

While much of the political conservative world internalized Bloom in the 1980s and 90s, I think one thing they miss is that bloom really takes no stand one way or the other on "right" vs "left" as we currently understand them (but he did have strong - not good - opinions on the 60s and the "radical left" of that era).

In the end, a tough book to read whose arguments are interesting but whose evidence is stale. Sadly, Bloom died in 1992 but it would have been fun to hear what he would have said 25 yrs later.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
A concrete response to the nonsense of academic political correctness and moral bankruptcy.
LibraryThing member laughingcrane
A sweeping assessment of America's moral and intellectual state, including a serious look at the state of the university. In spite of its longevity--ne 1987--this book demands a searching read as well as collective instrospection of how we stack up now.
LibraryThing member jpsnow
Profound and well-put commentary about our modern American culture and mentality.
LibraryThing member brett_in_nyc
This is an all time favourite and really did change my outlook. Nothing I didn't know implicitly, but it was great to be validated by such a great thinker. Not sure how to get out of this one though!!! I think time and ashes are the only way to heal.
LibraryThing member WrathofAchilles
Although I do not agree with much of the conservatism, this is a great discussion of how truly fucked up academe is. It's nice (and rare) to read someone who has realized how closed-minded those in our universities are.
LibraryThing member mitchanderson
I think the diversity of these reviews and comments is a testament to the quality of Bloom’s work. Something that, had the book been emphasizing a bunch of thoughtless relativism (as opposed to thoughtful relativism), would have garnered a whole bunch of flat and homogenous reviews. The book had
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a section on race, yes. It also had a section on gender, students, the university, the crises of philosophy, and several others, all of which were critical and none of which were central to Bloom’s argument. In fact, the sole object of Bloom’s criticism was ultimately the tattered state of modern thought and the mockery it makes of our collective reality, Life.

The point of this book isn’t to tell you or anyone else what to think. The point of this book is to make you think.

In all honesty, I did debate giving this book less than 5 stars due to Bloom’s section on race and the surprising attention it seems to elicit from readers. However, beyond the section being one of the shortest, nowhere within it does Bloom allude to or even insinuate racist sentiment. Most of the focus appears to be a misinterpretation of Bloom’s addressing the use and abuse of statistical data that, despite being completely devoid of any cultural sensitivity or insight, was used to uproot existing communities (no doubt underserved communities, but Bloom’s concern is the university) on the expectation of immediate cultural assimilation and absolute conformism. Something that, had there been any serious thought to actual human beings – the culture of the black communities – may have elicited more insightful and impactful outcomes (insofar as Bloom saw it).

The book makes a plea for the revitalization of philosophy and a renewed meaning of human nature. All of this is under the expectation that the author should be taken seriously, but not absolutely.
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LibraryThing member GRLopez
I have waited years and years to read this. I knew there was good stuff in here, but now that I finally made time for it, I wasn't as excited to read about it now. Still, it was a provocative, intriguing, and historical read.

****
Published in the late 80s, Allan Bloom wrote a scathing and
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disappointing report about the decline of reason and rise of relativism in the American university system. He blamed the 1960s for the change. You think?

Bloom argued for a return to the Great Books in education, which help us to think about the ideas that matter: is there truth, freedom, and a God? -- something young people crave to know, but now never find out in higher learning because everything is relative.
****

A few final (truncated) quotes:

"A good program of liberal education feeds the student's love of truth and passion to live a good life."

"The only serious solution is the one that is universally rejected: the good old Great Books approach, in which liberal education means reading classic texts, letting them dictate what the questions are and the method of approaching them,...trying to read them as their authors wished them to be read."
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LibraryThing member gazzy
Interesting treatise that goes agaisnt the grain of conventional wisdom at University today.
LibraryThing member Tom.Wilson
Worth reading in 2020 in Australia, as this has been the year that our federal government has stopped funding history and philosophy degrees in favour of more technical degrees it thinks will stimulate a post-covid economy. Bloom is sometimes errant in his attack on music and sex, but I feel
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reassured reading a man who sees reading great works of literature, history, and philosophy as integral to being properly educated. Allan Bloom has often been derided by those on the postmodern left, but this book is even more relevant in 2020 than it was when published in 1987.
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LibraryThing member DellaWanna
Bloom's observations, published in the late '80s, throw a light on the 21st century. Quoting Rousseau, who noted the complementarity of the sexes, which "mesh and set the machine of life in motion," Bloom builds a passionate case for liberal arts education. Throughout the book, he fights for the
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soul of America's youth, claiming "some men and women at the age of sixteen have nothing more to learn about the erotic. They are adult in the sense that they will no longer change very much. They may be competent specialists, but they are flat-souled."
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LibraryThing member WhiteNight
I believe that Bloom identified a very important issue - the crisis in American education. This type of book really requires focused study to fully assess its value.

Bloom describes - in great detail - the evolution of the university from Socrates thru the Enlightenment and finally to modern times.
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I disagree with the the author's inferences that only the most talented or perhaps the most fortunate try to search for truth and meaning in their lives. I also agree that the purpose of a university is education - not training to satisfy the latest fashion or trend.

In the final analysis I think Bloom feels that we must go back to the basics and to philosopy. I feel that he thinks we need to start with intellectual greats such as Plato and Shakespeare to establish a solid educational foundation upon which to pursue both a serious education and a serious life.
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LibraryThing member ProfH
Provocative in it's time, but now mostly reads as bitter and sad. Not a particularly relevant study of today's academia, but this work has some value in understanding the underpinning of many conservative talking points.

Language

Original publication date

1987

Physical description

402 p.; 8.35 inches

ISBN

0140112170 / 9780140112177
Page: 0.9297 seconds