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The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

28/01/2016

Probably the most challenging, yet also most enriching, book I read last year was Allan Bloom’s 1987, Closing of the American Mind.

Possessing the stark subtitle; how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the soul’s of today’s students, the University of Chicago professor of philosophy pulls no punches in an excoriation of the paradoxical closing off of these students to the power of reason as a means to form a strong argument which might help them think about the wider world.

Last year, I wrote about the notion of “no-platforming” of certain speakers believed to hold certain views considered divergent from “mainstream” opinion and the growth of thought clusters online. This has been most acute on University campuses in the United States and the UK but has also appeared in this country.

The most startling case was a video which circulated last year of a young woman at Yale university who demanded the resignation of two faculty members for their suggestion in an email that students should choose for themselves which costumes they would wear on halloween (scarcely the fire and brimstone forthright exchange of political views). The demeanor and approach of professor and student in that video present a stark juxtaposition between an adult calmly attempting to articulate his position and a child petulantly insisting the professor give in to her demands or resign. The student does not see the professor as someone to reason with, rather he is a barrier to progress and must be stamped out and overcome.

This is why I found Bloom’s Closing still resonated. It is not unusual, or even undesirable, that intelligent people should hold starkly different views but the incapacity of some people to articulate their own argument and use the means of reason to calmly persuade people as to the rightness of their position is a worrying trend.

Ironically, according to Allan Bloom, this dogmatic sort of behaviour comes from a lack of discrimination of good and bad ideas. He notes  students appear increasingly open to all sorts of ideas and lifestyles and in possession of an utterly relativistic approach to cultural and moral frameworks. Yet, this relativism, instead of being a great opening, is to Bloom, a great closing of minds – an openness to bad arguments and a consequent closing to the power of reason and rationalism (the great lessons of the enlightenment) to help us understand and attempt to solve the challenges of the natural world.

Openness,  writes Bloom, “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.”

In denying reason’s power to enlighten us, Bloom worries that students can no longer really pursue a deeper philosophical knowledge of meaning to them because being truly open means accepting the humbling proposition that one might be wrong. He writes:

True openness is the accompaniment of the desire to know, hence of the awareness of ignorance.

This closing is also present, according to Bloom, in the contradictory positions held by many students.

Feminism and cultural relativism are natural examples which, at an objective level, if feminism is understood as equality between the sexes, cannot co-exist because a belief that men and women are equal cannot be squared with cultural practices which explicitly place women as inferior.

In such relativism, Bloom is also powerfully highlighting the loss of agency apparent in the inability to articulate a clear and concise perspective which might persuade another person.

This is also present in a general decline of confidence in man’s ability to overcome the problems of the natural world and to create his own representation of “the good life”.

Environmentalism now appears to have replaced religion as a new sort of secular theism which speaks to the limits of man and not his capacity to overcome the challenges surrounding him. There is a further contradiction present in the increasingly religious lens with which nature is revered.

This loss of agency brings me back to the Yale student who so condemned faculty members for suggesting students could be sufficiently mature as to make their own decisions about which costumes to wear (there are considerably more important issues to consider in the real world).

I mentioned at the start of this post how challenging I found the book to read and I should explain it is because of Bloom’s command of western philosophical thought from Plato, Socrates and Aristotle to Hume and Rousseau and then the nihilistic Friedrich Nietzsche* and french political analyst and observer, Alexis de Tocqueville**.

Moreover, Bloom’s capacity to apply the knowledge of these great thinkers to the challenges of the modern world (well, 1986) and help shed light on the way arguments are being formed, or not formed but rather imposed, is highly impressive.

While this did make the book very heavy going (I frequently had to consult a dictionary to look words up and take time between chapters simply to digest Bloom’s meaning) it was ultimately worthwhile and rather enlightening.  This is highly recommended for all who are curious about political philosophy, discourse and the power of reason.

 

*I am slowly making my way through Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and hope to post a few thoughts on the german’s view of how man creates meaning at some stage in the future.

**As closer readers may be aware, I am a fan of Alexis de Tocqueville.

 

 

 

 

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