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906 of 944 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bloom deserves to be read more carefully
When The Closing of The American Mind was published in 1987, it instantly ignited a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Conservatives hailed it as vindication of their long-ignored criticisms about American culture in general and higher education in particular. Liberals denounced it as elitist and intolerant, and they said Bloom wanted to keep students ignorant of other...
Published on January 8, 2002

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141 of 172 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A landmark book . . . brilliant, disorganized, unconvincing
When it was originally published in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was an immensely influential book. Written by the outstanding scholar and social philosopher Alan Bloom, it added significant heft to the intellectual underpinnings of resurgent conservatism. Bloom attacks what he and many others perceived as the increasing emptiness of the Liberal Arts education...
Published on December 21, 2005 by Amazon Customer


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906 of 944 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bloom deserves to be read more carefully, January 8, 2002
By A Customer
When The Closing of The American Mind was published in 1987, it instantly ignited a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Conservatives hailed it as vindication of their long-ignored criticisms about American culture in general and higher education in particular. Liberals denounced it as elitist and intolerant, and they said Bloom wanted to keep students ignorant of other cultures so he could indoctrinate them with his. Neither side had it right. The Closing of The American Mind is, as Bloom put it in his preface, "a meditation on the state of our souls."
Both sides were wrong about the book because they didn't read it carefully enough. Liberals read Bloom's argument for philosophy as an attempt to purge non-white, non-European writers from the cannon on grounds of cultural purity. Conservatives read his plea as an attempt to run all the liberal professors out of academia and replace them with conservatives. But a careful reading of Bloom would quickly prove both of these interpretations false.
Bloom believed Plato's cave was culture, whether that culture was western or not (after all, it was Plato's description of his own culture that created the idea of the cave). Bloom's argument was that students should be forced to read the works of the great philosophers because those writers are the only ones who dealt with the fundamental question of life: what is man. Bloom believed it was the university's mission to equip students with the tools that would enable them to seek the answer to this question and to lead a philosophical life. Only the great philosophers were capable of introducing students to the deepest and most profound life, and without this introduction, students would forever remain in their respective caves.
Bloom never was a conservative, nor was he one who wished to impose his "culture" on others. Simply put, he was a scholar who wished to make his students think - to truly think - about the nature of their existence and of society. The goal of Bloom's book was to show how Americans of all political persuasions, social backgrounds and economic conditions are debating within a narrow modern world-view and have simply accepted as fact a mushy blend of modern theory that repeatedly contradicts itself and stands in sharp contrast to an almost entirely forgotten world of opposing thought: that of the ancients.
In other words, Americans are incapable of true self-examination and self-understanding because they are ignorant of ancient philosophy, which poses the only alternative to the modern concept of man. What Bloom does with The Closing of The American Mind is expose the great Oz by asking him life's deepest questions. Bloom asks the same questions of today's professors and students that the ancient philosophers asked of themselves and their students. He finds that not only does no one have an answer, but no one even understands the questions.
Bloom's confrontation exposes the modern American university for what it really is: one big self-esteem seminar where students are taught self-validation instead of self-examination. Professors are not forcing students to confront the most serious questions of life, but rather are handing them scrolls of paper certifying that the university has bestowed on them qualities which, in fact, they already possessed, those being "openness" and "tolerance."
Of students, Bloom writes, "The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable and natural rights that used to be the traditional grounds for a free society."
The university, he shows, does nothing to contest this belief, but feeds it instead. The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only "lifestyle."
There exist in the world polar opposites. Bloom lists "reason-revelation, freedom-necessity, democracy-aristocracy, good-evil, body-soul, self-other, city-man, eternity-time, being-nothing." Serious thought requires recognition of the existence of these opposites and the choice of one over the other. "A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear," Bloom says.
He argues persuasively that the modern university does not force students to confront these alternatives at all, much less seriously think about them. Therefore, the modern university fails in its purpose, which is to create students aware of the vast array of possibilities that life offers and capable of choosing the good life.
Bloom has been harshly, and is still continually, accused of trying to force his own ideology on his students. But even a cursory reading of The Closing of The American Mind will disprove this silly accusation. Bloom simply wanted to make students think, to make them understand that there are different ideas of what man is and that they must confront these ideas if they wish to lead a meaningful life. This, he believed, was the university's purpose because it is there and only there that students would be exposed to alternatives to the prevailing intellectual trends. Life will happen to the students, he said, they don't need the university to provide it for them. They need the university to equip them for making the choices that will lead them to the best, most fulfilling life - the philosophical life. It is precisely for this reason that universities exist, and it is precisely this task that they now fail to accomplish.
Bloom's book remains important a decade after its publication because of the depth of Bloom's intellect and the thoroughness of his analysis. Only the last third of The Closing of The American Mind focuses on the modern university. Bloom spends the first two-thirds of the book explaining the modern mind-set and contrasting it with the ancient and the enlightened. He demonstrates the shallowness of the modern mind by repeatedly beating it about the head with Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. With this tactic, Bloom tears apart the vapid pop psychology that passes as deep thought and holds up the shreds for the reader to see their thinness.
But Bloom's attack is also instruction. Through it he takes the reader on an intellectual history tour in which he tracks the evolution of modern thought. Focusing on key words in today's usage, such as "lifestyle," "relationship" and "commitment," he retraces them through history to discover their origins and their true meanings. He then contrasts these words with the ones they replaced, such as "duty," "honor," "love." The depth and complexity of the ancient concepts overpowers the shallow convenience of the modern ones. Bloom tells how, when he showed this contrast to his students, they didn't care. Worse, they recoiled at the very thought of being bound by duty or honor or love as opposed to being committed to relationships via contract.
This contrast is at the heart of Bloom's book: whether humans are truth-seeking creatures who live for the purpose of pleasing God and discovering the good, or whether they are truth-creating creatures who live only for the purpose of satisfying their animal needs and preventing the bad. Bloom believes the former, modernity the latter. Bloom knew that his book would not solve the question or ennoble America. But it would reintroduce the question, which is all that he wanted the university to do. It is tragic that, as he predicted, the universities would cast him out as a heretic instead of making themselves his disciples.
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303 of 330 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece., January 14, 2000
By 
Nearly all of us Americans say that we believe in liberty and equality. But how many of us would be able to defend these beliefs against an attack by a really intelligent anti-egalitarian such as Nietzsche? Our regime was founded on the idea that reason, not religion or brute force, should rule. It was not always obvious that such a regime was either good or possible, and arguments had to be made to convince people to support its creation. The Enlightenment philosophers provided those arguments. As Bloom notes, the Enlightenment brought the philosopher (i.e., reason) and the regime into harmony as they never had been before. (Socrates, the archetypical philosopher, had of course been executed for impiety.) Rousseau, while agreeing with the the fundamental Enlightenment idea of equality, argued forcefully that reason alone could not found and sustain a society, and in the process invented the modern idea of the bourgeois, the product of the reason-based society, hatred of which was an important element of both Marxism and fascism. But it was Nietzsche who provided the really devastating attack, arguing that listening to our heads rather than our hearts had killed what was really worthwhile in us, that we need to stop reasoning and start coming up with new "values."
The middle chapters of the book are the best overview of political philosophy that I have come across. Bloom understands Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Nietzsche as I believe they would have wanted to be understood. Especially Nietzsche, whose ideas are described with the utmost respect, even though it is implicit that if we are to keep our regime we ultimately must reject those ideas. The sections on "Values" and "Culture," which describe how some German ideas with a great deal of nobility in them mutated when they got to America, are riveting.
Bloom can see that our regime, even as it prospers economically, is in crisis. We Americans mouth the words of Jefferson, but really believe Nietzsche. We do not believe in the primacy of reason. Equality and liberty are nothing more than prejudices for most of us. They are merely "values," and if pressed, most of us would not be able to explain why we like those values better than other ones. Regimes decay for a variety of reasons, one of which is internal contradiction, as in the fall of the Soviet Union. The American regime, with its emphasis on human rights, liberty and equality, is based on the primacy of reason. If most Americans do not now believe in the primacy of reason, then our regime has an internal contradiction. I take Bloom to be saying that this contradiction has come about because those in a position to educate the rest of us have failed to do so. That is where the opening and closing sections on young people and university education come in. Those sections are interesting (and obviously near and dear to Bloom's heart) even if not as informative as the middle chapters, and, even if the section on music is flawed as some other readers have pointed out, they provide concrete examples and describe consequences of the intellectual crisis.
"The Closing of the American Mind" is at the top of my all-time non-fiction list. To me, Bloom is as interesting to read as the thinkers whose thought he describes so well. I believe that in a few years his masterpiece will be seen as a classic of democratic political thought.
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80 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece on philosophy and education in our times., April 7, 1999
By A Customer
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.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Articulate, insightful, poetic, flawed., February 22, 2006
This is a powerful, well-written book, but I think it tells us a lot more about Mr. Bloom than it does about the contemporary (or at least 1980s) university system. Bloom decries the fact that American college students (possibly, he thinks, because of a problem with secondary education) no longer have heroes or wrestle with the Great Books or think critically about politics or each other. He holds up European students as a possible paradigm--with their own problems, of course, but more firmly culturally situated than Americans. My problem is not with these assertions, but with the subtle "no longer" attached to them, as if everyone used to have the same experiences Mr. Bloom had and now doesn't anymore. When was the golden age of the American university? The 1950s? The 1920s? The 1850s? Mr. Bloom's own experience--he entered the University of Chicago at the age of 15 and studied under giants like Leo Strauss and Richard McKeon--is so atypical as to blind him to other realities of the university experience. He decries the push for formal training, brilliantly stating that if that's all college is for, no one needs four years; but again, that subtle "no longer" is attached.

He also gets some facts plain wrong. He says that nearly everyone in the middle-class has a college degree; this just isn't the case, as the overall percentage of Americans with college degrees is now, in 2006, 18 years later, around 28%. He also says that every student these days is a relativist to some degree, and while there may be a greater preponderance of relativists in the elite universities Mr. Bloom is used to, this doesn't count the hundreds of thousands of students at Christian colleges, in public universities, and in specialized and technical schools.

His grasp of philosophy and the relationship between ideologies and ideas is spectacular; the book is gripping and poetic and a great read. But his arguments could have been much more narrow and thus much more powerful.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that made a difference, November 28, 2005
The Closing of the American Mind was a unique book for me, in that it showed me why I felt a lack of education after graduating from college. It was one of those books that made me want to read more books, which I hope is the goal of every good educator. I was struck by the way Bloom described a lot of everyday realities with new eyes, and although there were a lot of things I didn't understand in the course of reading this book, I found he was right about most. He helped me understand why things are the way they are today. Covering several thousand years of philosophy and culture is ambitious, to say the least, but I found the digressions informative and interesting. Despite the complexity of Bloom's topics, his point is really quite simple and straightforward. The modern university can no longer impart a coherent education to its students. The university can no longer agree on what 'must be taught'.

Choice is all the rage for college students today - and while course rosters are overflowing with new electives - the humanties have become so splintered that a liberal education now resembles a mere buffet of knowledge. Today, only technical courses have measurable use after commencement. The liberal arts university has always raved about transforming students into better thinkers - light, truth, wisdom, et. al - but in modern times, this high-minded goal exists in word only. The reality is that relativism, post-modernism and a variety of political movements have eroded 'truth' into 'worldview' and 'cultural values'. If truth cannot be obtained, and judgement cannot be employed for fear of being deemed intolerant, then what you have is the modern university: biased, pedantic, myopic, and ultimately, useless. It saddens me to say that because I graduated from one of the oldest, most-highly regarded American universities with a liberal arts degree. Out of respect for my alma mater I won't name names. Not that names matter - the atmosphere Bloom describes in the first chapters of the book were everyday realities in his day - they still are today, half a country away. You may not agree with Bloom in the end, but this book will acquaint today's college student with some legitimately new ideas. They were simply oblivious to them.

The ills he diagnoses are the best part of the book. Everyone has a horror story, it seems. For example, in four years of higher learning, I never saw Plato once on the syllabus. Before you write that off as anecdote, I'd like to say that I took about the same type classes/perspectives as about any other college student. Plato just wasn't deemed a necessary part, or perhaps everyone assumed someone else would cover it. It was only after graduation (and an itch from the lack of knowledge I felt) that I finally read the Apology, the Republic, and many other classics. After that, I felt jobbed by some erstwhile professors, well-meaning though they were. I could tell you plenty about post-antebellum race riots and American hegemony, but had never heard of the Socratic method. That is today's university in a nutshell. My education would have ended there if I hadn't kept reading...how many others' did end there? Although Bloom spends much of his book diagnosing the problem facing modern universities, he also proposes a cure: the Great Books program. Now, I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a panacea, and I'm fairly sure that even Bloom didn't feel that way. If so, the book fails in that regard. But to me, the reason he proposed that as solution is clear.

Books allow us to live many more lives than just our own - it provides us with a perspective that reaches far beyond our 70-80 years of personal experience. You know what they say about people who forget the lessons of history, after all. Also, the book helped me understand that Western Civilization was successful for a reason - not just due to bloodlust, which you'll probably be told throughout college. No - historically, we have measured the world with our science, we have explored the horizons with our curiousity, and we have questioned the very essence of what it means to be human, which carried us to the head of the pack. But if you acknowledge that there is much good to go along with the bad to some people, you will be called racist, sexist, and thus irredeemable. The university is the defender of the flame in a very real sense. When the stewards of our heritage don't care for the treasures left in their care, why should anyone else? If something doesn't change, that flame may well flicker out, leaving the world a dimmer place. This book is a good first step against that.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent command of political and social philosophy, March 4, 2000
Prof. Bloom is obviously a very perceptive and intelligent writer, as his books shows. I have read _Closing_ three times, and each time have been astounded by the command he holds of such philosophers as Plato, Nietzsche, Hegel, et al.
This book, besides its analysis of the current crisis in Western liberal education, also serves as an excellent introduction to the great Western philosophers. Anyone who finds _Closing_ thought-provoking and interesting should pick up the two great critics of the Enlightenment tradition, Rousseau and Nietzsche. I have read several works by both philosophers, and never failed to be bored by either.
I will be attending Queen's University (in Kingston, Canada) next fall as a Humanities major. Thanks to such writers as Prof. Bloom, I now know what to expect while pursuing my study of history. _Closing_ is a book that I hope to read and re-read in the years to come.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bloom deserves to be read more carefully, January 8, 2002
By A Customer
When The Closing of The American Mind was published in 1987, it instantly ignited a firestorm of praise and condemnation. Conservatives hailed it as vindication of their long-ignored criticisms about American culture in general and higher education in particular. Liberals denounced it as elitist and intolerant, and they said Bloom wanted to keep students ignorant of other cultures so he could indoctrinate them with his. Neither side had it right. The Closing of The American Mind is, as Bloom put it in his preface, "a meditation on the state of our souls."
Both sides were wrong about the book because they didn't read it carefully enough. Liberals read Bloom's argument for philosophy as an attempt to purge non-white, non-European writers from the cannon on grounds of cultural purity. Conservatives read his plea as an attempt to run all the liberal professors out of academia and replace them with conservatives. But a careful reading of Bloom would quickly prove both of these interpretations false.
Bloom believed Plato's cave was culture, whether that culture was western or not (after all, it was Plato's description of his own culture that created the idea of the cave). Bloom's argument was that students should be forced to read the works of the great philosophers because those writers are the only ones who dealt with the fundamental question of life: what is man. Bloom believed it was the university's mission to equip students with the tools that would enable them to seek the answer to this question and to lead a philosophical life. Only the great philosophers were capable of introducing students to the deepest and most profound life, and without this introduction, students would forever remain in their respective caves.
Bloom never was a conservative, nor was he one who wished to impose his "culture" on others. Simply put, he was a scholar who wished to make his students think - to truly think - about the nature of their existence and of society. The goal of Bloom's book was to show how Americans of all political persuasions, social backgrounds and economic conditions are debating within a narrow modern world-view and have simply accepted as fact a mushy blend of modern theory that repeatedly contradicts itself and stands in sharp contrast to an almost entirely forgotten world of opposing thought: that of the ancients.
In other words, Americans are incapable of true self-examination and self-understanding because they are ignorant of ancient philosophy, which poses the only alternative to the modern concept of man. What Bloom does with The Closing of The American Mind is expose the great Oz by asking him life's deepest questions. Bloom asks the same questions of today's professors and students that the ancient philosophers asked of themselves and their students. He finds that not only does no one have an answer, but no one even understands the questions.
Bloom's confrontation exposes the modern American university for what it really is: one big self-esteem seminar where students are taught self-validation instead of self-examination. Professors are not forcing students to confront the most serious questions of life, but rather are handing them scrolls of paper certifying that the university has bestowed on them qualities which, in fact, they already possessed, those being "openness" and "tolerance."
Of students, Bloom writes, "The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable and natural rights that used to be the traditional grounds for a free society."
The university, he shows, does nothing to contest this belief, but feeds it instead. The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only "lifestyle."
There exist in the world polar opposites. Bloom lists "reason-revelation, freedom-necessity, democracy-aristocracy, good-evil, body-soul, self-other, city-man, eternity-time, being-nothing." Serious thought requires recognition of the existence of these opposites and the choice of one over the other. "A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear," Bloom says.
He argues persuasively that the modern university does not force students to confront these alternatives at all, much less seriously think about them. Therefore, the modern university fails in its purpose, which is to create students aware of the vast array of possibilities that life offers and capable of choosing the good life.
Bloom has been harshly, and is still continually, accused of trying to force his own ideology on his students. But even a cursory reading of The Closing of The American Mind will disprove this silly accusation. Bloom simply wanted to make students think, to make them understand that there are different ideas of what man is and that they must confront these ideas if they wish to lead a meaningful life. This, he believed, was the university's purpose because it is there and only there that students would be exposed to alternatives to the prevailing intellectual trends. Life will happen to the students, he said, they don't need the university to provide it for them. They need the university to equip them for making the choices that will lead them to the best, most fulfilling life - the philosophical life. It is precisely for this reason that universities exist, and it is precisely this task that they now fail to accomplish.
Bloom's book remains important fifteen years after its publication because of the depth of Bloom's intellect and the thoroughness of his analysis. Only the last third of The Closing of The American Mind focuses on the modern university. Bloom spends the first two-thirds of the book explaining the modern mind-set and contrasting it with the ancient and the enlightened. He demonstrates the shallowness of the modern mind by repeatedly beating it about the head with Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Hobbes, Locke, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger. With this tactic, Bloom tears apart the vapid pop psychology that passes as deep thought and holds up the shreds for the reader to see their thinness.
But Bloom's attack is also instruction. Through it he takes the reader on an intellectual history tour in which he tracks the evolution of modern thought. Focusing on key words in today's usage, such as "lifestyle," "relationship" and "commitment," he retraces them through history to discover their origins and their true meanings. He then contrasts these words with the ones they replaced, such as "duty," "honor," "love." The depth and complexity of the ancient concepts overpowers the shallow convenience of the modern ones. Bloom tells how, when he showed this contrast to his students, they didn't care. Worse, they recoiled at the very thought of being bound by duty or honor or love as opposed to being committed to relationships via contract.
This contrast is at the heart of Bloom's book: whether humans are truth-seeking creatures who live for the purpose of pleasing God and discovering the good, or whether they are truth-creating creatures who live only for the purpose of satisfying their animal needs and preventing the bad. Bloom believes the former, modernity the latter. Bloom knew that his book would not solve the question or ennoble America. But it would reintroduce the question, which is all that he wanted the university to do. It is tragic that, as he predicted, the universities would cast him out as a heretic instead of making themselves his disciples.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Seminal Book For Our Times, September 27, 1999
By A Customer
Professor Bloom's account of our crisis is on the mark, although it can be tainted at times with a frankness that will offend some who cling to pop 'culture' for their salvation. However one feels about some of Bloom's analysis, especially in Part One, it must be remembered that his intention seems not to be a demagogue but to shake up sensibilities that have grown stale and deaf. The furious reaction to this book suggests he has done just that, and by attacking what many hold dear forces a re-thinking of where and how we take our bearings. The book should be read carefully from start to finish, as many have accused Professor Bloom of being everything from a staunch conservative to a Bible-thumper. Bloom is neither-nor is he a liberal in our current sense. He is attempting to trace an intellectual history as it affects the university, which he compellingly argues is at the center of our nation, a nation founded on reason and Enlightenment principles. The abandonment of these principles for a system of thought that was hostile to us is indeed a theoretical issue that requires pursuing. Lastly, for those who argue that because Leo Strauss was German and one of Bloom's mentors this makes for hypocrisy, they should read Strauss' works with more clarity. If Bloom can be accused of anything, it is staying true to Strauss' vision of political science, which rejected German irrationalism. The book will not give answers, but will point one to the reading list that may. An excellent work, and one that will grow in importance with time.
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141 of 172 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A landmark book . . . brilliant, disorganized, unconvincing, December 21, 2005
By 
When it was originally published in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was an immensely influential book. Written by the outstanding scholar and social philosopher Alan Bloom, it added significant heft to the intellectual underpinnings of resurgent conservatism. Bloom attacks what he and many others perceived as the increasing emptiness of the Liberal Arts education offered at America's elite universities, institutions which in his view had ignominiously yielded to pressure, and dropped any semblance of a core curriculum based on the traditional canon of Great Books by "dead white men." He lustily denounces politically correct campus platitudes about universality, diverse cultures, and "relevance". In this book one finds perhaps the definitive and most intelligent statement of the perils of cultural relativism, and of the supposed fall from grace that was the Sixties, a statement eagerly taken up by neo-conservatives who largely ignored its more general critique of middle-class values. It would be a mistake to label this book a doctrinaire political tract. Bloom comes by his views honestly, and some of the points he raises (for example, the increasing prominence of MBA mills at major universities in the 80s) might make doctrinaire conservatives squirm. His dedication to the classics of Western Civ is fierce, and the views he expresses in this book are the product of careful and deep thought. The Closing of the American Mind is much more in the nature of a jeremiad proclaimed by a man who has returned from a journey to the heart of the Enlightenment to denounce the trashiness which permeates much of our culture, our values, and our beliefs.

In spite of its merits, and although I share Bloom's concern about the dangers of the mindless relativism found all too often in academia, I was disappointed in this book for a number of reasons. Bloom might have been a great teacher and scholar, but he was not a great writer. The writing style, although passable, at times turns opaque. Bloom's polemical and ironic tone tends to get in the way of clear argumentation. The overall argument itself seems wooly and disorganized; at times the book almost seems to read as a series of lecture notes, loaded with interesting and sometimes brilliant digressions that follow no logical or orderly progression. I also think Bloom fundamentally misunderstands the nature of science. He omits any consideration of the empirical element, and seems to consider science as a kind of Cartesian rationalism on steroids, constructed purely with the bricks of logic and reason. At one point he cites the Pythagorean theorem as an example of science. Bloom lumps Isaac Newton together with Locke and Descartes as a philosopher, as if he was not something very different, called a "scientist". This line of thought ignores the fact that had Newton been a philosopher and theologian only, he would today be forgotten, except by a few scholars.

A more serious problem is Bloom's tendency to overgeneralize and to overstate his case. For example, "The crisis of liberal education is a reflection of a crisis at the peaks of learning ... an intellectual crisis of the greatest magnitude, which constitutes the crisis of our civilization." This is not the first time we've heard about "the end of Western civilization." More than a century ago the elimination of a core curriculum consisting of the Latin and Greek classics was supposed by some to portend the end of Western civilization. For Bloom, the study of Plato and the Socratic ideal is a kind of quasi-religion. It may very well be lamentable that the Socratic ideal and the core classics of Western Civ are not taught the way they once were. Very possibly there is a price to be paid for this. But it seems foolish to exaggerate the impact reduced study of these classics by undergraduates at elite institutions will have on the overall scheme of human affairs. Bloom also makes a number of wild statements in his condemnation of the Sixties. He describes at some length an incident at Cornell, where he was teaching in 1969. Bloom claims that a radical group of black students had threatened the use of firearms and the lives of individual professors. It is clear that eighteen years later he is still enraged at what he sees as the spineless yielding of the University to the demands of this group. One might agree with Bloom (if one accepts his account as impartial) that the response of Cornell to this incident was "contemptible." However, Bloom compares these events to what was going on in Nazi Germany in the thirties: "The American university in the sixties was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the thirties ... Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same." One suspects that Bloom's anger is behind this absurd exaggeration. But it is very disappointing that he resorts to this kind of glib, overused, and bogus analogy with the Nazis. Certainly it seems very far from the high philosophical ideal of calm Socratic rationality which Bloom claims to be promulgating throughout this book.

In fact, Bloom seems obsessed with things German. A good deal of his book is given to an elaborate argument that the American university is in decline because it is adrift in the same intellectual currents that led to the decline and ultimate collapse of the Weimar republic. The comparison of post-Vietnam America with Weimar was not original with Bloom. As far back as 1971 worried articles had been appearing in Commentary magazine about "the spectre of Weimar" threatening the United States. Whatever lingering plausibility this idea might still have had in 1987, it certainly has none today. Bloom traces the moral and cultural relativism he claims is endemic to the American university to Nietzsche and Nietzsche's follower Heidegger. Although Bloom makes some interesting points along the way, I didn't find this argument very convincing. Aside from its tendentious flavor, it leaves too much out. Without denying that "Nietzchean" relativism pervades some departments of some American universities, it is possible to identify other influences on the American universities at least as important, and probably more so. If many on campus during the Sixties were reading Marcuse, how many more were reading and discussing Thoreau? Bloom makes no mention of the strong native strain of anti-intellectualism that is part of the longstanding cultural heritage of America (Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" is a brilliant exploration of this). Bloom also fails to consider possible non-intellectual explanations for what happened to the University in the Sixties. The events at Cornell that so angered Bloom cannot be fully understood without giving at least some consideration to about a hundred years of racial TNT. If one persists in putting one's head in the sand and ignoring this, it's no use being shocked by the destructive consequences of the inevitable explosion. Yet another unconsidered factor behind the changes in the American university deplored by Bloom is the weakening of the WASP old boy network, and the rise of a culturally more diverse meritocracy within both the faculty and student body.

The Closing of the American Mind challenges its readers. Easy answers are not accepted. Don't bother even picking up this book if you are not prepared to put your ideas and beliefs to the test, and even to be insulted (for example, Bloom seems fond of provoking his readers by painting life outside the University, family life in particular, as an "intellectual desert" (his term). "The dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief". This is not what put me off. In fact Bloom's refusal to adjust what he says one jot for the sake of his readers may be the best thing about this book. What I found most disappointing was what is NOT in it: an organized and convincing explanation of the malaise of the American university and its supposed causes, of why the rest of us should care about it, and of "what is to be done" about it in a world inhabited not by philosophers only.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The essence of what is means to have a liberal arts education., January 27, 2009
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Professor Blooms magnum opus--really just a collection of various lectures he would give at the U of C--hits upon the great descent into meaninglessness of our modernist and postmodernist culture. There are many terrific reviews of this book on this website, but what truly interests me is how a large number of the bad reviews all hit Bloom for three things: his verbosity, his disdain for rock music, and his pretentiousness. The first and last claim are dealt with easily; he writes the text laboring under assumption that the reader is moderately well versed in the Classics of the West. So one must have already read The Republic, Being and Time, Beyond Good and Evil, Leviathan, etc. to fully appreciate what Bloom is doing here. This is not a text for laymen, nor is it one for whom philosophy consists of modern drivel like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Matrix. His style is remarkably succinct and readable compared to many of the masters he so eagerly cites. His critique of Rock is strange--as is the entirety of his critique of popular culture--but his general point is that this is indicative of, and is most certainly correlated with, the coarsening of the dialect and culture. It perverts the more noble and artistic elements of the liberal arts in general, and reflects the declining standards of the day.

It is a worthwhile read to anyone who is willing to put the time in and seriously contemplate the state of our culture today. Again, one small disclaimer: if you are not well versed in Germanic philosophy from the 19th century (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, etc.), then the middle section will be largely incomprehensible. It was, one must remember, taken from his graduate level class on Nietzsche and Modernity, so it is not designed to be easily consumed.
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