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The Closing of the American Mind Paperback – May 15, 1988
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From Publishers Weekly
This work by a University of Chicago professor was a bestseller in cloth. According to PW, "marred by the author's biases, this jeremiad laments the decay of the humanities, the decline of the family and students' spiritual rootlessness and unconnectedness to traditions."
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.
S. Frederick Starr The Washington Post Book World Rich and absorbing....A grand tour of the American mind. -- Review
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Okay in all honesty I expected this book to be a shallow polemic along the lines of some of the "popular" authors today, pushing an agenda and setting up straw man arguments, to provide an illusion of balance. Bloom, never backs down or even bother to set up "illusory" counter theses to further his, he just piles on the examples, historical as well as contemporary to nail his indictment of the vapidness of modern "Higher Education."
His thesis that the university today, reflects the general detachment of American society from the Puritan moral values that were paramount throughout American history, is conclusion that I would not have put together.
Is this book dated? When I started reading it I would ha e said yes, but as I digest the matter I have just completed, I see in myself the same sins of "culture" and value relativism that he sees as the symptom of the deconstruction of a Liberal education. As a engineering graduate, I hear in my own thoughts of a "superior" education that had very little of the messy humanities as part of my experience. I see that attitude as a shortcoming after reading Bloom, and one that sadly will be difficult to correct. Not that I am going to give up my technical high-paying career to become a philosopher, but I will now be forced to read and reread the very authors that Bloom uses to bolster his argument that it is those questions about values and the role of Man in relation to everything else that is important.
I found myself lost in a sea of ideas that I really had not considered at times and Bloom has the tendency to be over pedantic at times. My lack of depth to fully critique his philosophical and historical arguments provides hope that perhaps I will broaden the depth of my literary and historical perspective as Bloom suggests is the failing of my liberal education.
I was introduced to Bloom as a masterful translator of Plato's Republic. Bloom's thesis is that university's don't teach well anymore, because of what he describes as vulgar and lazy form of Nietzschian relativism. To make this point he first describes the symptoms of modern students. He then traces the development of Western philosophy that brought us to Nietzsche. He ends by explaining how a vulgarization of Nietzsche bred the sort of vague academic doctrines, most neatly described as various forms of critical theory, which he thinks do not serve the students of Universities.
What this work is, is a refreshing polemic against relativism. What this work is not, is a work of political commentary, though some have described it as such. There is nothing here approaching doctrinaire Left- or Right-wing thought (even of the late eighties, when it was written). Bloom deals with politics but does not move too much beyond Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
The analysis of students is not particularly original and would read like a diatribe of an old-fashioned guy but Bloom's ability to explain this with philosophy. The history of philosophy section is the middle of the book is also its intellectual center. One might not agree with all of his characterizations (of Nietzsche, especially), but it makes for a good analysis and will at least inspire one to read and re-read those older works. The final part deals with the university, and partially rehashes the history with special application to the development of the modern university. This is perhaps the weakest part of the book, only because the arguments had already been built up, and are fairly implicit in the first two thirds of the book.
Some have commented on the book as being difficult to follow because Bloom swerves off topic. I do not think that is fair: Bloom never forgets what he is writing, though he often adopts an ironical tone to illustrate a point, and since this can go one for a few pages, one might forget whether one is reading Bloom's exposition or his mocking of some theory of which he does not approve.
The bigger issue is that he sets up the history of Western philosophy as battles between art-as-creation and science-as-reason. He associates the former with the classical Greeks through to the thinkers of the enlightenment, and the latter with Nietzsche and his influences. He seems to believe that we have gone too far in the direction of the latter. However he never reconciles the two or even suggests such a reconciliation. This is a shame.
The university is not all of life and if one believes that one might still learn and philosophize outside the university, one wants to hear Bloom talk about the art/science dichotomy, rather than throw up his hands in frustration that no one in the modern university appreciates it.
As for a recommendation: if you like reading Nietzsche, you will like this. If you want a political diatribe (Wikipedia says that some people have described this book as starting the American "Culture Wars" -- yeah only for those people who did not actually rad the book) look elsewhere.
Kindle version worked great.
Although this book has served to launch many spinoffs, copies and careers, the original is certainly the best.
Cultural Marxists and Pinkos beware.