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The Closing of the American Mind

Bloom, Allan

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9780786103867: The Closing of the American Mind

A professor of social thought at the University of Chicago argues that the social and political crisis of 20th-century America is really an intellectual crisis. 11 cassettes.

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About the Author:

Allan Bloom was Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College and co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago. He taught at Yale, University of Paris, University of Toronto, Tel Aviv University, and Cornell, where he was the recipient of the Clark Teaching Award in 1967. He died in 1992.

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I used to think that young Americans began whatever education they were to get at the age of eighteen, that their early lives were spiritually empty and that they arrived at the university clean slates unaware of their deeper tires and the world beyond their superficial experience. The contrast between them and their European counterparts was set in high relief in the European novels and movies into which we were initiated at the university. The Europeans got most of the culture they were going to get from their homes and their public schools, lyceés, or gymnasiums, where their souls were incorporated into their specific literary traditions, which in turn expressed, and even founded, their traditions as peoples. It was not imply or primarily that these European schoolchildren had a vastly more sophisticated knowledge of the human heart than we were accustomed to in the young or, for that matter, the old. It was that their self-knowledge mediated by their book learning and that their ambitions were formed as much by models first experienced in books as in everyday life. Their books had a substantial existence in everyday life and constituted much of what their society as a whole looked up to. It was commonplace for children of what they called good families to fill their imaginations with hopes of serious literary or philosophic careers, as do ours with hopes of careers in entertainment or business. All this was given to them early on, and by the time they were in their late teens it was part of the equipment of their souls, a lens through which they saw everything and which would affect all their later learning and experience. They went to the university to specialize.

Young Americans seemed, in comparison, to be natural savages when they came to the university. They had hardly heard the names of the writers who were the daily fare of their counterparts across the Atlantic, let alone took it into their heads that they could have a relationship to them. "What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?" They belonged to the whole world, using their reason to see the things all men have in common, to solve the problems of survival, all the time innocently and unaware trampling on the altars sacred to the diverse peoples and nations of the earth who believe themselves constituted by their particular gods and heroes rather than by the common currency of the body. This American intellectual obtuseness could seem horrifying and barbarous, a stunting of full humanity, an incapacity to experience the beautiful, an utter lack of engagement in the civilization's ongoing discourse.

But for me, and for many better observers, this constituted a large part of the charm of American students. Very often natural curiosity and love of knowing appeared to come into their own in the first flush of maturity. Without traditional constraints or encouragements, without society's rewards and punishments, without snobbism or exclusivity, some Americans discovered that they had a boundless thirst for significant awareness, that their souls had spaces of which they were unaware and which cried out for furnishing. European students whom I taught always knew all about Rousseau and Kant, but such writers had been drummed into them from childhood and, in the new world after the war, they had become routine, as much a part of childhood's limitations as short pants, no longer a source of inspiration. So these students became suckers for the new, the experimental. But for Americans the works of the great writers could be the bright sunlit uplands where they could find the outside, the authentic liberation for which this essay is a plea. The old was new for these American students, and in that they were right, for every important old insight is perennially fresh. It is possible that Americans would always lack the immediate, rooted link to the philosophic and artistic achievements that appear to be part of the growth of particular cultures. But their approach to these works bespoke a free choice and the potential for man as man, regardless of time, place, station or wealth, to participate in what is highest. It would be a sad commentary on the human condition if the brotherhood of man is founded on what is lowest in him, while the higher cultivation required unbridgeably separate "cultures." The American disposition gave witness to an optimistic belief that the two universalities, of the body and of the soul, are possible, that access to the best is not dependent on chance. Young Americans, that is, some young Americans, gave promise of a continuing vitality for the tradition because they did not take it to be tradition.

The enchanting prospect provided by the American student was particularly powerful when I first started teaching good undergraduates in this country in the years just after Sputnik. In 1965 I wrote:

The current generation of students is unique and very different in outlook from its teachers. I am referring to the good students in the better colleges and universities, those to whom a liberal education is primarily directed and who are the objects of a training which presupposes the best possible material. These young people have never experienced the anxieties about simple physical well-being that their parents experienced during the depression. They have been raised in comfort and with the expectation of ever increasing comfort. Hence they are largely indifferent to it; they are not proud of having acquired it and have not occupied themselves with the petty and sometimes deforming concerns necessary to its acquisition. And, because they do not particularly care about it, they are more willing to give it up in the name of grand ideals; as a matter of fact, they are eager to do so in the hope of proving that they are not attached to it and are open to higher callings. In short, these students are a kind of democratic version of an aristocracy. The unbroken prosperity of the last twenty years gives them the confidence that they can always make a living. So they are ready to undertake any career or adventure if it can be made to appear serious. The ties of tradition, family, and financial responsibility are weak And, along with all this, goes an open, generous character. They tend to be excellent students and extremely grateful for anything they learn. A look at this special group tends to favor a hopeful prognosis for the count's moral and intellectual health.

There was, at that moment, a spiritual yearning, a powerful tension of the soul which made the university atmosphere electric. The Soviets' beating us into space shocked the nation and, for a moment, leveling education was set back on its heels. There seemed to be no time for that nonsense. Survival itself depended on better education for the best people. External necessity injected into the easygoing educational world the urgency that should always be there. Money and standards emerged in the twinkling of an eye. The goal was to produce scientific technicians who would save us from being at the mercy of tyrants. The high schools concentrated on math and physics, and there was honor and the promise of great futures for those who excelled in them. The Scholastic Aptitude Test became authoritative. Intellectual effort became a national pastime. The mere exercise of unused and flabby muscles is salutary, and the national effort both trained and inspired the mind. The students were better, more highly motivated.

Then I began to notice strange things. For example, for the first time, American students were really learning languages. And there were the signs of an incipient longing for something else. Science had been oversold. The true scientific vocation is very rare, and in the high schools it was presented in technical and uninspired fashion. The students apparently learned what they were asked to learn, but boredom was not wholly compensated for by great expectations. The new mental activity and desire for achievement had not quite found their objects. I observed that many of the best students' dedication to science was very thin. The great theoretical difficulty of modern natural science -- that it cannot explain why it is good -- was having its practical effect. The why question was coming close to the surface. As a result, although the sole interest of the public officials was in natural science, social science and the humanities also began to profit (inasmuch as the universities could not avoid saying they counted too). A little liberal learning easily attracted many of the most gifted away from natural science. They felt the alternatives had been hidden from them. And, once in the university, they could, this being a free country, change their minds about their interests when they discovered that there is something in addition to science. It was a tense moment, full of cravings that lacked clearly perceived goals.

I was convinced in the early sixties that what was wanted was a liberal education to give such students the wherewithal to examine their lives and survey their potential. This was the one thing the universities were unequipped and unwilling to offer them. The students' wandering and way. ward energies finally found a political outlet. By the mid-sixties universities were offering them every concession other than education, but appeasement failed and soon the whole experiment in excellence was washed away, leaving not a trace. The various liberations wasted that marvelous energy and tension, leaving the students' souls exhausted and flaccid, capable of calculating, but not of passionate insight.

It may very well be that I was wrong, that what was building up in the early sixties was only a final assault on the last remaining inhibitions, that the appearance of intellectual longing was really only a version of the most powerful of modern longings -- for the overcoming of necessity, tension, and conflict, a resting of the soul from its eternal travail. I still think, however, that there was much of true intellectual longing, and it only ended in relaxation as a result of our wasted opportunities.

But the students who have succeeded that generation of the late fifties and early sixties, when the culture leeches, professional and amateur, began their great spiritual bleeding, have induced me to wonder whether my conviction -- the old Great Books conviction -- was correct. That conviction was that nature is the only thing that counts in education, that the human desire to know is permanent, that all it really needs is the proper nourishment, and that education is merely putting the feast on the table. At the very best, it is clear to me now that nature needs the cooperation of convention, just as man's art is needed to found the political order that is the condition of his natural completeness. At worst, I fear that spiritual entropy or an evaporation of the soul's boiling blood is taking place, a fear that Nietzsche thought justified and made the center of all his thought. He argued that the spirit's bow was being unbent and risked being permanently unstrung. Its activity, he believed, comes from culture, and the decay of culture meant not only the decay of man in this culture but the decay of man simply. This is the crisis he tried to face resolutely: the very existence of man as man, as a noble being, depended on him and on men like him -- so he thought. He may not have been right, but his case looks stronger all the time. At all events, the impression of natural savagery that Americans used to make was deceptive. It was only relative to the impression made by the Europeans. 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.

Consider by contrast the education that still persists, in very attenuated form, in France. To overstate only a bit, there are two writers who between them shape and set the limits to the minds of educated Frenchmen. Every Frenchman is born, or at least early on becomes, Cartesian or Pascalian. (Something similar could be said about Shakespeare as educator of the English, Goethe of the Germans, and Dante and Machiavelli of the Italians.) Descartes and Pascal are national authors, and they tell the French people what their alternatives are, and afford a peculiar and powerful perspective on life's perennial problems. They weave the fabric of souls. On my last trip to France I heard a waiter call one of his fellow waiters "a Cartesian." It was not pretentiousness; he was just referring to what was for him a type. It is not so much that the French get principles from these sources; rather they produce a cast of mind. Descartes and Pascal represent a choice between reason and revelation, science and piety, the choice from which everything else follows. One or the other of these total visions almost always presents itself to the minds of Frenchmen when they think about themselves and their problems. These great opponents whom no synthesis can unite -- the opposition between bon sens and faith against all odds -- set in motion a dualism that we recognize when we speak both of French clarity and of French passion. No country has had such a persistent and irreconcilable quarrel between the secular and the religious as France, where the two parties find no common ground, where the aspirations of citizens who share the same country have such different senses about the meaning of life. Shakespeare provided a mediation of these two poles for the English, but no one succeeded in doing it for the French, although Rousseau, a Swiss, made a noble attempt. Both Enlightenment and Catholic thought have found their special home in France for more than three centuries. Descartes and Pascal gave accounts for the French of the West's common faith, Christianity, and at the same time situated them with respect to that other, more distant, source of inspiration, Greece. The succeeding generations of writers who began from the Descartes-Pascal tension developed and varied their themes, and the essential spiritual experiences are repeated in Voltaire, Montesquieu, Constant, Balzac and Zola, on the one hand, and Malebranche, Chateaubriand, De Maistre, Baudelaire, Proust and Céline, on the other, each aware of the others and carrying on a dialogue with or confronting his opposite number.

It was, therefore, very French of TocqueviIle to say that the Americans' method of thought was Cartesian without their ever having read Descartes, and to wonder whether they could understand a Pascal or produce one. America was not for him a people with a book A Frenchman was a creature of sentiments informed by a literary tradition, while an American was a man of rational principles. These principles were first elaborated, of course, by writers but were such, as Kant said about his own moral philosophy, as to express what every well-brought-up child knows. Reciprocal recognition of rights needs little training, no philosophy, and abstracts from all differences of national character. Americans were, in effect, told that they could be whatever they wanted to be or happened to be as long as they recognized that the same applied to ail other men and they were willing to support and defend the government that guaranteed that dispensation. It is possible to become an American in a day. And this is not to make light of what it means to be an American. The cooperation of natural passion and natural reason defies the ancient maxims that insisted that a city be like an organic unity, generated by the motherland, with a citizen's relation to it like a leaf's to a tree. It is, howev...

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