Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Summation Of Allan Bloom's Closing Of The American Mind

A friend of mine's concise summation of Allan Bloom's argument in The Closing Of The American Mind:

....I would say there are two parallel themes, coalescing into one thesis.

First Theme

The first theme is Bloom's take on intellectual history. On his approach classical political thought was based on the idea that rational discourse could address questions about values, about what is the best society, the good life, and engaging in that discourse-- philosophy-- was the highest human activity.In contrast, modern thought (everything from chapter 15 of Machievelli's The Prince forward) was based an a lowering of standards--an idea that man should be taken as he is and society built not to improve him or allow the best to succeed but to allow people to live in accordance with their passions and emotions. (Machiavelli spoke of "Hannibal's inhuman cruelty and countless other virtues").

The classical view that rational reflection was the highest calling and that rational conclusions about the most important questions could be reached gave way to a modern egalitarian view that ideas, ways of life, and cultures were all equal, and that since conclusions about right and wrong could not be deduced from facts (the fact/value distinction), rational debate about values was impossible.

Bloom sees this as beginning with Machiavelli continuing through certain German thought, particularly Weber, and then being imported into North America, showing up in doctrines like historicism and behaviourism which became intellectually dominant in the academy.

Second Theme

This leads him to his second theme, the decline of higher education. An acceptance of classical thought was central to the idea of a classical education, because it was central to the idea that there could be great books (some books could be much better than others) and that we could learn about the great intellectual questions by studying the thought of great thinkers whom it was possible to distinguish from mediocre or derivative thinkers. Almost by definition, this type of education would not be open to everyone, as only some were capable of it, but a true institution of higher learning would support it as the highest endeavour, even if it was not useful and was elitist.

However the academy's acceptance of modern intellectual currents have led it to deny that there are great books and great thinkers or that the academy should be a centre for their study--in favour of a more egalitarian view that courses should be offered in everything and for everyone because there are no standards for distinguishing between them that are rationally defensible and that are not Eurocentric or gender biased, and in any event we should be suspicious of matters that cannot be acheived by all.

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten or Chicken Soup For the Soul are as worthy books as The Republic (who is to say they are not). And instead of being a place for the study of the permanent questions and values notwithstanding the passing whims of society, the modern view was that the university should reflect current tastes--it and everything taught at it should be relevant as defined by society's current fads.


Thus his thesis--the American Mind has thus closed to serious consideration of the most important questions, and higher education, by not opening minds to these matters, was failing American students...

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