The Closing of the American Mind (Chapter1)

I finished Chapter 1 of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. The feeling of exhilaration that comes reading page after page of thought-provoking points has not abated yet. In this chapter, he discusses students keeping books, music (which I already talked about the last time), and relationships (self-centredness, equality, race, sex, separateness, divorce, love, erose) in perspective. I will stress some of his more valid points, especially the ones I agree with. A lot of what he said annoyed me, but some of it I thought was reasonable.

He talks about the American students' intellectual obtuseness in an optimistic manner and claims that it is not a stunting of humanity to be unfamiliar with classical writers (unlike their European counterparts), but rather that they give promise of a continuing vitality since natural curiousity and love of knowing came first without traditional constraints or encouragements and without society's rewards or punishments. This is something I believe is still true---the absolute freedom the epitomises a liberal arts education might not produce a plethora of people who are capable of accomplishing technical tasks to perfection; rather it promises an extremely rewarding life for The Good Student intellectually and otherwise.

Bloom, however, thinks otherwise. He thinks that "wiping the slate clean" was inadequate. American tradition, that tells the story of the unbroken, inelectable progress of freedom and equality, is no longer revered and is not used to provide intellectual saddle for the students. That the Founding and the American principles are racist is a popular conviction prompted by the racist. Nietzsche said the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life. Now Bloom claims Television has replaced the newspaper altering the tastes of the young and old, subverting all and turning them into sheep that fit a "popular culture".

Bloom has a point in that there's some spirituality (which I look at as the lack of passioneity---the inability to choose one's "religion") that has been lost, and "value classes" in school will teach the students nothing, when the parents do not have any self-confidence in their philosophies which are without ground in experience or passion. Ironically enough, most moral action comes to nothing more than blindly stating the existential tenet "If I did that to them, they could it to me", an explanation, when said without passion, that does not even satisfy those who utter it.

Regarding Books, Bloom lashes out against feminism, which he claims is a enemy to the vitality of the classic texts. He is sarcastic when he says "But all literature up to today is sexist." Using classic texts as evidence of the misunderstanding of woman's nature and the history of injustice to it will not let us learn anything from it. It destroys the beauty of the text which was not written for such a purpose. "The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency---the belief that the here and now is all there is." Failure to read good books leads to a lack of heroes one can have---instead students' role models turn out to be two cartoon characters whose expansive vocabulary includes a constant "huh huh huh" (don't get me wrong---I like them, but imitating them and think it's cool?).

Bloom tackles various issues on relationships. If any of what I say now raises your hackles, then keep in mind "indignation is the soul's defense against the wound of doubt about its own."

Self-centredness: From Plato's Republic "[The democratic youth] lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, [..], and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time his time as though he were occupied with philosophy." This reflects the state of the youth in this country today---they have the absolute freedom to be what they want to be. It remains essential that they do not become sheep.

Equality: Students speak of the individual; the sensitivity to national character, sometimes known as stereotyping, has disappeared. This is wrong. Not stereotyping due to societal brainwashing leads to the failture of the students to recognise intellectual differences which is what leads to one's development. Stereotyping and recognising them as such is essential for intellectual growth.

Race: While students in general are pretty homogenised, there exists a great rift in the relations between blacks and whites. According to Bloom, "White and black students do not in general become real friends with one another." Bloom makes his most crucial points in the whole chapter here. There are too many to cite here, but one of them is "blacks are not sharing a special positive intellectual or moral experience; they partake fully in the common culture, with the same goals and tastes as everyone else, but they are doing it by themselves. The heat is under the pot, but they do not melt as have /all/ other groups." "Affirmative action now institutionalises the worse aspects of separatism. The fact is that the average black student's achievements do not equal those of the average white student in good universities and everybody knows it." "Those who are good students fear they are equated with those who are not, that their hard-won credentials are not credible. They are the victims of a stereotype, but one that has been chosen by black leadership." Bloom brings to bear his experiences at Cornell to point out so many other points with much startling clarity.

Sex: Bloom says that sexual liberation could be the recognition that sexual passion is no longer dangerous in us and that it is safer to give it free course than to risk rebellion. The liberation, however, favoured the young more than the old, and the beautiful more than the ugly, which has lead to such an overemphasis on sex in our everyday lives. Sexual passion is no longer anything magical and does not include the illusion of eternity. It is just a overrated fulfilling of physical needs.

Separateness: the breakdown of the family is made possible by individualism. "Romantic love is now as alien to us as knight-errantry."

Divorce: Everyone loves themselves most but want others to love them more than they love themselves. "To children, the voluntary separation of parents seems worse than their deaths precisely because it is voluntary---children do not realise that parents have right to their own lives; they think they have a right to total attention and they believe their parents must live for them. Children of divorced parents "have rigid frameworks about what is right and wrong and how they ought to live. [...] All this is a thine veneer over boundless seas of rage, doubt and fear." Bloom speaks of psychologists most of who indulge in "self-serving lies" and "hypocrises" expressed in a pseudoscientific jargon: "Modern psychology at its best has a questionable understanding of the soul. It has no place for the natural superiority of the philosophic life, and no understanding of education."

Love: Young people today are practical Kantians: "whatever is tainted with lust or pleasure cannot be moral." The ideology of young people, the attitude that a serious person does not want to force an authoritarian pattern on others and their future, so sensible and in harmony in a liberal society, indicates a definite lack of passion. The ideology stems not from really respecting the partners' subjective; rather it comes from a supression of feeling, and anxiety about getting hurt. There is no longer Romeo and Juliet. Passionate friendship and love are no longer within our grasp since they "require notions of soul and nature that, for a mixture of theoretical and political reasons, we cannot even consider."

Eros: "The eroticism of our students is lame. It is not the divine madness as Socrates praised;" "The rhetoric of campus gays confirms this. After all the demands and the complaints against the existing order---`don't discriminate against us; don't legislate morality; don't put a policeman in every bedroom; respect our orientation'---they fall back into the empty talk about finding life-styles." This is not to be taken as a homophobic attack---Bloom is partial to no one and lambasts a wide variety of lifestyles.

"...idealism as it is commonly conceived, should have primacy in an education, for man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. Utopianism is, as Plato taught us at the outset, the fire with which we must play because it is the only way we can find out what we are. We need to criticise false understandings of Utopia, but the easy way out provided by realism is deadly." Everyone has powerful images of what constitutes a perfect body and thus one can pursue it incessantly. But deprived of intellectual guidance, one no longer has any image of a perfect consciousness, and hence has no desire for it. How many of you believe such a thing exists?

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala ||