Swallowing goldfish

Alexander Nehamas

  • The Closing of the American Mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students by Allan Bloom
    Simon and Schuster, 392 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 671 47990 3

The state of elementary, intermediate and higher education in America has been a serious cause for concern in recent years. Diverse groups and individuals have issued scathing reports on the low quality of current educational schemes, dire warnings about their potential consequences, and mostly vague recommendations regarding their reform. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, described on the New York Times best-seller list as ‘a critique of liberal arts education during the past twenty-five years’, has been widely considered as a distinguished part of this broad critical movement. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With the exception of the religious fundamentalists, whose concerns are specific and narrow, most educational critics charge that American schools and universities fail to provide their students with the skills, information and imagination necessary for understanding the world. Their assumption, by and large, is that a better educational system will produce people who are more knowledgable and better able to function in a democracy, both as part of the electorate and as public officials. This is an optimistic criticism: it supposes that theoretical understanding, practical utility, freedom and social justice are all served by education.

Bloom, however, is an implacable enemy of this approach. Those who read only the first part of his book will not realise, despite the presence of a few hints, that he only shares with these optimistic critics their negative attitude toward the students of today. He agrees with many people that students today are relativist, shallow, self-centred, unread, moved only by the wild uncivilised strains of pop music, and incapable of forming and appreciating deep and lasting attachments.

Bloom’s criticism is unusual because it involves no hope that improving American universities will result in a better world for everyone. Bloom considers this idea an expression of Enlightenment philosophy, and he rejects it in favour of the view he imagines was held in antiquity: all ancient philosophers, he writes, ‘had the same practical politics, inasmuch as none believed it feasible or salutary to change the relations between rich and poor in a fundamentally or permanently progressive way’.

Never mind that, in order to be able to attribute this view to Plato, Bloom needs to give a stunningly revisionary reading of the Republic. Plato’s advocacy of the rule of the philosopher-kings, who alone can, through their knowledge, guarantee a good life for the city as a whole, is not serious, Bloom believes. What Plato really means is that philosophers can never acquire political power. The Republic, according to Bloom, ‘is ironic and impossible. It only serves to show what one must live with.’ The important point is that Bloom’s reasons for attacking the university are diametrically opposed to the considerations motivating the usual complaints.

To understand Bloom’s reasons one must read the second part of his book, where he attempts to trace the university’s decadence to the ‘historicism’ and ‘irrationalism’ of German thinkers like Nietzsche, Weber, Freud and Heidegger. Even more important is the third part, in which Bloom reveals the theoretical framework of his attack. This framework is supplied by the political philosophy of Leo Strauss, a German émigré scholar who taught at the University of Chicago from 1948 to 1969. Strauss attracted a remarkable body of followers, Bloom among them, and they have recently been turning out a third generation of equals.

Bloom’s book is the first serious effort to present Strauss’s views on an elementary level and to a broad public. Though Strauss’s name appears only once, and then incidentally, Bloom’s view is in all its essentials Strauss’s. Bloom’s real innovation is that he has succeeded in popularising his teacher’s aggressively esoteric thought. The Closing of the American Mind has been a surprise runaway success. It is thus a classic instance of the paradoxical book which, though written self-consciously for ‘the superior’ and ‘the few’, nevertheless resonates to the needs and views of ‘the many’, and which therefore undermines the very distinction on which it depends.

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