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.

The essence of Straussianism is the view that between ‘the philosopher’ and society there always exists an irresoluble tension caused by the ‘essential opposition between the two highest claims on a man’s loyalty – his community and his reason’. The philosopher relies on reason, which necessarily transcends all social norms – norms developed over time in order to allow the many to live as well as they can in society. With an eye on what is rationally and universally good and evil, the philosopher, like Socrates, always questions the local and traditional principles of every community. If left unprotected, therefore, the philosopher is bound to be destroyed by society just as Socrates was. According to Strauss, a major part of the mission of philosophy has always been to protect its own, to avoid a repetition of Socrates’s horrible death. In Bloom’s version, ‘if the theoretical life is a good way of life, it cannot, at least in its most authentic expression, be, or seriously be understood to be, in the city’s service ... Philosophy ... is a threat to all the beliefs that tie the city together and unite the other high types – priests, poets and statesmen – against philosophy. So Socrates’s successors gathered all their strength and made a heroic effort to save and protect philosophy.’

The great classical philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Farabi, Maimonides) engaged in this effort, Bloom claims, by composing esoteric works which often seem to unite philosophy and public life. But the philosophers know that society will never consent to be governed according to their objective views of good and evil. Read carefully, ‘as their authors wished them to be read’, the works of the great philosophers reveal to the very few who are capable of seeing through their surface meaning that the philosophers’ aim has always been to secure for themselves the good will of the politically powerful. Only under the protection of the latter can the philosophers pursue their essentially private theoretical goals.

The powerful have generally been those whom Strauss, followed by Bloom, calls ‘the gentlemen’ – a relatively parochial classification which lumps together Achilles, Alcibiades (a gentleman gone bad), various courtiers and politicians of different eras and nationalities, the products of the English public schools and of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the alumni, say, of Groton and Yale. The gentlemen are to be distinguished from two other classes of people.

All three classes, Bloom writes, are represented in the audience of Socrates’s Apology, which thus presents us with a perfect microcosm of the philosophic ‘experience’. The mob voted against him. The few were ‘politically inconsiderate’. The middle group, who did not understand Socrates but were still sympathetic to him and voted for his acquittal, were the gentlemen. One wonders how to describe those members of the middle group who, in the subsequent vote to determine Socrates’s penalty, voted for his execution: but this question is not asked. Nor is Bloom bothered by the fact that he explains the gentlemen’s openness to philosophy on the grounds that such people ‘have money and hence leisure and can appreciate the beautiful and useless’ even though we know nothing about the economic and social status of Socrates’s judges. The term ‘gentlemen’ plays a double role in Bloom’s narrative: it slides between the historical and the allegorical, specifying sometimes a specific group and sometimes an ideal type. Both roles are combined when Bloom writes that ‘it was to such men, the gentlemen, that philosophy made its rhetorical appeal for almost two thousand years. When they ruled, the climate for philosophy was more or less salubrious.’

The emergence of democracy altered the situation. A new basic premise, ‘a premise not shared by the Enlightenment’s ancient brethren’, emerged: ‘the rulers could be educated.’ But the great modern philosophers (Descartes, Hobbes, Locke), ‘who were as much philosophers as were the ancients’, continued their predecessors’ esoteric project. Knowing that an ‘unbridgable gap’ separated them from the common people, and convinced that ‘theory is pursued for its own sake,’ they switched their allegiance, for purely prudential reasons, to democracy and ‘took an interest in promoting the opinion that, to paraphrase Clausewitz, theory is just practice pursued by other means.’

It is at this point that the university becomes important to Bloom’s account. Allegorically, ‘the university began in spirit from Socrates’s contemptuous and insolent distancing of himself from the Athenian people.’ Historically, the university’s central role, Bloom believes, has been to fight the democratic disdain for the ‘higher type’ constituted by the ‘theoretical man’ and exemplified for him by Pascal. Dedicated to opposing the social and intellectual levelling inherent in democracy, the university exists ‘for the sake of the freedom of the mind ... for some individuals within it’.

According to Bloom, the university was originally intended to enable ‘theoretical men’, who are always few, to exchange their ideas and to train young followers. But partly through the tensions inherent in the Enlightenment’s optimistic philosophy and diagnosed by Rousseau, one of Bloom’s central heroes, partly through the influence of relativist and irrationalist German philosophy, partly through what Bloom describes as the intellectual devastation of the 1960s, and partly through the power which he considers inherent in mass or popular culture, the university’s founding intention has been almost totally lost.

Bloom often criticises the university for failing all its students, for offering them only an education ‘open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.’ This, he argues, inevitably leads to relativism, to the view that all cultures and ways of life are equally good. But the bulk of the students is not his primary concern. Current education, he writes, lets us ‘be whatever we want to be, just as long as we don’t want to be knowers’. But only the very few are ‘knowers’, capable of acquiring through a rigorous classical education the true ‘openness that invites us to the quest for knowledge and certitude, for which history and the various cultures provide a brilliant array of examples for examination’. These are the people Bloom wants to protect.

‘Knowers’ aim to recapture ‘the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason’. The current notion of ‘value’, according to Bloom, is inseparable from the view that good and evil are irredeemably subjective. By contrast, Bloom wants to reintroduce the conviction that philosphy aims at reason, which transcends all subjectivity and convention and establishes what is good and evil for ‘man as such’, even though most people are incapable of appreciating such standards and of living according to them.

Bloom’s real complaint, therefore, is that current educational schemes make it difficult for the gifted few to realise that the real philosophers ‘practised an art of writing that appealed to the prevailing taste of the regime in which they found themselves, but which, could lead some astute readers to the Elysian Fields where the philosophers meet to talk’. One can only hope that the philosophers’ conversation avoids such purple prose. But the point remains that Bloom’s main regret is that the select few are no longer given the opportunity to pursue the values of reason in American universities. Illiteracy, feminism, the admission of black students, and careerism, have turned the universities into technical schools whose central aim is to prepare the lowest common denominator among their students to function in society.

Society, convention and culture are contrasted with reason throughout Bloom’s book. Reason transcends all historical boundaries and always undermines cultural conceptions of good and evil. The very idea of culture is inimical to any other authority, especially the authority of reason: ‘A culture itself generates its own way of life and principles, particularly its highest ones, with no authority above it. If there were such an authority, the unique way of life born on its principles would be undermined.’ Bloom, that is, thinks of cultures as self-enclosed and self-sufficient systems which provide no point of view from which they can be criticised. His argument for the necessity of belief in reason as an independent faculty is that the criticism of culture and society is possible only from reason’s ahistorical and universal standpoint.

This is a bad argument. Cultures are not monolithic structures. Both societies and individuals consist of many strands, which are the products of different histories, reflections of different goals, visions of different goods. Though a ‘whole’ culture cannot be criticised all at once, each of its many strands (which do not ever add up to a perfectly coherent ‘whole’) can be criticised from the viewpoint of some other. A new equilibrium, however tentative, can always be established. This variety of strands is sufficient for criticism. The idea that criticism presupposes a universal faculty of reason, especially one of which only a few can fully partake, is simply a non-sequitur.

Bloom’s account of what reason is is as unsatisfactory as his argument for its necessity. He writes that ‘the important theoretical experience leads necessarily toward the first principles of all things and includes an awareness of the good. Man as man, regardless of nation, birth or wealth, is capable of this experience.’ He illustrates the nature and the universality of reason as follows: ‘When I think the Pythagorean theorem, I know that what is in me at that moment is precisely the same as what is within anyone else who is thinking that theorem.’ But what is it to ‘think’ the Pythagorean theorem? Is it simply to entertain a summary statement of the theorem? Or does one not also have to think of its proof? What if, having botched its demonstration, I still think the theorem is correct? Bloom’s statement is sensible only if we take it to mean that to think the Pythagorean theorem is to think that the theorem, including its fully understood proof, is true.

Perhaps this thought unites all mathematicians, but it is not a good example of the experience which all philosophers are supposed to share and to recognise in others. For philosophers, on an obvious level at least, almost always disagree about what is and isn’t true. Bloom is therefore forced to retreat to a merely formal account of reason, abstracting from its contents: a ‘sense of community is more important to [philosophers] than any disagreements about the final things. Philosophy is not a doctrine but a way of life.’ To value reason now seems to be to engage in rational argument and not to accept any particular substantive position. But this is vague and weak, and may well fail to distinguish the real philosophers from the ‘mere intellectuals’ who, according to Bloom, have been usurping their role.

To avoid this difficulty, Bloom betrays his own philosophic principles. In the battle between reason and community, he sides with the latter. He flies in the face of his argument, abandons this formal account of reason, and chooses to remain loyal to the Straussian tradition to which he belongs. He thus accepts, without argument, a substantive (and not merely formal) account of reason which includes a reference to ‘the final things’, to the specific doctrines expounded by the great philosophers. But Bloom dogmatically brushes the disagreements of the philosophers aside: though ‘the form and content of men like Plato, Aristotle, Farabi and Maimonides appear very different ... their inner teachings may be to all intents and purposes the same.’

Bloom constantly slides between a formal and a substantive understanding of reason to suit his purpose. He writes, for example, that ‘to overcome the [democratic] regime’s tendency to discourage appreciation of important alternatives, the university must come to the aid of unprotected and timid reason.’ His use of the word ‘appreciation’, which does not imply agreement, points toward the formal conception and seems to invite greater openness. But his insertion of ‘important’ limits significantly the substance of the points of view which are to be appreciated.

This duplicity is most obvious in Bloom’s discussion of the Phaedrus: ‘How does a youngster who sees sublimation where Plato saw divination learn from Plato, let alone think that Plato can speak to him?’ The statement presupposes that students should approach texts without ideas of their own, especially – in this case – Freudian ones. Having your own ideas about love is supposed to prevent you from understanding Plato. Thus the importance of the teacher, whose function is precisely to confront accepted ideas with new (or ancient) ones, is directly denied. The statement also assumes that unless students ‘see’ love as divination they cannot ‘learn’ from Plato. The language is excruciatingly vague, but it is easy to suspect that to ‘see’ love as divination is to agree with Plato and that to ‘learn’ from him is to accept his view. The distinction between understanding and agreement, which is indispensable to rationality, is dismissed. To be rational comes to be identified with believing certain particular, mostly conservative positions.

This book is disturbing in a number of ways. For example, Bloom does not give any serious arguments to support the views he attributes to Plato, his greatest hero. He simply refers to him consistently as a ‘great’, ‘true’ or ‘real’ philosopher. But this is not a call to reason. It is an exhortation to accept a particular set of views with little to recommend them apart from Bloom’s intense commitment to them. Though the book is devoted to the defence of reason, it relies not on argument but on passion.

It is also remarkable that Bloom’s ahistorical and universal standards of truth and goodness invariably lead him, in a manner that is almost uncanny, to the central positions of American conservatives in recent years. In this respect, his book and its enthusiastic reception are a testament to the pervasive (but not yet sufficiently noticed) influence which a group of Chicago-based intellectuals have been having on American politics, economics, law and literature: we are seeing the emergence of a Midwestern philosophy.

But there are other reasons for being disturbed by this book. Bloom, for instance, considers that the great classical philosophers were aristocratic for two reasons. First, because they believed that reason, to which only philosophers are truly devoted, should rule, and, second, because, realising that philosophers would never rule, they allied themselves with the wealthy, since ‘such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it. Most simply, they have the money for an education and the time to take it seriously.’ It is striking that Bloom requires no independent intellectual ability of his gentlemen: he seems to believe that the necessary degree of intelligence is guaranteed by wealth. His assumption that this conjunction is not accidental casts doubts on his defence of what he believes is the most universal and most impartial human ability.

Bloom’s assumption, however, is not itself accidental. It shows that, whatever its strengths, his book is essentially partial. It is also profoundly flawed, though not primarily in its intellectual contents (with which, of course, one can take serious issue). Its flaw is a failure in self-knowledge.

The Closing of the American Mind supplies a complex theoretical framework intended (and unable) to support a very specific set of personal and idiosyncratic preferences. It is a book designed to present its author’s pronounced and, in their way, aristocratic tastes without admitting that this is what they are. Instead, Bloom tries to ground his preferences in a quaint theory of human nature and a bizarre interpretation of the history of philosophy. He is thus wonderfully anticipated by Nietzsche, who attacked philosophers for being ‘advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptise “truths” ’ – and ‘very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself’.

From another point of view, Bloom is anticipated by E.M. Forster’s Adela Quested, who knows that there’s ‘nothing specially good or strong’ in her personality to prevent her from turning into the Anglo-Indian type she detests once she marries and settles down in India. For this reason, she self-consciously wants a ‘ “universal religion” or the equivalent to keep me decent and honourable’. Bloom’s quest for reason, though intended to support a very different set of attitudes, springs from a similar need: what it lacks totally is Miss Quested’s self-consciousness.

Bloom regrets that ‘Harvard, Yale and Princeton are not what they used to be – the last resorts of aristocratic sentiment within the democracy ... There is hardly a Harvard man or a Yale man any more.’ He also regrets the passing of what he calls ‘romantic love’, the behaviour associated with which now seems to a student of his as absurd ‘as swallowing goldfish’. Swallowing goldfish – a truly absurd way of behaving – was, in fact, very popular with Harvard, Yale and Princeton men and went to the heart of the type they represented. Is it such a pity that both have had their day? And do we need to hear their disappearance lamented in the name of reason?