Review: The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom
What does it mean to be educated?
In a controversial manifesto, lifelong college professor Allan Bloom offers a critique of trends in modern thought that have culminated in our current approach to education. According to Bloom, this approach favors personal preference, specialization, and technical skills at the expense of historical perspective, breadth of learning, and exposure to the humanities. If education means developing a holistic vision of the hierarchy, unity, and interrelationship of the general areas of knowledge, America is slowly closing its mind off to true education. Here is a summary of Bloom’s arguments:
THE DOWNSIDE OF DEMOCRACY
Perhaps the most fundamental question about education is: what’s worth learning? Ostensibly all educational institutions should have some concrete answers for students wrestling with this question. Except for a small number of religious and military universities, institutions of higher learning have largely abdicated this responsibility. Schools may set the course requirements for degrees, and professors may set the curriculum requirements for courses. Still, the primary determinant of what’s worth learning has become the personal preferences of the uneducated student. Universities offer a dazzling buffet of educational sustenance without any conception of what a well-rounded, balanced intellectual-diet might look like.
Since the Enlightenment, two concepts have pervaded nearly every facet of Western thought: natural rights (as espoused by the English philosopher Jonathan Locke) and natural science (as espoused by, well, scientists). The two concepts have had an odd love affair. The result has been egalitarian, democratic societies where “natural rights” have come to mean the pursuit of individual passions, and “natural science” has come to mean the securing and extension of those passions. This has created a leveling down where there is no higher or lower, no right or wrong, no good or evil – only personal preferences, personal values, and personal lifestyles. If a secular, civilian institution were to offer guidance to its students concerning what’s worth learning, it would be making an implicit value judgment on the preferences of its students. Since the students have a “right” to their preferences, universities remain silent lest they offend these rights. They instead extol tolerance, the only sacred cow remaining (which, to paraphrase Bloom, is really just a euphemism for “not taking one’s beliefs too seriously”). The posing of eternal questions of gravity such as “What constitutes the good life?” or “How should one live?” are not simply deemed unanswerable or irrelevant; they are now inadmissible.
The egalitarian leveling down of society has also shattered any notion of the hierarchy or unity of knowledge. Suppose mere preference determines what’s worth learning. In that case, it becomes impossible to construct a meaningful schematic explaining the interrelationship of the various fields of study (beyond simply proclaiming them all to be equally relevant). Who is to say that advanced cancer research is more important than exercise and movement studies (University of Vermont), or that political philosophy should take precedence over turfgrass science (Penn State)? This is a perfect example of a flawed premise leading to absurd conclusions.
Consequently, the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities have increasingly become islands unto themselves, having little to no exchange with one another. Students encounter these islands tentatively and haphazardly, having little guidance to help them find their way other than a smattering of perfunctory (and often laughable) general education 101 courses. This growing separation of each area of knowledge ultimately undermines the concept of reason itself. If there is no vision of the whole, how can there be rationality?
THE ENDS OF EDUCATION
The fact that obscure degrees (like the two mentioned above) even exist shows that the purpose and definition of higher education have changed. It no longer means that students receive a healthy dose of each interrelated branch of knowledge. Rather, it means career training and specialization, and, for most students, it is an overpriced version of the old apprenticeship system. Consequently, an educated individual no longer means someone who has surveyed and appreciated the whole of knowledge (since, of course, there is no longer a whole to survey). Instead, it means someone who knows how to practice a specific profession. A person may be as parochial and provincial as the meanest tribal chieftain, but, if the person is a doctor or lawyer, it will be a foregone conclusion that he or she is educated. Bloom argues that, in reality, many of these professional elites are hyper specialists who learn more and more about less and less (to use a term encountered elsewhere, they are “idiot savants”). Extreme technical depth has neutered intellectual breadth.
THE TYRANNY OF TRADITION
Modern man has cast off every past creed and philosophy with reckless abandon. After all, what can tradition represent except a fetter on the freedom and preferences of an individual? As Bloom points out, the irony is that tradition is the only thing to save us from the tyranny of the present. Are the average Western teenagers even aware that there are serious, viable alternatives to the merely current, popular modes of living they find themselves in? When universities look to the past, they increasingly do so intending to criticize and deconstruct history – not to learn from it. The study and appreciation of Plato’s Republic doesn’t enslave us to the past. It liberates us from the present by giving us perspectives to contrast our own situation. The abandonment of tradition represents the impoverishment of education, not its enrichment. Humanities (the last vestiges of tradition in the universities) are dying a slow death.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
Piecing these themes together is somewhat difficult, as Bloom’s writing can ramble at times (brilliant and insightful rambling, but rambling nonetheless). He is also guilty of making some gross generalizations and categorical proclamations without fully formed argumentative support. Finally, he seems to give short shrift to the practical requirements of life. Students need to be challenged beyond the narrow horizons of one specialty area, but they also need to get jobs to pay off student loans, cover the rent, and start families. There is a delicate balance to strike between the ideal and the necessary. Bloom seems to err completely on the side of the ideal. All this aside, add him to your reading list. He will challenge you to think more deeply about what that seemingly innocuous word “education” truly means.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.