Sunday, November 11, 2007

Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind, Twenty Years On

allan bloom closing of the american mindAs The New Criterion points out with four (4!) articles on the matter, 2007 is The Closing of the American Mind's twentieth anniversary.

I read The Closing of the American Mind sometime during my junior year, or at about the point I believe most self-reflective students begin to question seriously the long-term value of their educational experience. I was simultaneously trying to crawl my way out of any residual conservatism I had trucked in from my red state heritage and my Fox News-watching father. (I have always been rather late to the rebellion.) It was a strange time to be reading this book—trying to embrace more consistently liberal values consonant with contemporary academic culture while re-assessing that culture's pedagogical purpose and methods, I found myself bewildered and unsure while reading Bloom's account of the failures of higher education.

I came out of the experience believing Bloom that academics for the most part had erred by teaching too heavily from the modish tenets of theory, but, influenced by my previous year's reading of Rorty, I assumed that their error was not so much in the texts themselves as in their lack of resistance to letting nihilism and relativism overwhelm their students and their work. I still agree with one of Bloom's key observations—that the fluid importation of (mostly) French and (some) German ideas required the application of some intellectual tariffs, but none were instituted, and this lack of consideration for the ways post-Nietzschean Continental philosophy might be received by American students and academics caused some malformations in the ideas to swell and sometimes concatenate grotesquely (e.g. Stanley Fish). My feelings about the gravity of these malformations and about their metastasis are somewhat tempered by a greater knowledge of some very good critics who make use of structuralism and/or post-structuralism (not to mention Heidegger or Benjamin) with the necessity of reimagining it in an American idiom always in mind (Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? provides a solid summation of the way this can be done). I also read Lawrence Levine's The Opening of the American Mind, which goes a long way toward demystifying the curricular politics of higher education.

But Levine's major target seems to be the perceived center of Bloom's book—its alleged insistence on a Dartmouth Review-like canon which must be not just the pith, but the whole fruit of higher education. I think I am a minority opinion in this matter, but I believe that Bloom was less concerned with what particular texts were being taught and more concerned with the nature of the pedagogical relationship. Of course, his interpretation of the proper relationship between student and teacher is grounded completely in his work on Rousseau and Plato, and is, therefore, immediately predisposed toward a stiff-backed classicism, but this concern—and not the canon wars of Bill Bennett and Jeffrey Hart—is what is central to Bloom's critique.

My experience of the book was complicated by my work on Saul Bellow last year; Bellow encouraged Bloom to write the book, himself wrote the foreword, and then novelized Bloom memorably in the late masterpiece Ravelstein. So close were Bellow and Bloom that one reviewer of Closing mockingly asserted that Bloom was in fact another one of Bellow's (Jewish, pedantic, pessimistic) characters, and that Closing was in fact an elaborate new formal experiment—a novel disguised as a cultural critique! A hilarious review, mostly because it was almost plausible. Bellow had already written a novel (supposedly) constructed around one of his colleagues—Artur Sammler is in some broad sense meant to be Edward Shils (or so it's said).

At any rate, I read Closing again to try to pull out what might have been the result of cross-pollinating with Bellow, or what Bellow may have robbed from Bloom. Bellow tended to portray their relationship as intellectually one-sided, with Bloom doing most of the talking and idea-generating. I am not so sure that was the case. While Bellow's intellectual life moved primarily by a process of what looks rather like apprenticeship—first with Isaac Rosenfeld, then Delmore Schwartz, then Shils at Chicago, then Bloom—Bellow was also "onto" a number of Bloom's ideas well before Bloom had the experiences (the so-called "Cornell Siege") which led to The Closing of the American Mind. Bellow says similar things about Nietzsche and Heidegger in Herzog, for example, as Bloom will later expatiate upon in Closing, more than twenty years later (Herzog, 1964, Closing, 1987).

At any rate, this second encounter with Bloom grew when I read the English edition of Kojève he edited. Kojève, of course, became a central figure for neoconservatism, and Bloom is typically claimed by neocons as an intellectual fellow-traveler. Bellow and Bloom's connection to neoconservatism is not as clear as I think many people assume it to be, although I wouldn't argue that such a connection is incorrect. At any rate, Bloom's foreword to Kojève almost certainly influenced the neocons in their reading, and so it is not at all surprising to find that he asserts that Kojève was a completely faithful interpreter of Hegel. (An opinion which is contrary to what nearly everyone else thinks; Kojève even contradicts himself in regard to the particulars of the end of history, so I don't see how he can be a faithful Hegelian, but I digress.)

The second time through Closing, I recognized fewer of Bloom's criticisms as valid, especially with regard to students. I found his insights into the student mind to have about the same relationship to student culture as Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons—he mainly describes how students differ from himself and so only picks up on their vulgarity, their promiscuity, and their preference for pop culture. (Wow, right? Really incisive.) All I can say is, at least he didn't have any graphic date rape scenes. (Thank you, Tom Wolfe. I will forever remember the phrase "otorhinolaryngological caverns" with a tremendous shudder.)

Be that as it may, Bloom's book is rightly recognized as important document in terms of understanding the culture wars, and not just for its massive popularity and influence. Although it was effectively the first real shot of the culture wars, it also seems like the terminal point or an admission of defeat—Bloom knew that the pedagogical function he cherished would be impossible to maintain in an era of greater competition to get into America's top schools. Bloom wasn't really describing higher education in toto; he was talking about America's elite schools, and he knew that increased competition for admission made the whole system both a game and an economy. This development had very little to do with what professors were teaching or not teaching, and he probably knew it. But that wouldn't have made a very good critique, would it?


Anonymous said...

One of the complaints was about students going to college simply to gain status and prestige, as opposed to a 'real' education. The admission that universities aren't really about
education, but are actually nothing more than elaborate trade schools, makes one wonder why anyone would spend so much money there if what they really want is 'education'.
Which is why I stuck to the hard sciences, at least I knew what I was paying for.

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