It’s been nearly 25 years since the publication of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in 1987. At the time I found it a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. The ridiculous parts have long since been subject to withering criticism. His remarks on rock music, for example, deserved the takedown by Frank Zappa, which amounted to: “So you’ve noticed that mass media has reduced popular music to a strictly commercial industrial commodity?”
While Bloom finally admits in the conclusion that he has no plan for the reform of American higher education, he did have some positive (and negative) things to say about “the cult of Great Books”:
“Programs based on the judicious use of great texts provide the royal road to student’s hearts. Their gratitude at learning of Achilles or the categorical imperative is boundless.”
Personally I detested Achilles. I wasn’t all that thrilled by “the categorical imperative” either. On the other hand, when I arrived at St. John’s College (“the” Great Books college), I found myself in the company of like-minded people, and my gratitude was indeed boundless. I am very grateful to the “cult” of Great Books generally and Mr. Bloom in particular.
There are very few people who can say this, however. The need for liberal education is rare among American teenagers. Many of us at St. John’s were either refugees from the university, or simply horrified at the prospect of going to one. Before we arrived at St. John’s, we felt out of place. Wanting more, wanting better, feeling a lack and need for something not provided in most universities: that marked us as strange people. At St. John’s I found other students who, despite diverse backgrounds and origins, all felt the same need I did. I have since met similar people who are not “Johnnies”, though the mix seems heavily tilted towards people who took refuge at small liberal arts colleges.
I don’t think I can exaggerate my horror of the university when I was young. I had recurring nightmares straight out of horror movies, of sneaking through vast buildings which seemed to consist of nothing but hallways and doors, avoiding the people in uniform who were looking for me. These dreams ended when I settled in at St. John’s, with one last reprise of the nightmare, never to return. In it, I found the door to the Outside, which opened onto a stairway leading down. On the stairway (which looked like the front steps at McDowell Hall in Annapolis) I felt extreme vertigo, fear of heights and an immense weight pushing down on me. After what seem liked months of taking one step at a time, crawling at times, I reached the bottom and saw around me a lawn, on which people were lying in the sun and talking and throwing frisbees. The weight lifted and I have never since felt or dreamed of fear. Except fear of heights: I still have that.
That was St. John’s for me: the end of a troubled adolescence as a freak. Talk to any “Johnnie” and they will tell you tales, different in many ways but all the same in one respect. There is a need, a lack, a want (in Greek: aporia) which drives some people, some very few people to “liberal education”, or philosophy. There I was, for the first time surrounded entirely by people who liked to talk about interesting things.
Yes, I was grateful. But not for Achilles. And this is where I part from Bloom.
It is not the texts, but the talking about texts, which produce a liberal education. It is not the facts, but the observation in search of facts, which produces science. In education, the texts don’t have to be “Great”, and frankly many of the texts on “Great Books” lists are not great. It is the conversation which matters.
If I were to talk about proposals to alter the canon, to include or exclude, or defend it as it is, I would not be entirely serious. I would only do it to start a conversation, though among the right people I think it would be a very interesting conversation indeed. That, of course, is what Bloom offered us, and apparently we wanted it, because we made the book a bestseller and made him rich at the end of his life, much to his surprise and delight. But I was still rather disappointed by the book.
Bloom had no plan for reform. “One can not and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out.” If he wasn’t preaching some kind of reform, then what was the point? The point, I guess, was philosophy.
I write this shortly after Memorial Day with a quip by Yoda running through my head: “Wars not make one great.” While I wouldn’t expect it from the Evil Empire our nation has become, wouldn’t it be great if we had a Memorial Day for remembering our teachers? If we don’t make philosophers our kings, as Socrates suggest in the Republic, could we at least leave them unmolested and not sentence them to death?
One of the better parts of Closing of the America Mind was where he stated his vision of modern philosophy through a survey of its history. He contrasts the vulnerability of ancient philosophers, on the model of Socrates, with the modern philosophers’ alliances with the State (after Machiavelli), with Science (after Kant), and with Art (after Nietzsche) following the Enlightenment.
Mr. Bloom bemoans the fact that after joining with these forces to accomplish the defeat of Religion, philosophy does not rule the university. Philosophy is instead relegated to a small office in the corner of the humanities building where it is expected to pursue historical studies of its own literature, and above all, not bother anyone else. The results of that tend to be fatuous and wrong (“Plato’s Theory of Ideas”? Gimme a break).
While the modern philosopher seems unmolested, she is in fact starving to death. So we are back where we started: with Socrates. This much I agree with, and this justifies the book’s brief status as a bestseller. I also rather enjoyed his thumbnail sketch of Nietzsche, but the constant harping on “moral relativism” annoyed me in the 80s, and still irks me today.
Were I an educator rather than a lawyer, I would probably feel like Bloom, that there is no hope for general reform, but I would employ my station to do what I think it is that my friends in academia do: try to ask questions and provoke some thinking. Since, however, Bloom took it upon himself to write an academic memoir and attempt to illustrate the spirit of the times, I think it’s fair to ask whether he got the zeitgeist right. Since my calling is to be a lawyer, and the kind of lawyer who acts as a foot soldier in the never-ending trench war of bureaucracy, my weapons are what the ancients called Rhetoric, and I have some well-established opinions about the art of persuasion. It is vital to know one’s audience. Did Bloom know his? In general outline, I think he did, but he had limits.
In general outline, Bloom knew and dealt with the American’s student’s lack of preparation for a liberal education, at least in contrast to the erudite European emigres who were his teachers. They knew Latin, Greek, French and German. One cannot expect American teenagers to know languages. Bloom’s translations of the Republic and Emile confront this fact, first of all by being translations and not whining about how students cannot read them in the original, but also by being semi-literal so that students can at least track and learn key words in the philosopher’s vocabulary.
He also understood that Americans (educated ones) pride themselves on being open, tolerant and respectful of others. Where we younger folk parted from him is the theme of the book: the “closing” of the American mind by the elevation of “openness”. I think the agenda of tolerance, far from being a pernicious “moral relativism” or nihilism, is the greatest accomplishment of the human race thus far, that we can at least begin to demand a better way and brighter day. Can we put to rest, once and for all: racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnocentricity? If not now, when? This is no mere “ideology”. Nor was it a quaint explosion of naïve youthful exuberance (as Bloom views what happened in the Sixties) but rather the great aspirational task of the 21st Century.
I would risk a little ad hominem: Bloom was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS. In his youth he was thrilled by the revelations of the erotic by Freud, and he spent his entire career trying to elucidate for future generations the role of the erotics in modern literature and philosophy. But just as his generation viewed their predecessor’s Victorian attitudes toward sexuality with disdain, we too can look upon Bloom and his generation of academics as lacking a global political consciousness.
I hesitate to use words like “global” and “consciousness”, they are so worn and trite, but how else to say it? Are they not worn out for a reason? What he calls relativism we call globalism, and I think we’re right and he’s wrong.
In Bloom’s view, America is defined by “liberal democracy” which was a political theory created by the Enlightenment, and enshrined by the framers of our Constitution in that document and in supporting rhetoric like the Declaration of Independence. Having established what “America” was in theory before 1800, we can then look to gentleman like Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1835 and 1840, to tell us, from an aristocrat’s point of view, what democracy means and the kind of people it produces, and how they think.
Tocqueville has some merit. I recently read historian Gordon S. Wood’s book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which presents a very persuasive picture of the changes in American society from colonialism to democracy around 1820. The beginning of the book concentrates on just how different life and society were under monarchy. Wood does such a good job that I almost couldn’t read the book, I found the people he described so repulsive. So there’s no doubt in my mind that the Revolution and the republican values it established created massive social change. It was a “novus ordo seclorum” (“new order of the ages”) as the motto on our Great Seal states.
Tocqueville’s perspective is therefore very intriguing, but it doesn’t describe us at all. It’s like listening to Marxists. It’s all very plausible when talking about the transition from feudalism to the industrial age. But we’ve been there, done that. What next?
As a lawyer, I find discussions of the Constitution as it existed in 1790 somewhat quaint. Considering only the obvious amendments: we have since freed the slaves, applied the Bill of Rights to the States, given women the vote, and transferred the bulk of government revenue raising from tariffs to income taxes. After adopting income tax we could greatly expand the budget and powers of the Executive branch, kick fascist butt, build interstate highways, visit the Moon, and create the Internet.
Most pertinent, however, to Bloom’s theme of the Closing, and probably the most significant causal element in all the structural changes, were the successive waves of immigrants from around the world. We value tolerance because we are a diverse society, and we are diverse because of immigration, not because we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. (Jefferson could write those words but he still owned slaves and fucked them. There’s moral complexity for you. Who needs fictional anti-heroes? The real ones are complex enough.)
In the America that Tocqueville observed, the residents were primarily English, with their African slaves. Today we simply can’t imagine life without culture from around the world. We are the first global nation in a global society. From Bloom’s perspective it seems the only immigrants who mattered were the German intellectuals. They were or teachers, yes, and they should be honored. I honor Jacob Klein by reading his Commentary on Plato’s Meno, which is simply awesome and in some oblique way inspires this post. (It has something to do with aporia but it would take too many words to explain directly). But those guys, great as they were, are a miniscule part of the story.
The whole world has come to live with us, and most of them didn’t bring with them fluent ancient Greek. Twenty-five years later we have an African-American in the Oval Office, in a more precise sense than is typical: Barack Hussein Obama II’s father was from Kenya. He wrote a memoir which I haven’t read, and a speech to the Democratic Convention in 2004, which I have read: many, many times.
On one level the Speech is a polite “fuck you” to Bloom and his ilk. Bloom opens his chapter on the Sixties by quoting a professor saying “You don’t have to intimidate us”. The scene is Cornell in 1969, and curriculum changes have been instigated by Black Panthers, allegedly brandishing guns. I’m not going to second guess how things were done in the Sixties. In 1969 I was ten. The following year many students were shot to death while protesting at state universities, so as I recall, there was a lot of intimidation to go around.
Barack Obama wasn’t around for the Sixties, so intimidation is not his style. (Except with Islamic militants, now that he’s President and has weapons to kill people with. Yes, assassination of our enemies is bad. Wars not make one great. But would you have him decline to use Sauron’s Ring of Power to annihilate our enemies? He’s not an elf and this isn’t Gondor.)
Obama happens to be approximately my age and could have been one of Bloom’s students in the 80s (but thankfully wasn’t). Obama told the Democrats in 2004 that we must “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Does it matter whether the book is by Nietzsche or Malcolm X? At some level, a book is a book is a book, and a black youth with one is acting human, not “acting white”.
Here is Bloom:
“One can not and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out.”
Here is Obama:
“Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.”
Now, Bloom is a professor and Obama is a politician, and it is Bloom’s job to examine and question our opinions, rather than reinforce them, as Obama or Pericles might.
Still, Nietzsche warned us that philosophers of the future had best be “cheerful”. He may have been a syphilitic fascist but he was right about that. For Bloom’s generation of intellectuals, God is dead, and hope is for children. Pessimism is understandable for a Jew who was alive when the Holocaust occurred, taught by refugees, and never able to express his sexuality in public, always “vulnerable” (to echo his adjective for Socrates) to a threat of violence and intimidation which lies just below the surface of his Gothic-revival fantasy life.
It is understandable but not very inspirational, particular for a generation with a counter-nihilistic culture entirely invisible to our dismal Professor. Bloom, for some reason, hated Mick Jagger. I cannot understand why. Perhaps Jagger’s blatant sexuality was too grating for a man who had to hide his. (I note with considerable glee, however, that Mick Jagger was brought to you by Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and a graduate of St. John’s College.)
He didn’t spend much time listening to or learning about his students. This was painfully clear in his chapter on “Students” when he pretends to have asked his students what books they loved, and who their heroes and villains were. He found that, except for the few students with an annoying attachment to Ayn Rand, we didn’t like books and could not name our “heroes” and “villains”.
That is preposterous. If anything, we children of the Seventies had a great surfeit of “heroes” and “villains”. We were bombarded with a seemingly endless supply of the crudest black-and-white cardboard cut-out stereotypes Hollywood and Marvel Comics could imagine. We had presidents martyred or resigned in disgrace. We had Ghandi and King. And we had whole new genres of books which Bloom was too stuffy to read or talk about.
What Bloom observed was not a lack of moral culture but the shaming of popular moral culture into the closet. I’m pretty sure no student Bloom ever conversed with would have dared to tell him what or who they really liked, for shame or fear of being regarded as an imbecile. I got a taste of that when I applied to St. Johns. I was asked to write an essay about a book that was important to me. I chose Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which was then and remains my favorite epic. I was told by the admissions director that I had not done myself any favors with this essay, that Tolkien was considered trashy by the folks at St. Johns.
I can no longer be shamed. “Star Wars” (yes, dammit, all six episodes) is canonical for me. You can have War and Peace, I’d rather read Foundation or Dune. And I’d gladly hold up Lord of the Rings against Homer any day.
Let me tell you why. Don’t get me wrong. I’m really found of Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey. I love reading them and letting his language flow over me. But the content is abominable. Far from being delighted when I first learned of Achilles, I was disgusted. He was a bad man doing bad things for evil reasons at the behest of psychotic gods. My initial gut reaction as a teenager has now hardened into something like Socrates’ position when he declared that poets must be banned from the City.
These are not good examples for children. You know what is? Hobbits.
Hobbits who persevere and demonstrate that “Audacity of Hope”. Also: wizards and rangers and Elvish nobility who all show restraint by refusing the corruption of power. And on the negative side: wizards and kings who despair and are paralyzed, preach paralysis or make deals with the Enemy.
These are suitable heroes and villains for children and the child within us: not Achilles.