The Closing of the American Mind

March 2, 2011

Convictions are forged in argument, values forged in conflict. If we act as if everyone is entitled not only to one's opinion, but entitled not to be challenged on it, then we deprive ourselves and each other of the possibility of forming real convictions and values.

According to Allan Bloom, the cause of the closing of the American mind ironically seems to be our very open-mindedness. He thinks we’ve elevated relativism–the idea that all beliefs are equally valid–to the status of dogma. And as a result, we are morally rudderless, reluctant to demand or provide reasons for our beliefs. Bloom was writing in 1988, and more than two decades later things seem only to have gotten worse. You hear it over and over, the mantra that “everyone is entitled to their opinion,” often with the word “opinion” mistakenly applied to facts that are demonstrably true or false. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume a large number of diverse people could be completely united in any set of beliefs (even if we were all perfectly rational) but that’s not Bloom’s point. His point is that by not even trying–by politely declining to challenge anyone’s beliefs, we’ve collectively turned our back on the possibility of having real values. Thus are we forced to fall back on pseudo-values like relativism1, or to elevating mere tools like science or capitalism to the status of values, with disastrous consequences2.

Sex, Knowledge, Passion

Bloom posed the question to some students how it could be that a generation ago parents would have kicked a wayward daughter out of the house, but now they offer little protest to boyfriend-girlfriend sleepovers:

A very nice, very normal, young woman responded “Because it’s no big deal.” That says it all. This passionlessness is the most striking effect, or revelation, of the sexual revolution, and it makes the younger generation more or less incomprehensible to older folks. (99)

Since he’s writing from a conservative angle, I expected Bloom to bemoan all the sex the kids these days are having. How surprised I was when he goes on to argue that students’ sex lives aren’t rich enough! But it’s about quality, not quantity. Students may have sex, but the problem is their nonchalance, the fact that their romantic escapades are without deep passion. The sexual revolution succeeded in its ambition of divorcing sex from all its historical, cultural, and biological baggage, but some of that baggage was what gave meaning to sex. And I had to smile when Bloom likens passion for philosophy with carnal passion. He argues that both depend on being invested, imbued with a belief that it will make you better. Reading is dull without the belief that what you’re reading will transform you for the better, bring you closer to the good life. And sex is dull whose purpose is merely to get off, and not to transform oneself and one’s relationship to another. The feeling of exploring undiscovered depths is absent.

Just as students don’t engage passionately with each other, for the same reason they don’t engage passionately with the “great books” of the Greco-Roman tradition:

practically no one even tries to read them as they were once read–for the sake of finding out whether they are true. Aristotle’s Ethics teaches us not what a good man is but what the Greeks thought about morality. But who really cares very much about that? Not any normal person who wants to lead a serious life. (373)

Here’s how this all comes together. Our collective reluctance to engage each other in arguments about values (whether for fear of offense, or just intellectual laziness) means that kids aren’t raised to appreciate the time and effort it takes (and the rewards to be gained) from wrestling with the unknown. And by “wrestling with the unknown” there I meant philosophy, but now I also mean sex, since Bloom blames his students’ nonchalance about sex (and everything else) on this lack of feeling invested in it. And this is also why we mostly don’t care about Plato and Aristotle. We assume they have nothing to say to us today because, while they were interrogating concepts like truth and value and how we should live–nice people these days just don’t talk about those things in polite company.

At least that’s what I think Bloom is saying. His is a long, dense book that meanders from Ancient Greece to Weimar Germany to Washington and the classroom, and I struggled at times to keep up. In a sentence, though, I think his point is this: that liberty and equality were great things to found a country upon, but we’ve gone off course when we start thinking, because everybody is equal, that everybody’s ideas are equal too.

Why Do Kids Want to Be Mick Jagger and not Achilles?

A memorable moment in the book is when Bloom comes out against rock and roll. It’s not, I don’t think, one of his stronger arguments, though.

Rock music encourages passions and provides models that have no relation to any life the young people who go to universities can possibly lead. Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in that respect, is like the drugs to which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors–victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. (80)

Doesn’t The Iliad do likewise?

  1. which contradicts itself if it claims universality 

  2. e.g. the ancient Athenian conception of “the good life” involved glory and tragedy and ecstasy. In America today the same phrase popularly brings to mind big TVs or idly drinking beer on a beach. Lame.