Reading and digesting The Closing of the American Mind is an undertaking that few books of its length (just under 400 pages) provide. For the curious and engaged, every page is an ineluctable and fulfilling series of passages. Together they chart an illuminating course through the history of philosophy and its connection to the modern American university, in all its eccentricities. For the statistically minded and skeptical audience, there is undoubtedly concern with the confidence and ease with which Bloom draws connections between philosophical movements, university structure, and American culture circa 1987. Yet, the purpose of the book is not to scientifically demonstrate a connection between any single philosophy and a specific outcome. Rather, it is to construct a comprehensive picture of the ideal role of higher education, and how this role has been jettisoned. The problem Bloom articulates is that the university no longer fosters great intellectual minds curious about great philosophical movements of the past and capable of integrating them into modern culture through a sense of perspective. This requires a broad exploration, the sort of which could yield book-length responses to every chapter if not page.
At its core, the book attempts to demonstrate the philosophical nature of the failure in American higher education to properly educate its intelligent students in those subjects making up the Liberal Arts. Pervading universities is a derivative of democratic minded thinking: extreme openness; relativism; an abandonment of any point of view, which paradoxically leads to a closemindedness. This cultural relativism eats away at its very intellectual grounding until even reason and rationally are sacrificed. What remains is a view of every intellectual and cultural system as fundamentally illegitimate.
Boom makes clear that education must strive to remove prejudices. This must be done with a true openness that acknowledges the reality of knowledge and ignorance, providing a path to increase the former and decrease the latter. Universities must show students where their point of view originates, in order to properly facilitate learning ideas within and outside their tradition. The alternative, relativism, is self-contradictory and impoverishes the mind. The relativistic maxim that everything fundamentally is equally untrue or amoral (neither moral or immoral), leaves minds far out to sea, unaware of which direction to row.
It would be futile to delve, even briefly, into each of the specific topics Bloom discuses. However, broadly speaking, he begins by describing the problem of relativism, articulates a broader malaise of the student body, connects the Enlightenment and continental philosophy (Nietzsche being particularly prominent) with contemporary American nihilism, chronicles the philosophies of learning leading to and constituting the university (from the endlessly curious soul of Socrates, to the Enlightenment creation of the modern university, to the counter-enlightenment worries of corruption of the soul found in Swift, Rousseau, Kant, Heideger, and others), and ends by delving into the university’s structure and purpose in a modern era. There is more than enough to disagree with, but never is Bloom’s work anything but engaging.
The most striking feature of this work is how acutely it describes the malaise of the American university I felt, as a student, some 30 odd years later: The hyper-compartimentalization of university departments, questionable campus political movements and the administration’s inability to stand up to them, the racial self-segregation on campus, the splintering of student’s families, the prevalence of a self-contradictory relativism, and a dearth of perspective and deeper sense of philosophical grounding. This is simultaneously heartening and to a greater degree depressing. We live in an age of increasing division pulling America apart. In-so-far as we can look at prior periods and exclaim truthfully, “They had the same problems we do and they stuck together long enough to produce me. Why can’t I do the same until my next of kin come about?”, we can be have faith in perseverance itself.
Yet the fact that students, specifically in the humanities and social sciences, are continually let down does not strike confidence in the state of American culture. If our university educated students have little to no sense of purpose, place, or history, and fall into a nihilistic relativism, shouldn’t we expect our society to deteriorate? As costs rise, student debt alongside; as diplomas matter more the liberal arts education they purport to be attached to; as grade inflation increases and standards fall, universities won’t stagnate, but deteriorate. It remains to be seen whether the university can revive itself, particularly as centers of philosophical investigation designed to permeate into the culture a sense of meaning, groundedness, perspective, and honest open-mindedness. Bloom strikes an solemn tone as he concludes, remarking that “the future of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities,” and the quality of their stewardship is in doubt. Had Bloom seen America from the vantage of 2020, it is hard to imagine this doubt would not balloon.