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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Endings (9)—The Closing of the American Mind

[a] Academics  RF

[b] Closin
 Twenty-four years ago last month, Simon and Schuster published an extended essay on higher education that took the country by storm, making its author, Allan Bloom—a professor at a midwestern university—an instant celebrity. For those too young to remember that time, I think that a short anecdote from his friend and colleague, Saul Bellow, might sum up how quickly this book transformed the author into a person both in the news and (a rarity for a professor of political philosophy) possessing significant "means."

Anyway, he never opened the telephone bills…Those were paid by Legg Mason, the vast investment firm in the East that managed his money. [He said], “I don’t like electronic printouts, I’m certainly not about to study them. Don’t bring anything up, don’t hand me a statement unless the principal falls below ten million.”[1]
I spent a little time with the professor in the years that followed, and think that it is worth reconsidering his message. I say this not because I agree with all or, at times, even much of it. I spoke to that a few posts ago with one of many stories about Allan Bloom (Teaching—A Brief Essay). Agree or not, a quarter century later it is worth revisiting bits and chunks of his text. Let's start with his conclusion.
[c] Allan Bloom
Allan Bloom
The Closing of the American Mind

These are the shadows cast by the peaks of the university over the entering undergraduate. Together they represent what the university has to say about man and his education, and they do not project a coherent image. The differences and the indifferences are too great. It is difficult to imagine that there is either the wherewithal or the energy within the  university to constitute or reconstitute the idea of an educated human being and establish a liberal education again.

However, the contemplation of this scene is in itself a proper philosophic activity. The university's evident lack of wholeness in an enterprise that clearly demands it cannot help troubling some of its members. The questions are all there. They only need to be addressed continuously and seriously for liberal learning to exist; for it does not consist so much in answers as in the permanent dialogue. It is in such perplexed professors that at least the idea might persevere and help to guide some of the needy young persons at our doorstep. The matter is still present in the university; it is the form that has vanished. One cannot and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out.  

Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students' souls. Human nature, it seems, remains the same in our very altered circumstances because we still face the same problems, if in different guises, and have the distinctively human need to solve them, even though our awareness and forces have become enfeebled.  

[d] Parthenon
After a reading of the Symposium a serious student came with deep melancholy and said it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced, in which friendly men, educated, lively, on a footing of equality, civilized but natural, came together and told wonderful stories about the meaning of their longing. But such experiences are always accessible. Actually, this playful discussion took place in the midst of a terrible war that Athens was destined to lose, and Aristophanes and Socrates at least could foresee that this meant the decline of Greek civilization. But they were not given to culture despair, and in these terrible political circumstances, their abandon to the joy of nature proved the viability of what is best in man, independent of accidents, of circumstance. We feel ourselves too dependent on history and culture. This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato's book about him, which might even be better; he had brains, friends and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will. What is essential about that dialogue, or any of the Platonic dialogues, is reproducible in almost all times and places. He and his friends can think together. It requires much thought to learn that this thinking might be what it is all for. That's where we are beginning to fail. But it is right under our noses, improbable but always present. 

Throughout this book I have referred to Plato's Republic, which is for me the book on education, because it really explains to me what I experience as a man and a teacher, and I have almost always used it to point out what we should not hope for, as a teaching of moderation and resignation. But all its impossibilities act as a filter to leave the residue of the highest and non-illusory possibility. The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found. The other kinds of relatedness are only imperfect reflections of this one trying to be self-subsisting,  gaining their only justification from their ultimate relation to this one. This is the meaning of the riddle of the improbable philosopher-kings.  They have a true community that is exemplary for all other communities.  

This is a radical teaching but perhaps one appropriate to our own radical time, in which proximate attachments have become so questionable and we know of no others. This age is not utterly insalubrious for philosophy. Our problems are so great and their sources so deep that to understand them we need philosophy more than ever, if we do not despair of it, and it faces the challenges on which it flourishes. I still believe that universities, rightly understood, are where community and friendship can exist in our times. Our thought and our politics have become inextricably bound up with the universities, and they have served us well, human things being what they are. But for all that, and even though they deserve our strenuous efforts, one should never forget that Socrates was not a professor, that he was put to death, and that the love of wisdom survived,  partly because of his individual example. This is what really counts, and we must remember it in order to know how to defend the university.  

This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before. The gravity of our given task is great, and it is very much in doubt how the future will judge our stewardship. 

[1] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (New York: Viking Penguin, 2000), 144.
[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 380-382.

Bellow, Saul. Ravelstein. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

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