From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Flowers Bloom—Introduction

[a] Pensée  PD

During the summer and autumn of 2011, I will be posting segments of a memoir project I have begun that discusses teaching, learning, scholarship, reading...and the venerable, odd University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom, whose bestseller The Closing of the American Mind rocked American education almost twenty-five years ago. I have already written a little bit about Bloom on this blog, and had promised to start posting more pieces starting in June. This introduction is made up of a segment from a book proposal (now in process) for a narrative that commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bloom's incendiary book. If you have opinions about Bloom and Closing, I urge you to read on. My approach might not be what you expect.

Twenty-five Years; Open and Closed
Several years ago, while flipping through radio stations on a long drive across the prairie, I caught a clear signal, with Rush Limbaugh’s distinctive voice in its ever-so-serious most sincere tone, telling a listener about the books a conservative must read. I had never really thought about the concept of partisan reading (liberal or conservative), but have come to see that those on both left and right have created lists, and take them more seriously than I ever would have guessed. In any case, Limbaugh worked his way through a number of popular tracts published since the 1980s before pausing and saying, “and then there’s Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.” The pause drew a line of seriousness between the books that came before and the ones (including Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom) that would follow. “These are not easy books,” cautioned Limbaugh, “but they will repay careful reading.”
Not long after that, sitting in a large university auditorium, and easing into the flow of a lecture on Southeast Asian history, I was startled by the words, “…as everyone can see, except perhaps Westernizing crackpots like Allan Bloom…”  I was reminded that Bloom had not been completely forgotten by the academy, where he spent the bulk of his working life. Twenty-five years have passed since The Closing of the American Mind took American readers by surprise, and it still seems that people (not unlike the case in 1987, when it was first published) make of Closing what they want. It is like a strange kind of educational Rorschach test—conservatives see truth and liberals see red.
[b] Mum  RF
It is not difficult to see where this is going. Both sides are wrong, and neither is even close to the mark either with Bloom or Closing, not the least because they have mined his text and pronouncements for sound bites that suit their positions. He is a protector of the canon, according to one mindset; he is a reactionary defender of dead white males, according to another. It is beyond tiresome. I have another approach. I propose to tell a story of a (half a) lifetime spent with Bloom and Closing—in one way or another, and in ways that have both inspired and irritated me.
I knew Allan Bloom, and liked him. He was difficult not to like, but my own book owes as much to my profound differences with him as to any similarities. You see, I study anthropology and history…and Chinese civilization. I was certified for these scholarly activities under Bloom’s guidance—direct (he composed one of the questions I answered on the infamous Committee on Social Thought fundamentals examination) and indirect (in numerous conversations and seminar meetings during my graduate studies). I received my doctorate from the same institution and department—“committee” in Chicago’s quaint language—as Bloom did, forty-one years earlier, the same one in which Bloom taught until his death. He was a powerful influence on my thinking, and as often as not in the utter exasperation I have felt in arguing with him.
Exasperation, absolutely. Bloom reveled in creating it. Yet almost every critic has fallen into his trap. He was capable of luring you—in text or speech—into idiotic counterpoints meant to match his own. He loved it, but critics to this day often do not understand that they are spinning about in Bloom’s own webs of overstatement, confidence, and, let us admit as much, deep intelligence. The poor souls who have twisted themselves into impossible postures over Bloom’s almost ludicrously overstated chapter on music are legion. They are victims of their own passions and inability to see through Bloom’s combative ridiculousness and sense the utter seriousness of the message that lies just below the surface. The joke is on Bloom only in the shallowest sense—he reveled in playing the provocative clown. Ultimately it is on those who, through sheer passion or seething anger, just don’t get it.
Polemics on Closing have failed. Thoughtful reassessments have done slightly better, but they, too, have run their course—it has been a quarter century. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of Closing, I argue that the best way to “remember” it is through the story of a teaching career in its shadows—a career in Chinese studies (specializing in the “most read” and “least read” books in Chinese history) inspired by Allan Bloom and The Closing of the American Mind.
[c] Memoire  PD
Allan Bloom’s Closing inspired a young Chinese historian and anthropologist to focus his career on precisely the way that people learned…from dog-eared books that others may or may not open. I resented many aspects of our interactions, and think to this day that Bloom did not have to be quite so argumentative in what I consider meaningless situations. That was Bloom, though, and I have learned as much from his missteps, as I see them, as his undeniable brilliance.
It is not necessary here to stress what an influence Closing had on American discussions of higher education in the late-1980s. Even then, though, it failed to get attention down to the level of everyday discussion. It is a bit ironic that even the biggest bestseller in the history of higher education can be remembered only in part, and in convenient, partisan, sound bites. There is also an entire generation of readers that has never heard of it, and cannot imagine the stir it made in the late 1980s. That reintroduction is a large part of the argument behind my own book. Just publishing a re-issue opens the same hackneyed responses of yesteryear. A new approach is needed, and I have a solution in the memoir format.
Most of the critiques of Closing stressed this or that point of agreement or disagreement, but it is absolutely startling to see how few of them come even close to the most important point by far—the passion, the absolute, consuming passion…for learning. That is my starting point, and it carries the narrative through the entire book. Bloom was a showman, to be sure, and loved to put his passion for learning on display in the classroom and while talking in his office. It was almost as though he was saying “match this; just try.”
Even then, for all of his display, I could see the personification of his words. Real education was about channeling energies, of tapping into human needs and, indeed, longings. This last phrase was one I remembered from both his interpretive essay in The Republic and Closing. I felt an immediate kinship with him. Here was a person who, for three hundred pages seemed utterly clueless about education, yet he had nailed it with the most critical feature of all. He was saying something that only a few people beyond Plato and Confucius bothered to say clearly. Unequivocally.
Over time, it is what Bloom taught me to see in my own life. Eventually I learned just a little bit about teaching it. It was something I already had—a longing and passion for ideas, as important as eating or sleeping. I had also learned (through painful socialization) that describing one’s passion for knowledge is not something one does indiscriminately. It can clear a room—or silence it, creating embarrassment for everyone except the speaker, who fails to understand that such things are usually not mentioned in polite company. Interest, yes. Passion, not so much. Let’s just keep to test scores and not get “all emotional” about learning. Bloom wanted the emotion. He wanted learning to matter. I do, too. It is as simple—and powerful—as that.
Let us not kid ourselves, though. Bloom reveled in riling people, and he took particular pleasure in the consternation he created with some of the passages in Closing. Even the sympathetic reader might wince at Mick Jagger references that seem just a bit too passionate. Or references to rock and roll that recalled jungle rhythms and writhing consternation. It is almost as though he was intent upon setting so many mousetraps for his critics, often at his own expense. I later learned that was precisely what he was doing. This was not difficult for a few careful interpreters to sense in 1987, even without confirmation from the author. Most, however, went straight for the cheese and snapped right into the traps.
The points in Closing are Platonic—in the strict sense. Plato had strong opinions about rhythm. So, too—Bloom was only vaguely aware of this when we first met—did Confucius. Bloom became visibly excited by the connection between Plato and Confucius when we spoke, and this was not even close to the fireworks that were created later by Thucydides and Sima Guang…or Wang Yangming and Rousseau. You see, Bloom was complicated, and he didn’t mind letting others be perplexed by his positions (even if he might reconsider portions of them “down the road”). He had a serious message, and he loved life—all the more so after the success of Closing, which any of us who were around him understood as clearly as any page one might read in Saul Bellow’s barely fictional account of Bloom, Ravelstein.
[d] Mutual  PD
And he meant what he wrote. Sort of. This is a difficult and complicated point for me. I should say that he meant what he wrote, and was willing to consider new information—but usually not without a glibly disdainful remark to set a negative tone at the outset. That might get closer to my relationship with Allan Bloom. He appears to have been powerfully closed to outside ideas in the narrative of Closing. The Bloom I knew was tremendously irritating, to be sure (calling the great French ethnologist Marcel Mauss “Micky Mauss” when I proposed reading him as part of my fundamentals examination preparation, and that is just one small example). He was also surprisingly open to the Chinese tradition in a kind of expanded “great books” format. This both impressed and frustrated me. What was the role of studies “beyond the West?”  What was the role of the canon?  Did it refer to dead, (Eurasian) males writing in various scripts, so long as the interpreters of the texts approached them “correctly?”  Were great Chinese texts classics? Japanese? Korean? Folk stories from these places? Histories? Accounts of social life?  ….Horoscopes?
Allan Bloom didn’t really address these questions, but they stuck in my mind from the very moment that I heard about his book, almost to the day that I opened my acceptance letter (sitting in my room in Taipei, Taiwan, studying classical Chinese grammar). They shaped in fundamental ways the approach that I would take to both my graduate education and my teaching career, long after I had received my doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought. My narrative takes the reader through two educations—my own and the one I seek to impart to my students. You see, Bloom is still a part of what I do, and his lessons in channeling the longing for knowledge affect all of my teaching.
And let us not forget, in what remains a powerfully publishing-centered academy, that Bloom was foremost a teacher. What is the role of the teacher in today’s academy, and are there spaces where the vision can be sustained?  It might be that American liberal arts colleges could be such a place, but most have squandered their potential by trying to become little “research colleges,” on the one hand, or self-admiring (amour-propre) little thickets on the margins of academic relevance. One of the larger purposes of my book is to consider what settings might be most conducive to the kind of teaching that channels students’ longing for knowledge.
***  ***
Welcome to this series of reflections on teaching and learning. The project charts—and shows—a path through the thicket, and describes how I found my own way to and beyond Bloom…in the shadows of Closing. Twenty-five years after The Closing of the American Mind riled American education, it is time to engage in a calm retrospective that takes Bloom as seriously as he deserves—going far beyond his own argument in the process. It is about engagement, not adulation; channeling of scholarly longing, not politics.

Click here for the next post in the "Flowers Bloom" series.
[e] Journey  PD

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