Friday, February 24, 2012

The Closing of the American Mind?

In 1986, Some Guy That's Dead Now Said That "Liberal Education" Was The Reason America's Youth Was/Is So Stupid. Twenty Five Years Later, Does Allan Bloom's Argument Still Stand Up? [SPOILER: No, It Doesn't.]

 

A few years back, this guy named Mark Bauerlein wrote a book slamming Generation Y kids called “The Dumbest Generation.” According to Bauerlein, ours is a generation overly dependent on technology, incapable of critically assessing anything and ultimately intellectually corrupted by a consumer culture that’s turned us into nothing more than a bunch of mush-headed 20-something children.

It’s a stinging indictment, no doubt, until you realize that, a good twenty years prior, some old fogy named Allan Bloom wrote a similarly scathing treatise slamming Mark Bauerlein's generation called “The Closing of the American Mind.” I think it stands within reason to assume that, a good twenty years down the line, we’ll probably be penning similar tracts, decrying the waywardness and general vapidity of our own offspring, as well.

I recently read Bloom’s monumental 1986 offering, and I feel conflicted about its contents. Granted, there are indeed some yummy nuggets and glistening pearls within “The Closing of the American Mind,” but if you’re looking for the indictment of how liberal education has failed the youth of today (and by today, I mean when “Aliens” and “The Fly” were originally given theatrical runs), I’d say you’d have to look elsewhere for your fill.

A major problem observable from the outset with Bloom’s book, and this is a similar problem I encountered with Francis Fukuyama’s take on post humanism, is that the author never really gets into the nitty-gritty of what the book is supposed to be about. Let me save you some time here and advise you to check out the first one hundred pages of the book and the last fifty, because the other two hundred are completely needless and inconsequential to Bloom’s argument. Unless you really, really want to hear some dude yammer on and on about “The Republic” and how psychiatry has co-opted the philosophical concept of “the self,” you definitely need to steer clear of the middle sections of Bloom’s offering.

Bloom is clearly a bitter old prick, this stalwart at Cornell that never really got over the social tsunamis of the 1960s. The gist of his argument is that, in that decade, the student body was given too much power in determining the university’s policies and course structuring, which ultimately led to a deluge of counter cultural interests taking higher education “hostage.” Per Bloom, the 1960s ushered in an era in which the only universal philosophic beliefs college students held were moral relativism and the desire for equality, with the idea of personal values replacing a continuum of good and evil.

How meta: "The Closing of the American Mind"...closed.

If that argument sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was a subject addressed in two of the 20th century’s most important anti-relativist tracts, C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” and Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences.” Needless to say, Bloom’s book doesn’t really improve upon the general statements included in those monumental tracts, nor does it really introduce any new proposals of any kind, for that matter. If you wanted to condense the book into a Twitter update, just saying that Bloom “thinks the kids of today are stupid and academia is at fault for not being like it was twenty years prior despite a wave of unavoidable social changes” is a pretty economic way of summarizing the entire shebang.

It’s sort of funny that Bloom often goes after sociologists and psychologists for not practicing what they preach, but when he says that “philosophizing is a solitary quest” early in the offering, it seems to shot his entire argument right in its big, fat absolutist foot. For one, isn’t that sort of a relativist stance there, in a book essentially about the ills of relativism? Additionally, if philosophizing is indeed something that can’t be “taught” in a traditional classroom setting, then why in the hell does Bloom even bother decrying higher education when that’s not what he, by his own admission, considers the primary venue for individual philosophical development?

Bloom’s book tackles a lot of predictable subjects (sexual liberation, feminism, ethnocentrism, etc.) and champions a lot of predictable ideals (natural rights, Pascalian reasoning, most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, so on and so forth). The first quarter of the book, in which he rails against the philosophical underpinnings of 1980s culture, is easily the best part of the book, and really, the only part of the work that offers up anything worth skimming. Reading Bloom ramble on an on about how American education is being sabotaged by the three headed Cerberus of Mick Jagger, the dissolution of the nuclear family and affirmative action is your classic “angry-old-white-guy” rant bullshit, and he even messes up and drops some notes that might actually sound like well-thought out criticisms here and there. I for one, have never considered Disneyland to be an Americanized version of the Weimar Republic, but after hearing crazy old codger Bloom decry it as such, it’s one of those ideas that will probably never leave my head from hereon out.

I’ll be several shades of damned if Bloom doesn’t touch upon some pretty poignant ideas here and there, namely modern academia’s leanings towards group politics over individual rights and a lot of the inherent hypocrisy surround the logic of the environmental movement. Where he knocks the ball out of the park however, is when he just comes out and says what we all know to be true about higher education, primarily the fact that students are saddled with too many pointless courses unrelated to their career-goals, and especially when he says that, for all of the highfalutin ideals colleges like to celebrate, the only reason anyone is there in the first place is to procure a better life than what they had before enrolling. A crazy idea, I know - that kids go to college not because they want to be socially conscious individuals, but because they don’t want to be poor and have to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of their lives. Such preposterous thinking.

According to an elitist, full-tenured liberal education professor, elitist, full-tenured liberal education is at the root of America's intellectual decline. Wait a minute...

Of course, for every reasonable idea Bloom mulls, he counteracts that with about a dozen or so really stupid ones. He decries the social sciences and humanities for valuing “creativity” over “virtue” and “industriousness,” and dismisses deconstructionism because, according to him, it’s “interpretation without text,” and therefore, invalid. He chides American kids for their “non-culture,” but decides to criticize American education for adopting Germanic influences (Freud, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche, etc.) in order to establish social science curricula (and to make it a triple Lindy of illogicality, Bloom spends a good half of the book going on and on about how great and worthwhile the influence of the Socratic thinkers was.)

However, the biggest problem with the book - and it’s a problem SO massive that it ultimately kills the entire tract - is that Bloom thinks our educational system would improve if we had a unified, nationalized text that served as our across-the-board cultural guidebook. Bloom argues that the works of Kant and Rousseau were so crucial to the academic development of Germany and France that, as American thinkers, we ought to pick something from our literary past and use it as a revered, educational text, too. Clearly, there are A LOT of problems with this idea, the most obvious being what do you pick as America’s foremost philosophical doctrine? Never mind the fact that vaunting a singular text is just about the most anti-academic thing imaginable (as Richie Dawkins said recently on the lingering Rushdie controversy, true scholars research more than one book), let alone the fact that it’s a recipe for cerebral standardization that would just quell individual philosophical development even more than it is now. Also, some stuff about Mao’s Red Guards, the Hitler Youth and pick-a-flavor of religious fanaticism - having one go to book is bound to result in some, ahem, cultural troubles. And to think - for a good portion of the book, Bloom has the chutzpah to claim that liberal education is a form of promoting “no fault choices” and “a tyranny of the majority.”

At the end of the day, you know what you’re getting into with “The Closing of the American Mind.” If you’re expecting a rant against liberal bias in higher education, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, and if you’re looking for a comprehensive indictment of the structuration of the American educational system, you’re going to be just as let down.

There are some valid points in Bloom’s book, but be forewarned that the parts here definitely do not condense into a palatable whole.

Well, relatively speaking, of course.

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