The Closing of the American Mind
How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy
and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students

by Allan Bloom
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Simon and Schuster: New York, 1987

392 pages July 2015

  
At the center of the universe

This is a pessimistic book, and reasonably so. The Closing of the American Mind is a history and analysis of what went wrong in American universities in the mid-Twentieth Century. As Allan Bloom presents this steep decline, the problem wasn't so much decay as it was intellectual weakness and confusion; culminating, when faced with student taunts and threats and violence in the 1960s, in precipitous retreat: personal, intellectual, and institutional.

To many outside the academic universe, the decay still is present, and the retreats continue apace. I don't intend here to more than glance at How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy or Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, but we might note that the two sub-themes indeed are related.

So what happened to the universities — which institutions Bloom equates with American intellectual life? Simply, they were overrun with imported German philosophy. Put that way, it sounds a little silly, but Bloom makes a good case for the power and (at least apparent) glory of Nineteenth Century German ideas reaching America, brought to a crescendo by the academic emigres and escapees from the Third Reich before World War II. These emigre professors soon suffused university departments with the outlook and concepts they'd brought with them.

Bloom could have said more about how even earlier, American universities tended to take the German university system as a model. In the period of his focus, though, he concentrates on a half-dozen or so Continental philosophers whose ideas he treats with respect, showing their affect on intellectual and academic thinking, particularly in contrast to Classical Greek philosophers. Friedrich Nietzsche perhaps gets the most innings, but as Bloom's comprehension of Nietzsche is neither broad nor deep — he seems to think Nietzsche is an irrationalist, a common but superficial interpretation — I found this less than satisfactory. Nevertheless, his romp through the intellectual-academic history is interesting.
  

Other pressures

The general social analysis, the affect of these ideas on America via the universities, is a trickier subject. The American university system is not the Universal Mind of America. Certainly intellectual decline in the universities has damaged the country, and continues to do so. But there are multiple factors at work besides imported German ideas.

For instance, one of the major pressures that students faced during the 1960s was the likelihood (for young men) of being drafted to fight in the undeclared war in Vietnam, during which over 50,000 young Americans were killed.

Another pressure was the steeply increasing percentages of high-school students, as many as half, going on to college: with the promise that their higher educations would make them leaders. Obviously that would be "too many Chiefs and not enough Indians", as sergeants used to say in the Army; a variant of the "all shall have prizes" fallacy.

Imported German philosophies surely provided some of the vocabularies and rationales for students attacking the university system, but I think that the real personal threat of the war and the doubtful promise of guaranteed success in life furnished much of the impetus.
  

Outfall

In what reasonable university system would a privileged young American who was a leader of the Weather Underground during the student troubles, a still-unrepentant communist bomber, become a Professor of Education at the University of Illinois? Well, that's an exemplar of our university academics. Some of the best university departments lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Allan Bloom's pessimism seems to be justified.

Two of the effects of American university decay need to be mentioned. First, the movement of academics and ideas into government, bad enough at clerical or even judicial levels, but with far more potential for damage at policy levels. Second, the trickle-down effect of bad ideals and bad teaching to the secondary and primary schools, so when students arrive at college they already are well along into indoctrination.

Thus many universities too often and too easily facilitate bad government becoming worse, while determinedly "impoverishing the souls" of Americans.

  

© 2015 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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