The Reopening of the American Mind

The “opening salvo in the Culture War,” as critic Camille Paglia described it, turned 25 years old this year. In 1987, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind rocked thinking America by openly discussing the dangerous path America was treading by embracing continental Europe’s philosophical relativism.

Bloom’s narrative of the central role played by universities in this theoretical reconstruction exposed an anti-intellectual rot growing at the Ivory Tower’s foundation. Many knew the problems existed and commented on them—but Bloom’s stature within academia and his non-partisan approach enabled him to be the one who awakened a mass audience to the growing national crisis in our universities.

In sounding the alarm, Bloom hit some national nerves. His critical analysis of contemporary academia caused incensed academics to hold communal hissy-fits of denunciation long after sales of his book declined, according to Andrew Ferguson, in an afterword to the 25th anniversary special edition of American Mind earlier this year. In contrast, conservatives claimed his attack on relativity, political correctness, and collapsing standards as justification of their own views, despite Bloom’s insistence that he not be tied to their cause.

Now that a quarter-century has passed, it is a fair question to ask whether Bloom’s biting observations of the American university have endured over the quarter century since publication. Were they proven false? Or have developments occurred that made his book obsolete?

For the most part, Bloom’s description of a university at sea with its own reasons for existing still resonates with bell-like clarity. Indeed, in many ways, the American campus has moved further toward the chaotic state that he described.

Certainly, in such an extensive work, Bloom could not help but get a few important things wrong. And along with miscalculations came a few developments he could not have possibly foreseen. For example, he could not have known that some people would take his warnings of nihilism to heart and act to fend off its destructive influence. And he was a man of the Ivory Tower—he knew its cloistered halls well but had less feel for the growing discontent in the hinterlands. In a scenario he did not consider, today the rebirth of the mind that he longed for is rising in the supposedly unlettered population beyond academia’s reach.

Bloom’s tale of the university’s decay began in 17th century Europe. To Bloom, the Enlightenment’s “goal was to reconstitute political and intellectual life totally under the supervision of philosophy and science.” It succeeded tremendously, with “the conflict between the truth and the opinions of men” decided in favor of truth: “the Enlightenment inexorably defeated all opponents it targeted at the outset, particularly the priests and all that depends on them.” 

While Bloom was glad to see religion’s tight controls on thought ended by the Enlightenment’s open inquiry, what followed might have been even worse to the passionate defender of classical wisdom. Philosophy does not suffer the same constraints as science in the search for truth, since science is bounded by the actual facts of the natural world. With religious revelation and dogma—“the opinions of men” to the atheist Bloom—no longer the ultimate arbiter of man’s existence, and with no scientific method to ascertain truth beyond doubt, anything became possible in philosophical speculation upon the affairs of men.

The university’s most important function, “to protect reason from itself” through deep questioning and reference to the great thinkers of the past was gradually abandoned: “Western rationalism has culminated in a rejection of reason.” In nineteenth-century Europe, wild theories based on relativism grew like weeds and choked off more enduring philosophies; new opinions of men replaced the old.

Here in America, the eternal truths of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [or property]” were etched upon our national DNA, making us more resistant to relativism. Still, at the dawn of the 20th century, Europe’s anguished theories were pouring into the more adventurous corners of the American campus. By the 1960s, American academic thought was “experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry” that had previously occurred in Germany.

The shift to relativism caused all manner of upheaval on campuses. According to Bloom, colleges gave up on their “well-defined mission” of focusing on the permanent questions of man’s existence and passing the great dialogue between “those who best addressed those questions” throughout history to a new generation. Instead of attempting to guide young people to lead virtuous lives and to examine life’s central questions, they offered individual values and life-styles—in a guilt-free zone existing “beyond good and evil.”

The upheaval and dismantling continue today. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the university has rejected its prior moral role of “in loco parentis,” as Bloom described. Now schools often actively encourage a more libidinous, more hedonistic culture. For instance, many schools invite so-called sex educators encouraging promiscuity to campus.

Furthermore, universities no longer had a clear idea of what true education is. By Bloom’s time, the “core” of an education that lasted over the centuries, based on classical learning, had exploded into a vast smorgasbord of unconnected choices. Today, many large universities laughably offer several thousand different courses over several dozen disciplines as their general education “core.”

Without authoritative guidance about which ideas to explore, college students, whom Bloom perceived in the 1980s to be “ill-educated…with no intellectual tastes—unaware that there even are such things, obsessed with getting on with their careers before having looked at life,” have not become less shallow but more so. A world of continual cell phone calls and texting have made them even less likely to think deeply.

Yet, at the same time that universities wash their hands of their central educational and social functions, they eagerly defy Bloom’s caution that “the university must resist the temptation to do everything for society.” Instead, they are moving ever faster in the direction championed by the chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, Holden Thorp (and his co-author, Buck Goldstein), who wrote that, “for research universities to realize their full potential, they must attack the world’s biggest problems,” which include “hunger, the shortage of water, climate change, and inequality.”

Other trends identified by Bloom intensified once the student radicals of the 1960s became tenured. Academic freedom was created to protect “demonstrative discourse,” which arrives at the best knowable version of the truth by subjecting claims to any and all criticisms; it now protects fanaticism, weirdness, and the obscene. Deconstruction—the absurd manner of criticism that elevates the opinions of the critic above the writer’s text—is now the standard for aspiring Ph.D.s in literature. The term “squatting” has even been coined to describe the actions of faculty members who deliberately ignore courses’ subject matter to blatantly use classrooms to expound radical political beliefs.

Another assertion by Bloom that holds now more than ever is the disintegration of universities into separate disciplines of natural science, social science, and the humanities, with the natural sciences and technology advancing ahead of the rest. Not only do science and technology have the superior claim to verifiable truth through the scientific method and a source of revenue that other disciplines lack in sponsored research, but their career-orientation, and contributions to the economy make them the darlings of the public and politicians. Should current trends continue, some major universities could become little more than giant research facilities.

The humanities, on the other hand, have fallen from their former dominant position in academia. The focus on money and the shift in emphasis from philosophy to vocational pursuits have reduced the status of the humanities even below where they stood in Bloom’s time. That was already pretty low; as he suggested, the humanities were the discipline most affected by the rush to relativism. They have hurt themselves further by attempting to recapture their relevance through trendiness, making them even less relevant. Instead of producing graduates who are prize candidates to work in industry, due to extensive exposure to history, philosophy, and great literature making them clear-thinking and able to see “the big picture,” the humanities now often provide four or more years of a post-modernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions (or for political, governmental, or academic jobs with little accountability).

Furthermore, during the current economic downturn, the humanities’ already low enrollments have made them easy targets for administrators forced to reduce staff and programs due to budget cuts.

Despite their campus decline, the humanities are thriving on Main Street. Bloom wrote that, if an intellectual reaction were to occur, it would surely happen within the academy. Instead, a strong reaction to a century of increasing relativism and anti-intellectualism arose in places and ways unimaginable (and perhaps abhorrent) to him.

The publication of Closing of the American Mind was followed by the 1989 appearance of Rush Limbaugh on the national airwaves and the Internet’s emergence in the early 1990s. Conservative think tanks rooted in the theories of John Locke and Adam Smith proliferated greatly in the years after Bloom’s book. Popular books on American history, politics, and political theory by conservative authors fly off the shelves (and through the mail after online purchases). There are thousands of websites devoted to the discussion of philosophy. These new means of communication, association, and scholarship offered an alternative soil to the infertile, played-out grounds of the universities, one in which the seeds of intellectual rebirth could grow.

Bloom might not agree; he was adamant that Western civilization’s rejuvenation was dependent upon a return to its original source, the classical Greeks. The current rebirth instead goes back to America’s source, the documents of the founding fathers and the British empiricists who spawned them. Bloom could not have foreseen millions of citizen-scholars with day jobs jamming miniature copies of the Constitution into their pockets and poring over the Federalist Papers. If sometimes their level of scholarship is low, their passions run high: Bloom’s late, lamented Eros is reborn as the Tea Party seeks completion through knowledge (Bloom wrote that the erotic impulse and hunger for knowledge have the same source—a desire for “completion”).  

This activity has reversed the flow of ideas. Instead of the universities providing a launching pad from which the intellectual plagues of continental Europe infect the entire country, a few members of the new generation, grounded in the reason of our founders by their parents, are making their way onto campus to found and staff conservative organizations and publications. They gleefully do battle with the relativists, and a network of non-profit organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (and the Pope Center) exists to make sure their intellectual rights are not trampled on. Also aiding them is a small but accomplished fifth column of faculty with traditional ideals who are now emerging from their hiding places.

At this point, the reaction’s presence on campus is still small and their opposition is powerful and occasionally vicious. There are other new forces with the potential to alter higher education, many of them involving technology rather than ideology or philosophy. But one cannot be but a little hopeful that the American mind is starting to open back up.Whether the rediscovery of its essential ideas are too little, too late, only time will tell.

Subsequent events have not diminished Bloom’s tour de force; they have instead illuminated it. His literary Paul Revere’s ride continues to deserve a place high on the bookshelf of American letters. After all, how many authors can say they started a war that needed to be fought?