Thursday, April 12, 2012

Closing of the American Mind at 25

Those of a certain age and intellectual appetite might remember the amazing stir caused in 1987 by the publication of professor Allan Bloom's devastating critique of modernity titled The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom set out in the book to chronicle the demise of American higher education and culture and to lament the relativism that had seeped into every interstice of the modern American university.

His critique led to howls of execration from humanities professors whose toes he stepped upon, but surprisingly, Americans (and others) bought his book in prodigious quantities, making him, by the time of his death five years later, a very wealthy man.

Even so, despite the popular reception of his cultural indictment, not much has changed. The charges he leveled against American education in 1987, seem in many ways to be just as valid today.

Now his publisher, Simon and Schuster, is releasing a 25th anniversary edition of Closing and Andrew Ferguson at The Weekly Standard observes the occasion by offering an essay on Bloom, the reception of his book, and the themes it addressed. Here's an excerpt from early on in Ferguson's fine retrospective:
It’s useful to recall the world Bloom and his book broke into and riled so. In material ways, the United States of America of 1987 seems as remote as Republican Rome. Our national wealth has more than tripled in the last 25 years. The digital revolution, with its upending of commerce, communication, and the habits and patterns of everyday life, was just getting underway.

Music lovers delighted in the portability and convenience of their book-sized Walkmans, never imagining the tiny wonders they would be slipping into their shirt pockets a decade hence. Cars, on the other hand, seem to have been roughly half their present size, at least in memory. You couldn’t carry around a telephone unless you yanked it off the wall. Atari was as sophisticated as gaming systems came. And nobody used the words “gaming system.”

Culturally, the country fretted. Culturally, of course, all countries, or some segments of them, are always fretting, and have been doing so since Cicero grieved, “O tempora, O mores,” up to and beyond Yeats’s insistence that the center cannot hold. But by the end of the 1980s in the United States, there were numbers to underscore the worry. In the previous 30 years, violent crime had increased 500 percent, the divorce rate had doubled, the teen suicide rate had tripled, and the number of “illegitimate births” (this was the last era when you could use the term) had increased 400 percent.

Beyond the numbers, the worriers readily found signs of the culture’s degradation, if not its imminent collapse. On TV, Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessy Raphael had introduced a new kind of freak show that would have been unthinkable a decade before and proved enormously popular, banishing modesty and discretion, making a virtue of exhibitionism, inviting adulterers and wifebeaters and cross-dressers to strut their hour upon the stage set. (Eerie fact: Exactly nine months after Closing’s publication date, Snooki Polizzi was born.)

Popular fiction chronicled a generation of pampered youth lost to anomie and cocaine. As the Iran-contra scandal shook the executive branch, pundits discovered among the people a loss of faith in their institutions. A devastating crash on Wall Street was credited to greed unchecked by law or moral obligation.

And as if all that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, consider this: Madonna.
Here's another:
He asked readers to consider contemporary students as he encountered them. They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case. Instead, he said, they were cheerful, unconcerned, dutiful, and prosaic, their eyes on the prize of that cushy job. They were “nice.” You can almost see him shudder as he writes the word. “They are united only in their relativism,” he wrote. “The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate.”

Relativism, in fact, was the only moral postulate that went unchallenged in academic life. Defenders of relativism often defend it by denying it exists: No one, they say, truly believes that one idea is ultimately as good as another. And of course they’re right that none of us in our own lives act as though we believed this. But most of us profess it nonetheless, especially if we’ve got a college education, in which case we will be careful to use air quotes when we are forced to say the word “truth” in polite company.

In a genial but harrowing review of Closing, a professor at Carleton College, Michael Zuckert, told of canvassing the students in his class on American political thought. He asked whether they agreed that the truths in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence were indeed “self-evident.” Seven percent voted “yes.” On further conversation, he wrote, it turned out “that they were convinced there is no such thing as ‘truth,’ self-evident or otherwise, in the sphere of claims of the sort raised in the Declaration.” He would have gotten the same response in almost any college classroom today, and I’m not too sure about the 7 percent.

What follows when a belief in objectivity and truth dies away in higher education? In time an educated person comes to doubt that purpose and meaning are discoverable​—​he doubts, finally, that they even exist. It’s no mystery why fewer and fewer students in higher education today bother with the liberal arts, preferring professional training in their place.

Deprived of their traditional purpose in the pursuit of what’s true and good, the humanities could only founder. The study of literature, for example, was consumed in the trivialities of the deconstructionists and their successors. Philosophy curdled into positivism and word play. History became an inventory of political grievances....
I strongly urge those unfamiliar with Closing to first read Ferguson's piece at the Weekly Standard for background and then get a hold of a copy of the new edition. It's worth it.