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Undemocratic Vistas

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

by Allan Bloom
Simon and Schuster, 392 pp., $18.95

1.

Asked whether women as well as men should study philosophy, the distinguished Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, teacher of Epictetus, replied as follows:

Women have received from the god the same rational faculty as men, the faculty that we use in communicating with one another and in reasoning about each matter, as to whether it is a good thing or a bad. Similarly, the female has the same faculties of sense perception as the male: seeing, hearing, smelling, and the rest. Similarly, they both have the same number of bodily parts, and neither has any more parts than the other. Furthermore, desire and natural orientation towards excellence belong not only to men, but also to women; for not less than men they are naturally pleased by fine and just deeds and repelled by the contrary. Since things are this way, why on earth should it be fitting for men to examine and inquire into how one should live well—which is what it is to do philosophy—and for women not?1

This passage states a conception of “higher education,” and the place of philosophy in that education, that can be found not only in Stoic texts but in the writings of many of the greatest philosophers of the Greek and Roman world. This conception of philosophy has three elements, closely connected, and all traced by Stoics to Socrates, their model and hero:

1) Philosophical education is practical. It is the rational search for the best human life. Its subject is, above all, the study of moral and social conceptions, and its purpose (as Musonius later makes plain) is, through reflection, the amelioration both of the individual student’s life and, through the choices of educated individuals, of the surrounding society.

2) In philosophical education the pupil is active. It is not the passive reception of external truths, but the following out of paths of rational and critical argument—indeed, the enlivening and developing of the pupil’s rational soul. (For this reason, Musonius later stresses, it must be closely tailored, in each case, to the needs of the particular student, like the prescriptions of a good doctor.)

3) Philosophical education should be broadly distributed. It is appropriate to all who are by nature rational beings, that is, beings capable of practical and ethical reasoning. (Epictetus was a slave when he attended Musonius’ lectures. Later he became a free man and a distinguished philosopher.)

These three elements are connected. It is because philosophy’s practical content is so important for human life, both individual and communal, that making it widely available is so important—fulfills, indeed, a basic human need. And it is central to Stoicism’s conception of philosophy’s practical purpose and of the reasons for its broad distribution to insist that philosophical education is not abstruse contemplation but the development of each human being’s capacities for active practical reasoning.

This picture of philosophy opposes itself, on the one hand, to conceptions of education that do not take philosophy seriously as a subject for human study. On the other hand, it also sets itself against all conceptions of philosophy that make of philosophy a purely theoretical and contemplative discipline and (usually for reasons closely connected with this conception of its function) limit its pursuit to a narrow favored elite. Philosophy is the critical reflection about human life; and this reflection is essential to the full health of all human beings and of society in general.

Allan Bloom, like Musonius, has written a book that defends the central role of philosophy in higher education, and defends it as essential for the health of human souls and human society. Like Musonius again, he initially presents the philosophical activity he praises as a search, through active critical argument, for the best human life; he praises as the founder of his ideal university Socrates, the paradigm of tireless rational searching to whom Stoics also appeal. But in Bloom’s book the Socratic conception is in conflict with another very different idea of philosophy: the idea of a study that is open only to a chosen few specially suited by nature (and to some extent also by wealth and social position) for its pursuit; the idea of a philosophy that is concerned more with revealing fixed eternal truths than with active critical argument; of a philosophy that not only does not aim at justice and practical wisdom, individual and/or communal, but actually despises the search for social justice and beckons chosen souls away from social pursuits to a contemplative theoretical life.

To understand these contradictions, and their relation to Bloom’s practical proposals for a reform of the university curriculum, we must begin with his diagnosis of contemporary American culture, for whose diseases philosophy is supposed to provide the cure. As Bloom sees it, the central problem in higher education today, and in American society more generally, is widespread relativism. Both teachers and students have been taught that all conceptions of the good human life are equally valid, and that it is not possible to find an objective view-point from which to make rational criticisms of any tradition or any study, however apparently trivial or even base. The most any such criticism can be, according to this prevalent view, as Bloom reports it, is an expression of unenlightened prejudice.

In education, however, so goes the prevalent view, we should refrain from such expressions of prejudice and cultivate “openness,” which really means, Bloom concludes, a suspension of critical judgment and a laissez-faire attitude to all pursuits and all kinds of knowledge. The expression of relativism in the college curriculum, as Bloom sees it, is the removal of core requirements, whose absence encourages students to believe that no studies are more central to human life than others. As a result of this ethos of openness (which, Bloom argues, is really a kind of closing of the mind, incompatible with a true Socratic openness to reasoned arguments about the good), students have abandoned the idea on which the university (which Bloom traces to Socrates) was founded: the idea of a rational search for the best human life.

In support of this argument, Bloom constructs a colorful and highly rhetorical portrait of today’s university students, who by his account seem to be pathetic characters indeed. Cut off from the nourishment of old religious and even secular traditions, their souls made small by the view that anything is as good as anything else, these students are rootless and enervated. Their personal relationships, devoid of lasting commitment, are further undermined, Bloom claims, by the excesses of feminism, one of his central targets, which he accuses of using “force” against “nature.” Unable to pursue anything with passionate devotion, these students seem to live only for the “premature ecstasy” of rock music. Empty and selfish, “they can be anything they want to be, but they have no reason to be anything in particular.”

Bloom now offers a historical argument that attempts to explain how the relativism he deplores became such a pervasive influence on American society. It is an idiosyncratic account, based almost exclusively on influences from the high intellectual tradition of nineteenth-century continental Europe. (Bloom, surprisingly, is silent about the influence of utilitarianism on American cultural and economic life—an influence that surely has a part in explaining why many Americans believe that all satisfactions are equally valid.) The account examines several key terms that the American social vocabulary has inherited from the continental tradition—terms like “the self,” “culture,” and “values,” showing us both their original philosophical use by writers such as Nietzsche and Max Weber and how they have been democratized by American relativists. Now, he argues, this vocabulary corrupts students’ perceptions of the world to such an extent that they cannot make sense of the ancient idea of a rational search for the best way of living. They speak of “my values,” thinking of them as expressions of subjective preference that cannot be criticized with reference to any objective norm. They prefer the radical individualism of the term “self,” with its emphasis on the subjective and idiosyncratic, to the ancient idea that human beings have a “nature” that can be objectively specified.

In order to give us a clearer idea of the ancient conception of education from which the modern university has allegedly fallen away, Bloom now offers a history of the university that traces its foundation to Socrates’, and in general ancient Greek philosophy’s, questioning about the best life. He then gives his own strangely un-Socratic account of the university: the university exists within democracy to call chosen “natures” away from the corrupt judgments of “the many” and teach them the superior value of the contemplative life. Bloom then tries to show us how the university, as he conceives of it, has been corrupted by contemporary democratic demands for equality, with the consequent erosion of intellectual standards. There follows a bitter account of the student movement of the Sixties, during which Bloom, lonely opponent of corruption, attempted to stop various changes that he deemed pernicious, such as the changing of curriculum requirements and even of faculty appointment procedures in response to student demands. To this time of timidity and lowering of standards he traces today’s rootlessness and narcissism.

A survey of today’s university departments yields, Bloom now argues, the conclusion that only the natural sciences are healthy—respected by all and flourishing in their research activities. The humanities, on the other hand, are, as he sees it, very badly off. Humanistic research lacks passion, quality, and focus; and, partly in consequence, humanities professors do not inspire respect either in their students or in society generally. Particularly weak and neglected, according to Bloom, is philosophy, which really ought to be leading the university, on account of its dedication to the deepest questions about how human beings should live. Philosophy must, he argues, be returned to its proper place as the leading force in the university. Universities should seek a remedy for their diseases in the establishment of required (and apparently uniform) core curricula based upon the Great Books of the Western tradition and principally on the central works of Western philosophy, and in particular ancient Greek philosophy, in which Bloom finds the antidote to the relativism that infects today’s students.

We shall later see what he expects these curricula to accomplish, and for whom. And we can see by now some of the elements that explain his book’s enormous appeal—its assault on cultural confusion and the lowering of standards, its defense of an education that will, allegedly, be a source of community and vitality, and its opposition to a narrow pre-professional specialization that cuts students off from one another and many ideas of lasting value. But in the very singleness and simplicity of Bloom’s solution, so uninterested in the needs of different souls, and in the dogmatic complacency with which it is announced, so far removed from the Socratic demand for ceaseless self-questioning, we begin to sense the tension between Bloom’s official allegiance to Socrates and the more dogmatic and religious conception of philosophy to which he is deeply drawn. Such simple prescriptions need careful scrutiny.

  1. 1

    Musonius Rufus, Should Women Too Do Philosophy?, Teubner edition by O. Hense (Leipzig: 1905); see also C.E. Lutz, Yale Classical Studies (1947), p. 3ff.

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