Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Allan Bloom, Old Fogey

In the late 1980s, Allan Bloom wrote a book entitled The Closing of the American Mind, which made quite a stir back then and still is a subject of some controversy.  It is a broad and somewhat ponderous critique of higher education here in our Great Republic, from his perspective as a professor.  It was latched onto by conservatives and lashed at by liberals.  Bloom denied being a conservative, and to do him credit he is now and then careful to qualify his assertions which seem on their face to be consistently critical of what are considered positions favored by the political left.

I find myself sympathetic with certain of his claims, though I must admit it's been quite some time since I lurked in the halls of the Academy.  But I can't help but disagree with most of them.  I don't think, though, that my disagreement arises from the fact that he is or should be considered a conservative.  For all I know, his statements he was not a conservative were earnest and true.  This book does not establish he was a conservative, in my opinion.  Instead, it establishes he was an old fogey; someone with a fussy and excessive regard for what and how things were done in the past, to and by them.

What strikes me about the book is the hostility to the modern which informs, if it does not inflame, Bloom's many complaints.  Bloom has a genuine fondness for the good old days when the classics were read, classical music was listened to, the family was the fundamental unit of society and politics, love and sex were romantic.  The father was a paterfamilias, the mother through the clever employment of feminine charm and "wiles" (a word he uses with some frequency) assured that the father, as a male constantly subject to his brutish needs, remained a provider to the children she instinctively produced and loved. 

But Bloom at the time he wrote his book found his students (he refers to them as "kids" all too often) to be orphans of a sort.  Largely the children of divorced parents, they lacked grounding in the dutiful and secure ambiance of the family.  They did not read the classics; indeed, they had been taught to despise or at best disregard them.  Sex was, to them, merely a pleasure.  They listened to rock music.

According to Bloom, this sad state of affairs was the result of the Enlightenment.  Divines like Hobbes and Locke opined that conduct was based on individual self-interest, and from this premise derived systems based on individual freedom.  Society and the family were no longer of real concern.  Things just got worse from there.  Soon people like Mill and Dewey appeared.  Bloom seems to think that these two were proponents of relativism (this is news to me, and would have been to them, I think).  They and others came to convince us that it is not possible to make critical judgments of claims or people, resulting in "openness" of a kind Bloom finds objectionable in his students.

Neither philosophy nor religion provides guidance to the kids any longer.  Modern philosophy is unconcerned with how to live, with the great questions which were addressed by philosophers in the past.  Nobody reads anymore, so the kids are not prompted to consider those questions through the influence of great writers.

To the extent Bloom takes the position that relativism and the view that critical judgments cannot or should not be made are adversely affecting our society and education, I am in agreement with him.  I'm uncertain where Mill and Dewey fit in, though.  Mill would seem to be the least objectionable of the Utilitarians from the perspective of an old fogey.  Dewey seems to have been a very unassuming person but has become a sort of boogie man to those of the right of the so-called culture wars. 

Bloom at one point acknowledges that Dewey sought to apply scientific method to addressing problems which were not traditionally scientific (political and social problems).  Given that fact, I think it's difficult to maintain Dewey supported relativism.  But it may be that what Bloom objected to was the application of that method outside of the sciences--though he doesn't seem particularly fond of science, either.  Dewey was an adherent of the use of creative intelligence and inquiry which requires the making of judgments and a consideration of their consequences in determining conduct; how does this amount to the rejection of standards by which judgments can be made?

Bloom frequently refers to Rousseau, and seems to think highly of him and his thoughts on education and love.  But Rousseau is an odd choice, I think, given Bloom's thesis.  If students are adrift due to their failure to read the appropriate works, what are we to say of Rousseau?  He relegated his own children to virtually certain death by consigning them to what passed as orphanages in his time, all the while writing of the proper way to raise and educate the children of others.  If Rousseau wrote admirably about children while casually disposing of his own, why claim it is necessary to read Rousseau in order to know how to go about educating and raising children?  Writing about this issue as he did didn't serve to induce him to act properly.  Why should reading him induce others to act properly?

Bloom was not a fool.  He didn't claim that the old ways were best except by implication, which is to say that he wrote that he didn't mean to maintain they were perfect, or the best guides to living and learning.  Instead, he states that since they are gone, and since they gave students the grounding they so clearly need, they must be replaced by something which will serve the same purpose.  Now, though, there is nothing, according to Bloom.

Of course, if there is nothing now, and if something is better than nothing and the old ways were something, then it would seem to follow that we are better off reinstating and following the old ways.  So it is difficult to contend that Bloom was not an advocate of the old ways of doing things, I believe.

What seems to pervade the book is the belief that the students, the "kids", must be led along the path of life in the Academy, as they receive no appropriate guidance from their families or friends or the declining culture and society in which they live.  There is a kind of elitism generating Bloom's complaints.  Accepting that it is at least possible there are no absolute truths (and it seems that Bloom accepted this possibility, or at least did not commit himself to propounding absolute truths exist) it doesn't follow that it is impossible to make reasonable judgments, i.e. to be open to anything, without objection.  On the contrary, we make judgments without relying on absolute truths or absolute certainty frequently; we must do so.  Bloom doesn't object to skepticism or the questioning of norms in itself.  He does seem to object to students as they are now (without education and enlightment courtesy of our relativistic and materialistic society) being skeptical and questioning, however.  He thinks that is something they are ill-equipped to do.

For Bloom, I think, the common herd is incapable of making the right decisions, and especially so the progeny of that herd.  It is for those who are truly educated to educate them so they can make those decisions.  Those who are truly educated are not modern.  They are, like Bloom, old fogeys.

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