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Are You Closed?

It is very rare when one can read a book written over twenty years ago, addressed to the intellectual, political, and educational climate of the day, and still find it incredibly accurate, provocative, and relevant two decades later. Such is the case with Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. While a more comprehensive review would take up about 3-4 blog posts (and I may do this at a later point, or on a different part of the site), a brief summary of some of the notable features or themes gleaned so far should suffice.

One of Bloom’s primary contentions is that students who now enter college or other forms of higher education are basically victims of “openness” and “separateness.” By openness he refers to being “open” to all different types of value systems and beliefs, treating them all equally, where “there is no enemy other then the man who is not open to everything (p. 27).” This is commonly wrapped up in the idea of relativism, both in culture and in morals/virtue. He asks those who hold to such a view, “but when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible (ibid.)?” He then proceeds to demonstrate that this attitude actually is conformity, as what is in the world is a “drab diversity” and we can “create all the lifestyles we want.” This openness means we no longer need others at all. In this way, this postmodern “opening” is really a great closing (p. 34). It is from this mindset we get meaningless statements such as “diversity is a value,” one of the main tenets of pluralists today, and is of course completely incompatible with the Christian and historical western worldview.

Coupled to this is a sense of “separateness,” which takes different forms. Bloom writes how the areas of family, relationships, eros, love, etc…have been severed from any sense of community or moral foundation, to society’s detriment. America contributes in a unique way in this regard due to geography, as one can simply just chose to go south, to the coast, to the city, to the suburbs, etc…and pursue self-fulfillment. One that grows up in France does not have as many options, even though some of these same values have taken over there as well (some may say to an even worse degree). Since the closing that takes place above is combined with this isolation from any sort of tradition or obligations, it is easy to see how many spend their lives “searching for their identity” or experiencing life “crises.”

Bloom is at his best when he points out the foundational nature certain books and beliefs enjoyed in the past of the western world, and how this provided a higher form of education, rather then the isolated specialization that occurs in education today. In particular, he demonstrates how the Bible and the Greco-Roman Classics cause one to think about the most profound questions facing human existence, and how most today look to pop psychology, and find their culture in the low quality mass entertainment industry. He also wonders if some of the youth are so closed off to any sort of higher thought that they can even understand Austen’s wit or Tolstoy’s vision. He advocates a return to classical education in this regard, and a return to the western canon of books.

Readings such as this cause one to ponder some rather difficult questions in our environment now. For example, what is a nation or community? If a nation involves a common language, history, religion, culture, direction, and the like, is America a nation? Or is America 5-7 nations (perhaps even more), who happen to agree to get along for now? Other then some amorphous ideology like “American values” (who knows what that even means today), what foundations are there?

The historical and philosophical ignorance Bloom describes is one of many reasons my future children will see Cervantes, Shakespeare, Homer, Chesterton, classic history, music theory/history, and philosophy on my book shelf, and why Scripture will be memorized. It is also one of the reasons why I have included a western music literacy section on this site, and will include a literature section in the future. Bloom makes it abundantly clear that a reform/restoration to a healthy and intelligent culture must start in the family and local community. For those of you who are parents, teachers, pastors, etc…what sort of thoughts do you have in regards to this? Any experiences demonstrating how the corrupting “diversity” idea has impacted churches and schools?

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7 Comments

  1. Hayes19 says:

    I cannot find one point I disagree with on this posting. Especially seen through English in today’s schools is one reason I could not stand it. Reading such books as When the Legends Die, To Kill a Mockingbird (3x), and Lord of the Flies throughout high school cannot compare to the learning that occured during one unit of Hamlet I got in AP English throughout one semester. A book should not be considered a “classic” simply becasue it concerns a controversial topic. There have to be higher standards than that. As a student teacher I can verify that students would not get Austen’s wit nor Tolstoy’s vision, but it is because their education is victim to the very thing Bloom writes about. It has been dumbed down and so “diverse” of a learning experience the students have not been given a fair opportunity.

  2. […] is for these reasons and the ideas found in my previous posting why I argue that there is no such thing as an American culture, even if there was such a thing in […]

  3. Julie says:

    I think your assessment of the role of “higher education” is far too simplistic and entirely too idealistic. Let’s be frank: while higher education in America purports to be something different, it is, essentially, just vocational training. We are churning out worker bees in a system that, perhaps, was not necessary in past generations. Those who had resigned themselves to a life of labor didn’t set out toward higher academic pursuits, and the same is true in modernity. Your description of classical learning–rich in literature, philosophy, music, history, mathematics, and art–remains the historical model of “higher education;” however, that educational system was no more widely available to our predecessors than to our modern counterparts! The type of education you are championing is non-essential to the survival of most students in the real
    world. That, I believe, is why classical learning has become less “important,” and why more emphasis has been placed on merely teaching people life skills. We have to equip people to survive.

    Furthermore, I believe that the deterioration of language, art, and music has more to do with technology than lack of access to classical education. I have had students who could text over 100 wpm but couldn’t write a complete sentence. They are the product of the spell-check, grammar-check, word-processing generation, and the decline in intelligent writing, decent reading, and deep thought is so closely tied to the instant gratification that is facebook/blogging/email/youtube that I believe the one will soon overtake the other. We don’t have to read, we can watch. We no longer have to write–we can employ cryptic shorthand to convey our emotions. No one edits what they write–there’s no time for that in the instant-download that is our web culture. The decline in intelligent society can be directly linked to its consumption of technology.

    However, despite its technological dependence and consumerist mentality, I feel it is pretentious to state that America has no culture. You must recognize that even the great cultures of the past placed great emphasis on entertainment and the plight of the “everyman.” For every Dostoevsky, there were thousands of folk tales and stories that appealed to the broader audience. For every great composition by a celebrated Maestro there were folk songs, spirituals, and ditties that enriched the lives of those who sang them. Perhaps the songs dealt with “frivolities” like love, lust, and human relationships, but without the struggles, trials, and interactions of the every-day citizen, there would be no backdrop for the classics. The classics were merely the cream that rose to the top….not necessarily the only works of merit contributed by that generation. Consider that much of Shakespeare’s poetry was considered the “dime-store novel” sensationalism of its day! For all their faults, there is intrinsic value in these forms of music, literature, and oral tradition.

    The same logic can be applied to American “pop art.” Yes, some of it is drivel that won’t be remembered in a few months’ time, but some of it is marvelous. America is not just a “dumping ground” for cast-off cultures, it is a blending, a coming together of a myriad of traditions and heritages. And, honestly, it is still a relatively young concoction. I think this “lack of identity” has less to do with the absence of firm cultural heritage, and more to do with the constant rebirthing that results from the never-ending influx of new ideas and traditions into the mix. Give us time to gel!

    • Julie, thank you for your reply. I have responded to your comments below, with your quotes in italics:
      I think your assessment of the role of “higher education” is far too simplistic and entirely too idealistic. Let’s be frank: while higher education in America purports to be something different, it is, essentially, just vocational training etc…
      I’m not sure what you mean by too simplistic, as the purpose of the posting was not to provide an overarching educational theory, but rather demonstrate the historical and cultural shift that has taken place. However, I do agree that much of education now is simply vocational training, and Bloom talks about this, by stating that his grandparents who raised their children on scripture on a farm are actually better off then the MBA. If having an overarching theory of education based on the classics makes one “simplistic” then I am guilty as charged and proud to be so.

      Those who had resigned themselves to a life of labor didn’t set out toward higher academic pursuits, and the same is true in modernity. Your description of classical learning–rich in literature, philosophy, music, history, mathematics, and art–remains the historical model of “higher education;” however, that educational system was no more widely available to our predecessors than to our modern counterparts! The type of education you are championing is non-essential to the survival of most students in the real world…

      Is classical education essential for “survival” at its most basic level (food, shelter etc..)? No. But is it essential for the preservation and advancement of western civilization? Yes. You are admitting that this system is the historical model, and that it was difficult to obtain such education. I actually argue that this is a good thing, because it means that education has a value in such a system. The current environment suffers from degree inflation, just like monetary inflation. Where a high school diploma used to be all one needed, now one must have a Bachelor’s degree. Once the majority of people have Bachelor’s degrees, the next requirement will be a Master’s and so on. Many of the degrees offered at colleges today are pointless, and only temporarily serve as a screening mechanism for employers. The fact that people need to be taught “life skills” at college is a sad state of affairs indeed, as it means the family, church, and community have abrogated responsibility. This is an example of where the government, by subsidizing “education”, has created a myriad of problems.

      Furthermore, I believe that the deterioration of language, art, and music has more to do with technology than lack of access to classical education…
      I agree somewhat with this, as I’m not arguing that access is the problem, but ignorance. The abuse of technology that you describe well contributes to ignorance. The access to classical education is actually so easily obtained over places like the internet, lack of access can no longer be considered an excuse. One can download the entire works of Dante for free, along with IVY league commentary. What I argue instead is that the family, the church, and the local community has “dropped the ball” in establishing any foundation for growth beyond what you describe.

      However, despite its technological dependence and consumerist mentality, I feel it is pretentious to state that America has no culture. Given Bloom’s definition of culture in the previous posting, in what way does America have a culture? This is a case of defining terms.

      You must recognize that even the great cultures of the past placed great emphasis on entertainment and the plight of the “everyman.” For every Dostoevsky, there were thousands of folk tales and stories that appealed to the broader audience. For every great composition by a celebrated Maestro there were folk songs, spirituals, and ditties that enriched the lives of those who sang them. Perhaps the songs dealt with “frivolities” like love, lust, and human relationships, but without the struggles, trials, and interactions of the every-day citizen, there would be no backdrop for the classics. The classics were merely the cream that rose to the top….not necessarily the only works of merit contributed by that generation.
      Of course popular culture has always existed, and of course the plight of the everyman has been the impetus for many of the great works of western culture. I’m not sure what in any of the postings has implied otherwise. You admit that the classics are the cream that rose to the top. If this is so, shouldn’t that be what is learned, studied, and emulated? Should we not be studying and pursuing excellence? The popular culture of today however is without any precedent in terms of its pervasiveness. A profound shift has taken place since the mid 20th century, where popular entertainment is catered to the 18-29 year old demographic, creating a state of perpetual immaturity.

      Consider that much of Shakespeare’s poetry was considered the “dime-store novel” sensationalism of its day! For all their faults, there is intrinsic value in these forms of music, literature, and oral tradition.
      Much of Shakespeare was considered to be high-art during its time as well, which speaks to his versatility. Time, history, and the like prove to be excellent at separating the chaff from fruit, even if some of the chaff had some temporal value. You mention music, literature, and oral tradition. The history of the judeo-Christian (and greco-Roman) west contains all of these, and have been discarded in the name of pluralism. What passes for American culture (and some other western nations as well) is completely ignorant of this tradition. This is again why I state that in the traditional definitions of a culture or nation, America at present has a difficult time meeting the criteria.

      Yes, some of it is drivel that won’t be remembered in a few months’ time, but some of it is marvelous. Please point out some of these works to me, as I would love to find someone alive today that approaches Beethoven, Michelangelo, or Milton.

      I think this “lack of identity” has less to do with the absence of firm cultural heritage, and more to do with the constant rebirthing that results from the never-ending influx of new ideas and traditions into the mix. Give us time to gel! With constant rebirthing, and a never-ending influx, there can never be any “gelling.” Many of the ideas and traditions you refer to are completely incompatible with one another. Look at Islam in France for example, and the worldview clashes that occur in the American political scene. Some of these differences are irreconcilable, and what I advocate is a return to the Judeo-Christian and classical heritage of the west to start reforming/restoring a healthy culture. A “blending” will simply be impossible without some sort of assimilation or change.

    • nandrosa says:

      I’m going to have to disagree – our education is most definitely not ‘vocational’. Vocational training prepares one for a specific vocation and is by definition not generic. An example would be the Internet-based course I took one summer as required to take the Washington State real estate salesperson exam. As a general rule, a less regulated profession (provided abundant demand) will have more affordable and accessible training.

      Our education system and labor market forces participants through a needlessly long and costly process, emerging with neither the groundedness of a ‘classical’ education nor the specific utility of vocational training. In defense of ‘high-minded’ academic pursuits, I would argue that they help guide and define one’s passions. This direction seems beneficial in understanding and accepting one’s station in life.

      Taking it one step further, the over-consumption of subsidized education and reliance on government assistance programs has decreased incentives to turn situation-specific knowledge (eg. taking over a family business) in to careers. As a result, there seems to be growing discontent in work as evidenced by recent surveys showing historically low job satisfaction.

  4. Julie says:

    I am willing to admit that my response was reactionary. That happens when you pen a reply in the space between dinner clean-up and tubby time for kids. 🙂 I will not entirely abandon all of my thoughts; however, I will retract them for now in order to address them at a later date with more clarity.

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