On The Closing of The American Mind

I just finished reading The Closing of The American Mind by Allan Bloom. As the author best puts it this is a book on “how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students”. This book offers a thorough historical lesson of our education echo-system and how it came to where it currently is.

Allan structure the book into three main sections. Students, where he describes the current state of students – particularly those getting ready to enroll in university – the books they read, the music they listen to and the relationships they engage in. The second section is “Nihilism, American Style” where the author discusses current culture (or lack there of), values and creativity to name a few themes. There is a strong focus in that section on Continental Europe and its thinkers –  and their influence on America. The last and final section “The University”  discusses the current role of this education centerpiece, and the back-warding it has gone through in terms of achieving its mission. Allan calls for a “revolution” of its role and a reversion to the roots of embracing classical liberal art and the early work of the Greek Philosophers.

A unique piece of literary work – based on years of research and experience from an educator. If one was to read one book on the evolution of education, this would definitely be a top contender. One that would make you think, and reconsider your views. The only criticism I have is with regards to the structure of the book which is sometimes hard to follow. That being said, the author does a good job of recapping the main point towards the end. To that effect it may be wise to re-read the book at a later point again, given the global understanding acquired from the first reading.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1- “The gradual stilling of the old political and religious echoes in the souls of the young accounts for the difference between the students I knew at the beginning of my teaching career and those I face now. The loss of the books has made them narrower and flatter. Narrower because they lack what is most necessary, a real basis for discontent with the present and awareness that there are alternatives to it. They are both more contented with what is and despairing of ever escaping from it. The longing for the beyond has been attenuated. The very models of admiration and contempt have vanished. Flatter, because without interpretations are like mirrors, not of nature, but of what is around. The refinement of the mind’s eye that permits it to see the delicate distinctions among men, among their deeds and their motives, and constitutes real taste, is impossible without the assistance of literature in the grand style.”

2- “Thus, the failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency – the belief that the here and now is all there is.”

3- “Values are not discovered by reason, and it is fruitless to seek them, to find the truth or the good life.”

4- “Good and evil are what made it possible for men to live and act. The character of their judgments of good and evil shows what they are.”

5- “Since values are not rational and not grounded in the natures of those subject to them, they must be imposed. They must defeat opposing values. Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary. Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will. Lack of will, not lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect. Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values. .. Commitment values the values and makes them valuable. Not love of truth but intellectual honesty characterizes the proper state of mind. Since there is no truth in the values, and what truth there is about life is not lovable, the hallmark of the authentic self is consulting one’s oracle while facing up to what one is and what one experiences. Decisions, not deliberations, are the movers of deed. One cannot know or plan the future. One must will it.”

6- “A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear. That is what tragic literature is about. It articulates all the noble things men want and perhaps need and shows how unbearable it is when it appears that they cannot coexist harmoniously. ”

7- “Many will say that my reports of the decisive influence of Continental, particularly German, philosophy on us are false or exaggerated and that, even if it were true that all this language comes from the source to which I attribute it, language does not have such effects. But the language is all around us. Its sources are also undeniable, as is the thought that produced the language.  We know how the language was popularized.”

8- “Men (in democracies) are actually on their own in comparison to what they were in other regimes and with respect to the usual sources of opinion. This promotes a measure of reason. However, since very few people school themselves in the use of reason beyond the calculation of self-interest encouraged by the regime, they need help on a vast number of issues – in fact, all issues, inasmuch as everything is opened up to fresh and independent judgement – for the consideration of which they have neither time nor capacity. Even the self-interest about which they calculate- the end – may become doubtful. Some kind of authority is often necessary for most men and is necessary, at least sometimes, for all men. In the absence of anything else to which to turn, the common beliefs of most men are almost always what will determine judgement. This is just where tradition used to be most valuable. ..tradition does provide a counterpoise to and a repair from the merely current, and contains the petrified remains of old wisdom.”

9- “To sum up, there is one simple rule for the university’s activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences tahat are available in democratic society. They will have them in any events.”

10- “It turned out that natural science had nothing to say about human things, about the uses of science for life or about the scientist. When a poet writes about a poet, he does so as a poet. When a scientist talks about scientists, he does not do so as a scientist. It he does so, he uses none of the tools he uses in his scientific activity, and his conclusions have none of the demonstrative character he demands in his science. Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science.”

11- “What happened to the universities in Germany in the thirties is what has happened and is happening everywhere. The essence of it all is not social, political, psychological or economic, but philosophic. And, for those who wish to see, contemplation of Socrates is our most urgent task. This is properly an academic task.”

12- “And one cannot jump on and off the tradition like a train. Once broken, our link with it is hard to renew. The instinctive heads of scholars, are list.”


Omar Halabieh

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind


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