Thursday, November 26, 2009

Closing of the American Mind (the book review)

Last night I finally closed the book on The Closing of the American Mind. It's not a particularly long book (383 pages) but Allan Bloom packs enough philosophy within its cover's to inundate the Caspian Sea. For those not familiar with the short and skinny: He was one of the foremost western philosophers of the latter 20th-century, translated Plato's Republic, and wrote numerous commentaries and interpretations on classic works of Western thought. His decades-long experience in teaching higher education and unparalleled understanding of philosophy make him an undeniable force in any consideration of America's philosophical and moral climate.

Closing begins with a preface from Bloom's colleague and close friend from the U of C, Saul Bellow. Bellow essentially spells out in layman's terms the take-away themes from the book for those unable to penetrate Bloom's more esoteric harangues. Honestly, I deem it worth skipping, but perhaps there is some entertainment value in watching Bellow reflect praise intended for Bloom onto himself.

In his Introduction (titled: Our Virtue), Bloom wastes no time stating America's fundamental problems. In his classes he would routinely ask students what they would do if they were a British magistrate watching an Indian village funeral procession. Would they interfere when they saw the widow forced onto the funeral pyre, or would they restrain themselves, not wanting to impinge on their culture? Are the values and beliefs of these Indian villagers any less valid as yours?

He reflects the virtue of openness through the prism of books music, relationships, race, sex, self-centeredness, and equality. With a voice both philosophical and droll, Bloom explores each topic in turn with unerring exactness. He disparages the schools which try to purify the constitution of its "highly flawed, racist, and class-interested" founding fathers.

The middle of Closing drifts into the deeper philosophical foundations of our current predicament, generously ladling from the soups of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Plato, Tocqueville, and with some healthy doses of Hegel, Weber, Freud, and Heideggar. I have not made a serious study of any of these philosophers, and found myself often plodding through these denser sections. After the heady philosophy section, Bloom opines on the dysfunctional state of the university, and his first-hand experience at Cornell. Certain black students threatened the faculty with guns for the unfair, racists standards they had imposed. For him, both students and professors fall into Marx's overused dictum: history always repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

What I found most jarring about Closing was the accuracy with which he described my understanding of reality, history, politics, and rights. I was always confident in America's inherent moral superiority, derived from our all-seeing openness to different cultures. I never considered that being open to anything had closed my mind to everything. And I really think that is Bloom's sine qua non. Americans suffer a fallacy of openness. We are indoctrinated in moral relativity from grade school, and are intellectually emasculated in our supposed lives. Closing made a splash when it was originally published in 1987, and 22 years later it has become even more socially relevant. I recommend this book to anyone who is honestly interested in challenging their personal philosophy.

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