Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind"

Although this book was published some time ago, I am now discussing it with two students, two of the best students at Assumption College, who have been reading it. They wanted a different perspective than they would get from other members of the Political Science Department who tend to think Bloom is the "cat's meow," as my folks use to say. So I thought I would post my musings here as they are relevant to politics in the United States even today. Which is why Bloom's book is a worthwhile unpersuasive as it ultimately is.

Thoughts on Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind
P. Schultz
Various Times

Entry March 10, 2010:

Page 42: Blooms says that when he was young he had a debate with a psychology professor at Cornell who said that his job was “to get rid of prejudices in his students.” For Bloom, this is comparable to ridding the world of a belief in Santa Claus! Wow, does Bloom really think that getting rid of some prejudices – e.g., that of American “exceptionalism” – is as easy as debunking the myth of Santa Claus? If so, it seems to me that Bloom could have profited from studying some psychology. Perhaps the psychology professor shared some of Bloom’s apparent delusion. Bloom then goes to say that it was his job to instill prejudices in his students, although he does not here state what these prejudices might be. So let’s consider some possibililities.

Perhaps Bloom would like to instill in his students some racial prejudices, such as the superiority of whites to blacks or vice versa. Or perhaps Bloom would like to instill in his students some anti-Semitism. Or perhaps – and this seems most likely to me – he wants to instill his students the prejudice that the American way of “democracy” – which he seems to take for granted and assert without argument – is “exceptional” and that we United Statesians are or at least were an “exceptional people.”

But then there are these sentences, which are to say the least quite remarkable: “Think of all we learn about the world from men’s belief in Santa Clauses, and all that we learn about the soul from those who believe in them. By contrast, merely methodological excision from the soul of the imagination that projects Gods and heroes onto the wall of the cave does not promote knowledge of the soul; it only lobotomizes it, cripples its powers.” [p. 42]

Now what do these sentences mean? Seriously. Leave aside the rather simplistic reference to Santa Claus as the illustration of “prejudice” that infects men’s souls. Although it is hard to leave that aside, as noted above. Can this prejudice really instruct us about the soul? Other prejudices are far more deeply embedded in our souls, such as the superiority of the American way of life – the conviction of which and the strength of which was demonstrated after 9/11 for all to see. It was there to see before 9/11 but not all could see it. It was less visible and even Bloom missed it.

But do these sentences mean that our most important beliefs are merely “prejudices”? And if they are, is the cultivation of such prejudices beneficial for the soul? If this is the case, then it would seem that it is not so much the truth that feeds the soul as it is prejudice. Could this be what Bloom thinks? It is at least a possibility.

2d Entry: March 10, 2010:

P. 26: Bloom on confronting his “relativistic” students: “If I pose routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, ‘If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died,’ they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place.”

Both responses are interesting in ways Bloom doesn’t appreciate. Some of those not responding are tuned into Bloom’s game, his desire to “confute” them and they don’t want to play. Others, sympathetic to Bloom’s agenda, also don’t answer because that confirms their previously arrived at conclusion that their classmates are relativists! “Oh, look, those relativists can’t answer Bloom’s question. Well, they certainly can’t be trusted with defending Western Civilization!” But the British, apparently, could, even if it meant, as it did, colonizing other human beings without their consent!

The second answer though is really interesting because (a) it is not relativistic. It is passing judgment on Britain’s imperialism and condemning that phenomenon. This is hardly “relativistic.” Imperialism, even white, Western imperialism is unjust and perhaps inhuman. But apparently Bloom cannot see this or, rather, chooses to ignore it.

(b) It is correcting Bloom by saying, “Hey man, you are asking the wrong question. The more important question is not how British administrators should behave in their colonies but whether they should have colonies at all! And your question just obscures the more important question.” Indeed, it does. And this raises a further question: Just whom is Bloom’s enemy? Is the relativists or those who have different values than Bloom, who have a different understanding of justice, say, than Bloom? This needs clarification because insofar as it is the latter, Bloom cannot get away with dismissing those he is criticizing without confronting, head on, their arguments about justice. That this is probably the case is strengthened by Bloom’s argument on page 33, where he distinguishes between the civil rights movement “in its early days” and “the Black Power movement.” Bloom argues that the latter “had at its core the view that the Constitutional tradition was always corrupt and was constructed as a defense of slavery. Its demand was for black identity, not universal rights.”

Well, as a matter of logic, the last two are not diametrically opposed. In fact, in the thought of Malcolm X they fit together very well: “Yes, don’t forget I am a man,” Malcolm might be thought of as saying. “But also remember that I am a black man! And that means something in the United States that it does not mean in Muslim countries.” Hence, Malcolm abandoned his slave name, “Little” and went with “X” to illustrate that he did know his “real” name because of the injustice of slavery. This is, again, hardly relativistic.

Moreover, Lincoln was gave a speech, “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which he said that the Constitution was defective, a thought Lincoln reiterated at Gettysburg when he called for “a new birth of freedom” because, apparently, the old one was defective or corrupt. So if Bloom wants to take on those who argued that the Constitution was corrupt from the outset, he has to take on Lincoln to say nothing of the Anti-Federalists.

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