Academic Fundamentalism?

July-August 1987By Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and co-author of the award-winning Habits of the Heart.

The Closing of the American Mind: Education and the Crisis of Reason.  By Allan Bloom. Simon & Schuster. 385 pages. $18.95.

Allan Bloom has done something rare among followers of Leo Strauss. He has given us not a translation of or commentary on a great text (as he has before with Plato, Shakespeare, and Rousseau), but an analysis of our current social, cultural, and intellectual condition - mainly, but not exclusively, in the university. The result is a book at once refreshing, dismaying, and baffling, but of such seriousness that it deserves to be widely read. Particularly those responsible for education, and that is a much larger group than university professors, should read this book. It is not a question of agreeing with Bloom. Most readers will, I believe, sharply disagree with parts of the book, as I do. But Bloom has stated many of the issues that confront us with great clarity and vigor. Those who would meet his challenge must think as hard and well as he has.

The book, already a bestseller, consists of three linked essays: one describing students at our better universities today; one on American culture since the 1930s; and one on the history of the university, particularly in the last 30 years.

The essay on students is bleak indeed. He describes their blankness with respect to literary culture upon arriving at the university (and often on leaving it as well), their compulsive absorption in rock music that deadens their response to a wide range of cultural experiences, and their self-centeredness in relation to others. Presumably Professor Bloom has students who do not fit this description, as I believe any serious teacher does, but he says little about the exceptions. Still he is on the mark much of the time. It would be interesting to teach this book.

Where I would want to argue with his description of student culture is his almost entirely negative view of the egalitarianism of students. Bloom describes a shallow reflexive egalitarianism that is only the reverse of the dominant individualism, in which persons are seen shorn of any tradition or cultural specificity, as though they were self-created personalities. These beliefs, he says, do not "result from principle, a project, an effort. They are pure feeling, a way of life.... " Yet his own description of the incompleteness of equality between black and white students and of the uncertain relations between the sexes suggests that deeper moral issues of equality are far from solved. Indeed the shallow egalitarianism of individual feeling may obscure the real issues of equality which would lead to clearer moral principles and stronger ethical discriminations than most students "feel comfortable with," and may hide a deep ambivalence about equality that is only partially conscious. A more sanguine view of contemporary students would find their feeling for equality a point of entry for serious reflection.

It is harder to summarize Bloom's discussion of American culture, in the second essay. Here we are treated to a sweeping discussion of the history of modern culture under what Bloom calls, in Straussian terms, the democratic regime. What is most striking here is the importance he gives to what he calls "the German connection." He detects a pervasive Nietzscheanism purveyed to us by German refugees in the 1930s and 1940s that has drastically undercut our own Anglo-Saxon heritage of early modern social thought. Weber and Freud, with their enormous influence on academic culture, and now more pervasively the general culture, have been the apostles through whom Nietzsche reached our shores. Bloom traces many of the terms that substitute for serious thought in America - self, creativity, culture, values - to a watered-down Germanism. One of his few lapses occurs in this connection where he misunderstands David Riesman's term "inner-directed," even constructing for it a false genealogy from Heidegger via Fromm. Inattention to the text is not what we expect from students of Leo Strauss. Inner-direction is not the free expression of the self as against a socially constricting other-direction, a common enough misunderstanding of the argument of Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. Rather inner-direction signifies the harsh superego of the old bourgeoisie introjected from external authority.

But even accepting the analysis of the baleful effects of a popularized Nietzscheanism, as I tend to do, one must not neglect the extent to which Nietzsche is himself finally grounded in the Anglo-American tradition that Bloom would defend against him. After all, it was Hobbes who said that there is no Good in itself but only the goods (desires) of individuals, and the lifelong influence of Emerson on Nietzsche is well-known. If we have succumbed to the siren song of Nietzsche and Heidegger via the more popular figures of Weber and Freud, it is surely because the ground had long since been prepared.

The third essay, on the university, is perhaps the most interesting. The opening section on the history of the university is the clearest revelation of the Straussian position I have ever seen. Historicism is indeed jettisoned, as we are shown a picture of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke as agreeing in essentials but differing only in the tactics with which they defend the life of the mind. Both modern democratic society and the modern university are seen as straightforward products of early modern philosophy. While the resulting picture is arresting and thought-provoking, it is surely one-sided. Bloom has respect for biblical religion as a worthy opponent of philosophy, but he has no regard for it as an influence on modern society, a mistake his teacher Tocqueville did not make. Nor does he pay the least attention to classical republicanism as an influence on the American founders, whom he treats as pure Lockeans. And the picture of the university is distorted indeed when rhetoric, which dominated most of its modern history far more than philosophy, is ignored.

What follows is an ill-tempered attack on the student movement of the 1960s that scores many good points but ends up greatly exaggerating the influence of the 1960s on the current malaise in higher education. This is all the more odd since the final section, "The Student and the University," is in many ways an accurate assessment of our situation. Though he does not quite put it this way. Bloom shows that the university as an institution for the training of the functionaries of an imperial economy and an imperial state is not a very conducive place for the cultivation of the life of the mind.

What is most distressing is that Bloom seems to share in the ambivalence which for almost 400 pages he is describing with great brilliance and insight. It is finally not clear why he wrote the book or to whom it is addressed. After an appallingly accurate description of the incoherence of the best universities today, he writes, "One cannot and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out." Yet, so modest a hope is belied by the final paragraph of the book where he tells us that freedom in the world depends on the American regime, that the fate of philosophy depends on our universities, and that the defense of the two are related. Certainly fanning the embers is hardly a response to such a challenge.

Bloom writes in a vacuum. Others concerned with his problems are ignored. Neither Gadamer, Dumont, nor Maclntyre is mentioned. One begins to suspect that the Straussian world is that of a fundamentalist sect, where "the truth" cannot be risked in discussion with the unsaved. Bloom almost appears as an urbane, immensely well-educated Jerry Falwell. Yet that is unfair both to Bloom and the Straussians. We can be thankful that Bloom has condescended from the always useful task of textual commentary to give us this lively, bitter, stimulating picture of the world in which we live. Even if we do not fully understand why he has done so.

DOSSIER: Higher Education

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