A different Bloomsday

Here’s some more moaning about These Young People Today, where “today” means recent decades going back God knows how long: The Closing of the American Mind Revisited. The piece is prompted by the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s book.

Like most complaints about These Young People Today it’s really about the consequences of the disintegration of the human connections and hierarchies of value that once gave things and people a meaning and place. Man is social and rational. Rationality requires putting things in a setting that in the end must transcend human thought to avoid ultimate arbitrariness. Weaken social connections and do away with ultimate rationality and you may have clever, well-trained, and socially productive animals but you won’t have men. That’s how young people are brought up now, and since the lesson’s insistently inculcated and nothing else is on offer it mostly sticks. As the piece notes one result is that thought and value become dissociated, so moral passion or “spirituality” is now OK as a fashion statement or personal gesture but reasoned, principled commitments are out.

It’s worth noting that people have been making the same complaint for quite some time now. See Kenneth Kenniston’s The Uncommitted (1965) and for that matter C. S. Lewis’s 1947 discovery of the trousered ape. As my preceding blog entry suggests, though, the situation does seem to be getting worse. The author’s a Catholic and notes that Catholic education ought to be able to speak to the situation but almost never does, basically because those who run it are imitative second-raters.

7 thoughts on “A different Bloomsday”

  1. Universities
    This is a big subject and could be approached from a variety of angles. Here’s a few.

    1. The FT article reflects the peculiar American faith in education. This is modernity in full bloom. If only our universities regained their footing, all would be well—we could regain our footing on the Path of Progress. This is, of course, total nonsense. Universities rarely, if ever, have any relevance to any real change or development. Did the early Christians determine to take over and reform the Roman/Greek educational system in order to spread the word? How about the communists; did they care about universities or believe they would be determinative of anything? And so forth. Universities are parasitic on power, and will conform as instructed. That is the unpleasant lesson of the 60’s; universities are so weak and corrupt they couldn’t even stand up to groups of rowdy students. When confronted with real power, like in Germany of the 30’s, universities conform, and conform willingly (although some academics left, either because they were Jews and had lost their employment or they were principled gentiles). It is telling that Hitler considered the churches to be centers of real power and dealt with them gingerly; universities were so easy to coopt into the National Socialist project they were barely on his radar screen. Universities are a symptom, not a cause.

    2. The influence of universities on students is overrated. Sudents have absorbed modernity well before reaching university, and understand the values that matter: credentials and advancement. As with all of modernity, content is meaningless, technique and method are everything. Universities operate on modernist assumptions and cooperate in the modern project, then complain that their students are modernists.

    3. The basic issue is that universities merely reflect modernity, positivist and non-relativist in the natural sciences and relativist (although utilizing the positivist method) in all other areas of study. What can modernity possibly say about faith, commitment, belief, or values other than that such things are indeed social phenomena, and should be considered and studied as such. We are, after all, faithful Cartesian nominalists. Note that the relativism proceeds from a non-relativist article of faith: the world is composed of phenomena, period. Those who study empirical phenomena (the natural scientists) are non-relativists, and those who don’t are lost in a world of opinion; those who question this dichotomy between reality and opinion are crazy (or work in the women’s studies department, which amounts to the same thing).

    4. Modernity is in the stage of exhaustion. One would expect a course of study grounded in the assumptions of modernity to be fairly sterile and uninspring, and even to provoke irony and/or cynicism. It is a setting in which utilitariansim rules. Not even modernists have any enthusiasm for it anymore. We’ve all been emancipated, so we can all be equally boring and predictable. As Mr. Kalb has noted, this is the monolith of pluralism.

    An interesting tour of modern intellectual life at universities by Christian philospher Alvin Plantinga: here.

  2. allan bloom
    I happened to pick up The Closing of the American Mind recently for a second reading and was struck by the audacity of some of Bloom’s comments about the climate in universities, most particularly his remarks about divorce. His insights on this subject are as fresh and startling today as they were two decades ago. “The most visible sign of our increasing separateness,” he said. “and, in its turn, the cause of ever greater separateness is divorce. It has a deep influence on our universities because more and more of the students are products of it, and they not only have problems themselves but also affect other students and the general atmosphere.”
    I can think of no one who so strongly states the case that divorce not only harms its immediate victims, but has affected the intellectual temper of our times. Bloom was an astute observer and, over the years, saw his students transformed before his very eyes. That a philosopher should care so much about the intimate details of his students’ lives is striking. He baldy stated that divorce was worse than death to a young person and that it created a “deformity of the spirit.”
    Of his students from divorced families, he said, “I do not have the slightest doubt that they do as well as others in all kinds of specialized subjects, but I find they are not as open to the serious study of philosophy and literature as some other students are. I would guess this is because they are less eager to look into the meaning of their lives, or to risk shaking their received opinions.” This has much to tell us about the lock-step conformity of liberalism today.
    Bloom has many other still-relevant insights into masulinity, promiscuity and the effects of the sexual revolution on the mind. My disappointment, on this second reading, came with his rejection of any kind of solution. Here, he becomes simply a wise curmudgeon. “I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them” he says. “I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitues for them just because we want or need them.” What a cop-out!

    • Bloom was feebleminded
      Divorce is worse than death!? It has a worse effect than than growing up in a household with an alcaholic wifebeater as a father!? Seriously, where do stupid ideas like this come from?

      Of course divorce is upsetting to kids. But, it would not be half as upsetting if it was not for the reactions of people like Bloom. Just riddle me this: why is it that children of divorced parents in the Scandinavian countries do not have any of the symptoms of such kids in the US?

      The answer is obvious, it is all about the judgment of moralists and social expectations.

      • Divorce and Allan Bloom
        When Bloom said divorce was worse than death, he meant the death of the parent. An involuntary separation of the parent was more bearable than a voluntary one, in his opinion. Of course, most of the fathers of Bloom’s University of Chicago students were not “alcoholic wife-beaters.” The divorces were not caused by horrendous domestic situations, but came after the parents stopped liking each other.

        It’s interesting that one of the best books specifically about divorce also came from the University of Chicago: “The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce,” by Elizabeth Marquardt. Her findings after hundreds of interviews with young people were surprisingly similar to Bloom’s. Divorce had some good consequences in that it made children more independent and self-reliant, she found. But, this was offset by a permanent condition of emotional vertigo, an underlying conviction that life was built on very unstable moorings.

  3. These times – which in my
    These times – which in my view look more like 1st century CE Rome than any other period in the Western history – are shaped as much by bourgeois capitalism as by bourgeois cultural liberalism. This is a period (like the last true period of empire) when American civilization begins to consolidate itself around the world, where market forces and multiculturalism steamroll not just state enterprises and the social safety net but cultural cohesion and traditional social orders, where the rule of law (and with it the police and prison state) replace the rule of culture. American civilization is not evil, but also not without a dark heart: its treatment of the poor and criminal. And there is no political solution. Like the 1st century the next revolutionaries will be religious – from a creed that doesn’t yet exist. They will be derided by the fundamentalist right as satanic, and dismissed by the secular left as crackpots. Eventually their ideas, and the promise of a new salvation, will win the hearts and minds of most people in this world. When that happens, a new golden age in the West – this time the world over – will be born.

  4. I was in college when the
    I was in college when the book came out. I thought it had some good points, but he also betrayed his own limitations. For example, once chapter spoke at lenght about how little classical music students listen to nowadays. (As a music student, I was one of the exceptions). He railed against this, but also showed that he himself knew very little about the art, and he made no mention of Jazz, one of America’s most important contributions to music.

    He was a cause celebre among conservatives at the time, but then it came out that he was gay, and I believe his death didn’t even make the Weekly Standard, National Review etc. (I could be wrong about that, but I recall being surprised out how little notice it got in the conservative press.)

  5. Bloom is a left-wing Trotsyite
    Completely overrated book. By condemning any type of historicism and celebrating appeals to universalism, the book puts Bloom on the side of the historical Left, not the Right. He’s a good left-wing Jacobin through and through.

    Not that one should be a cultural relativist, but real conservatives like Burke and De Maistre always recognized the importance of history. The real enemy for the neocons is an authentic Western Civilization (which is why Bloom and Strauss give you a sterilized one) and public enemy #1, as Claes Ryn noted, “the ancestral.”

    Deep down, Bloom is a Trotskyite.


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