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Theological Notebook: Revisiting "The Closing of the American Mind"

G etting my feet back under me after a few days of yucky throat and achey back. I got my H1N1 shot last week, and it seems that half the time I get a flu shot, I seem to get flu-ey symptoms in the next week, in a mild way. The medical folks tell me that there's no causal connection of that sort, but there you go.

I remember toting around a copy of Professor Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the spring of 1991, during my senior year of college, walking up Normal Road reading it on my way back to the Buennagel's house on High Terrace, where I was house-sitting with David, Chris and Mark for the semester. I was struck by the observations regarding the broad impact of relativist philosophies in education, and the damage these were causing under the banner of such positive impulses, such as human freedom. Even at that time, I wasn't particularly Right or Left in my politics, which remain more Augustinian or Adamsian in just a sheer suspicion of power. But I was becoming sensitive to university politics, and aware that this tended to be univocally Left, and so my critical eye started turning in that direction. At the same time, I can also remember wondering whether what I understood to be Bloom's inclination toward returning to the Classical tradition was by itself enough to hold back the tide of such self-deconstruction in Western culture. The Jewish-Christian component of Western culture seemed to me to very much played down in contrast to the pagan Greek and Roman components.

I also at this time was becoming more sensitive to the cultural politics regarding ideas such as that of "Western culture" and especially the hostility toward Western culture by what was now the center of power in the academic and cultural elite Left. I also couldn't help but notice the irony that those who most strongly opposed "Western culture" as the evil domain of "dead white males" were themselves the most Western of people. Although they saw themselves as in reaction to Western culture, and were increasingly ignorant of the actual heritage of the West, they were now pushing their own white European secularist notions onto the rest of the world in the name of Freedom, in what they – also ironically – failed to notice was probably the most pervasive cultural imperialism ever attempted. It wasn't that I didn't think there were good aspects mixed into what the Left was pushing at the rest of the world – democracy, equality for women, and so forth – but it was such a mixed bag with the dogmatic moral relativism, hyper individualism, consumerism, or the self-absorption of the sexual revolution that I didn't think that the Left's approach to "marketing" was a very useful one. It seemed to me that there had to be a better cultural alternative than that as a "moderate" position between the world-conquering hyper-Left and hyper-Right of Communism and Fascism.

So, reading Bloom was in some ways one of my earliest engagements with a "contemporary" text at the heart of current conversation, after four years of spending my time immersed in the history of Western culture, more likely than not spending my time more than a millennium back in the past. That was necessary, of course, as a kind of retreat from what I've often called "the Tyranny of the Immediate" in order to come to understand the wider context of my history and culture (or cultures, really). Therefore it was interesting to see seeker101 point out this recent essay revisiting Bloom. This gets into the ongoing question of the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities, which has been an interest of mine for some time. I'm not ready to sign off on everything the Catholic Neo-Cons have to say about such things (my political suspicions working against the conservative minority, too) but I do find it more than dismaying to have students at Catholic universities leaving without ever having even gotten a sense of what the Catholic tradition in general even is. I also find it bizarre that the more we speak of valuing "diversity," the more Catholic schools feel under a pressure to philosophically conform to secular school models, as though there were only one way to be "diverse!" It would be a much more interesting (and truly diverse) educational world if America had a plethora of schools of clearly diverse worldviews and philosophies. So the article made for interesting reading, as well as a bit of a reminder to me about how many years I've put in to knowing my way around the cultural map. It's starting to add up!

The Closing of the American Mind Revisited
R.R. Reno

Feb 27, 2007, First Things

The most recent number of The Intercollegiate Review, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, features a symposium marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Has it really been that long?

Bloom's book was a real sensation and a surprise bestseller. Looking back, I can see why. The Closing was more than a highbrow attack on contemporary academic careerism (a la Jacques Barzun), a middlebrow defense of great books (a la E. D. Hirsch), or a populist exposé of tenured radicals and puerile campus ideologues (a la David Horowitz). The gist of Bloom's polemic—and the book was nothing if not a long, erudite, and hyperbolic polemic—was a brief against the cultural revolution of the 1960s. He said out loud what liberal elite culture could only regard as heresy: The supposed idealism of the 1960s was, in fact, a new barbarism. Whatever moral and spiritual seriousness the long tradition of American pragmatism had left intact in university life, the anti-culture of the left destroyed.

The result? Higher education has become, argued Bloom, the professional training of clever and sybaritic animals, who drink, vomit, and fornicate in the dorms by night while they posture critically and ironically by day. Bloom identified moral relativism as dogma that blessed what he called "the civilized reanimalization of man." He saw a troubling, dangerous, and soulless apathy that pleasured itself prudently with passing satisfactions ("Always use condoms!" says the sign by the dispenser in the bathroom) but was moved by no desire to know good or evil, truth or falsehood, beauty or ugliness.

I remember reading Bloom in 1987, feeling as though he was describing what I was experiencing as a young graduate teaching assistant. Bright, energetic, ambitious Yale students could master material with amazing speed. They could discuss brilliantly. They could write effective, well-researched papers. But they possessed an amazing ability to understand without being moved, to experience without judging, to self-consciously put forward their own convictions as mere opinions. On the whole, they seemed to have interior lives of Jell-O.

I have since learned that students are often not as they appear. Quite a number have steely souls and passionate convictions, but they have learned that the proper posture of higher education is either soft diffidence or its counter-image, snarky critical superiority. At times, a cultivated moral passion is OK, even desirable, especially if it is sincerely felt, unconventional, and asserted as an imperative of personality. An urgent vegetarianism expressed with a vehemence bordering on taboo, for example, can be quite acceptable. What is positively discouraged, however, are reasoned, principled commitments. So students who have real and serious moral or religious convictions hide them and cordon them off from their educational experience.

The need to hide convictions, and the tendency to separate conviction from education is especially true for students who have traditional beliefs. Nearly all faculty stand at the ready to critique and correct. The guillotine of professorial intervention need fall only once or twice before students realize that all truths are relative, and some are more relative than others. Usually, this has already happened in secondary school, and students come to college wise to the logic of multicultural "inclusion."

Bloom helps us see that, whether students lack convictions or disguise them, the educational effect is pretty much the same. The most important question in peoples lives—that is to say, the question of how they should live—remains largely unconnected to the sophisticated intellectual training that continues to take place in the classroom. I can often get students to "share" their moral "opinions," and often with a certain warmth of conviction. I can also get students to analyze classical arguments for or against various accounts of the good life. But I find it difficult to induce students to take a passionate and rational interest in fundamental questions. Students are either soulless creatures, or they recuse their souls from any contact with reason and argument. This phenomenon was what troubled Allan Bloom, and this is why he wrote The Closing of the American Mind.

Leaders in Catholic education should revisit Bloom's spiritual diagnosis. To a large extent, a similar worry about passionless, commitment-free inquiry dominates John Paul II's teaching on education, philosophy, and the dignity of reason. In Fides et Ratio, the late pope expressed a great concern that contemporary intellectual culture has lost touch with "the search for ultimate truth," and as does Bloom, John Paul II evokes the danger of relativism. We should beware "an undifferentiated pluralism," he writes, for an easy celebration of "difference" undermines our desire for truth and reduces everything to mere opinion.

Over the years, I have observed that most Catholic deans, provosts, and presidents ignore or even contribute to the slide of higher education into soulless relativism. Most take the integrity of reason and the truth claims of the Catholic Church for granted, even as it slowly declines into the standard, amoral, post-cultural agenda of secular education. Some actively undermine the relationship of the university to the Church in order to deploy the university as part of the liberal Catholic resistance to the conservative trends in the larger Church. Others imagine that multicultural educational ideologies rightly express a Catholic commitment to social justice and the preferential option for the poor.

Every Catholic university has its own story. But the basic dynamic tends to be the same. For all their good intentions, most Catholic administrators are hopelessly confused and inconsistent when it comes to the goals of education. Just talk to a Catholic dean or college president. They do not want non-Catholic students to be "uncomfortable," and they want everyone to feel "included." Then, not a minute or two later, the conversation shifts, and the very same proponents of inclusion will insist that we need to challenge our students with critical thought and diverse perspectives. Hello! You can't have it both ways—making students comfortable and challenging them.

Of course, what most Catholic educators usually mean is that a professor should challenge the traditional beliefs of Catholic students and challenge any conservative political or economic beliefs that students are foolish enough to expose. This critical project, which is conveniently well-coordinated with the agenda of secular education, has the desired effect of making administrators and faculty feel good about their great vocation as critical educators while—miracle of miracles—making anybody who disagrees with the teachings of the Catholic Church feel comfortable and welcome.

The students are not stupid. Those with traditional and conservative convictions quickly realize that the deck is stacked against them, and they learn to separate their religious and moral and political convictions from the classroom. They remove their souls from the university. The non-Catholic students realize that few faculty create a pedagogical environment where Catholic teaching can make a claim on their intellects and lives. They relax, gratified that they can get an education without having to put any energy into arguing against and resisting. Their souls are left quiescent and unchallenged. What Bloom feared becomes the atmosphere of Catholic education: the question of how we should live fails to enter into the center of university life.

Maybe I'm simple-minded, but I don't think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Catholic universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Catholic tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of "difference" or easy moves of "critique," which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don't think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Catholic education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints. That was the actual, experienced effect of the old system, when large numbers of faculty were priests and nuns.

Every culture demands and prohibits, encourages and exhorts. The desire to have a university free from demands, a classroom sanitized and unhaunted, is nothing short of desiring an education free from culture. Many professors and administrators today desire this kind of education. For multiculturalism, "diversity," and disembodied "critical thinking" add up to an imaginary, spectral meta-culture that is, by definition, no culture at all. And as I have said, students are not stupid. They realize that an education free from the commanding truths of culture is an invitation to live as clever, well-trained, and socially productive animals; and like all good students, they live up to the expectations.

Today the single greatest goal of Catholic universities should be to withdraw this debasing invitation. All students are well served by an educational atmosphere shaped by the demands of Catholic culture, demands that bear down upon us with the frightening force of divine commandments. For the dangerous commitments of truth and not the cool dispassion of critique open minds.

R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
Tags: academia, america, books, niu, nonsense in academia, personal, philosophical, political, theological notebook

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