book review

The Mind, Captive and Closed

The Closing of the American Mind
How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students
Allan Bloom
Simon & Schuster, 1987, 402 pages
Reviewed By


M any of our brightest students consider school to be their greatest impediment to obtaining a good education. I was luckier than most, having had teachers who never noticed that the book I was poring over during class was not actually the textbook, but something more interesting and more challenging.

Students expect and need to be challenged. If they come to class believing in relativism, we need to make them question that belief and to understand its implications. Students have been indoctrinated from childhood with ideas they can't defend, backed up by cynicism and pride in their lack of knowledge. The job of educators is to clean up that mush and turn them into thinking adults. We have only to look at the state of our economy and our culture to know how badly we have failed.

This book is a devastatingly intelligent and literate criticism of the trend in our liberal arts colleges toward value-neutral education. It leads, says Bloom, not to openness to new ideas and alternatives, but to a closing of the mind. By teaching students not to seek the "natural human good," we are really teaching them to suppress their own intellect and instinct: impoverishing their souls.

Why is it important for people to know the European and Greek philosophers like Nietzsche, Kant, and Plato? Not just because they give us a sense of the richness of our culture and the world of ideas. Without knowledge of the history of ideas, young people would be easy pickings for any demagogue seeking fresh cannon fodder. The relativist and historicist zeitgeist at the universities today closes students' minds by delegitimizing an entire world of possible ideas, and forces students to select from items on the menu the Left has defined for them. It is like a KFC where only chicken is considered important, and so only chicken is on the menu, and only left wings are available. Only knowledge and reason can free students from the tyranny of the false choice between Regular and Extra Crispy.

Bloom takes on the role of a Tocqueville, describing the culture and beliefs of these strange beings called students. In their post-feminist, post-political world, says Bloom, the only barrier that still remains, attributable solely to affirmative action, is race. Yet their thoughts are more restricted than ever.

He contrasts American philosophy with that of the European, particularly German, philosophers, from which the Left acquired most of its ideas. The Left stole Nietzsche from the Right and tossed in a little Freud in an attempt to regain the "scientific" justification originally claimed by Marx, but which Nietzsche showed to be self-contradictory. After Nietzsche, even Lenin had to call Marxism an ideology instead of a science. Adopting Freud also transformed and debased culture by doing away with the need for sublimation. Deprived of its roots in sexual frustration, literature became cruder, while revolution became a "lifestyle choice" and ideology morphed into a mere smorgasbord of values. It became as superficial and uninspiring as the bourgeois world the Left so hated.

Since this book was written in 1987, the intellectual divisions have grown narrower in some respects and wider in others. Since the destruction of the great German philosophical academic tradition, the responsibility fell to America to uphold it. Bloom holds the student radicals of the '60s and the cowardice of his colleagues responsible for the loss of this irreplaceable treasure.

Some other thinkers have suggested more sinister reasons: what better way, they ask, to weaken Western civilization than to eliminate Western Civ? Convince students that we have nothing worth defending, that all values are self-serving, and that the facts of history cannot be trusted, and it becomes easier to substitute your own revolutionary agenda. But civilizations can fight back. If all values are equal, there are no values, and there is no reason to teach anything more than facts. Economic considerations will win out and a liberal arts education will become a thing of the past. The loser will not be Western civilization, but the universities, and our students.

sep 02, 2012

The Captive Mind
Czeslaw Milosz
Vintage 1953, 251 pages
Reviewed By


W hat is it about human nature that motivates people to accept tyranny? In the West, says Czeslaw Milosz, one may resist the pressure to conform to a tyrannical system without being held guilty of a mortal sin. Not so in post-WWII Central and Eastern Europe.

Milosz believed that the majority of intellectuals in communist Poland secretly resisted the totalitarianism they were forced to endure by adopting a form of outward deceit he calls "Ketman." This was made a little easier for the Eastern Europeans because they despised the Russians, as to a large extent they still do.

He relates stories about four individuals he names Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, the compromises they made to survive, and their inevitable failings, as they struggled in the chaos of postwar Europe. None of these characters may be properly described as heroes, or as sensible, strong, or indeed admirable in any way. Milosz's message is that compromise corrupts the idealistic as well as the self-deluded, but the stories provide little psychological insight into the characters. In these pages Milosz seems mainly to be struggling within himself to find a reason to avoid becoming fatalistic, as many others did.

Although Milosz's writing style is powerful, his ideas are better presented in the first and last chapters, which are more abstract, than in the stories about failed writers who threw their lives away for the vile collectivist ideologies of the twentieth century.

sep 01, 2012