When this book came about nearly 30 years ago, it caused controversy. I recognize it is an important subject, but Bloom has analyzed it badly and written it poorly. He does not know how to write. He got Saul Bellow to add a Foreword which rambles and never approaches the topic.
Earlier than World War Two it was recognized that technical training in universities and colleges reduced the abilities of human beings to understand society and the world in which they lived. Students exposed to those disciplines were not only affected, but also persons outside those disciplines were equally deficient to understand society and humans. Those Americans identified it as a problem of German education, which had emphasized technical training since the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
So what is the Closing of the American Mind? In a chapter entitled The German Connection relevant to my understanding of the primary issue, is found, after wasting 1000 words discussing Woody Allen’s Zelig,
The popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen the value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier. Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle-Western twang, the echo Deutsche label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American lifestyle has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family…(page 151)
There are so many shortcuts and cliches in this paragraph and throughout the book, it is incomprehensible. I wonder if that paragraph can be translated into German. I guess Max Weber’s “technical sociology terminology” like “far out,” “off the pigs,” and “I want to hold your hand,” tells knowledgable readers more about the author’s communication than if the author had removed all adjectives and adverbs and tried to make the otherwise convoluted mush comprehensible to ordinary Americans. I’ll never have any idea was Napoleon is doing in that paragraph.
I have written about James Madison in a history published on the iBookstore, A Particular Friend, Michael Ulin Edwards.
When Madison got everyone going about the American Constitution, he knew exactly what he was doing. Insure individual freedoms for American citizens. He was not worried about how a certain line of thought would meld with indigenous customs and habits, like philosophers in Europe and elsewhere did. Indigenous customs and habits were irrelevant in the United States where individuals had freedom.
Examine Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. This petition is partly the basis for the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, the Establishment Clause. The government cannot tell American citizens what to think; no institution or force can. American citizens can submit and can consent to believe and have faith, whether one thing is wrong and another is correct. But unless statutes are broken, the government does not get involved and society as a whole usually remains neutral.
Contrast government involvement under the Constitution with German history since 1780. German philosophy became more obscure and bizarre as one nut-job tried to define new theories to out-do his predecessors. The Germans ended up with Hitler and the Russians following German philosophers (Marx & Engels) had Stalin. A pair of socio-psychopaths has never been timely coincidental, but it all came from Germany. Each fulfilled his side of German philosophy and killed millions of his country’s citizens. Why? None of the dead persons thought as the Leader did. None would do what they were told by the government.
If someone tries to do that to an American, they’ll start a shooting war.
What advantage is it to anyone to read Madison’s Remonstrance? It is a historical document of 1785. It significantly changed the minds of thousands of Virginians. It is a well-written political document about a religious subject. The document is also an excellent polemic. It is a document whose arguments are impossible to refute. To one thousand arguments against, Madison is ready for the 1001 argument.
What else might the document provide Americans? It is the primary example of the considerations necessary to construct a freedom or a liberty, as opposed to interpreting a freedom. The difference between construction and interpretation is known to some. When words or a situation is accepted by the parties, a solution comes by interpreting events, words and customs. But when a situation is not settled, anyone called into to resolve it must sometimes hear from everyone and put together the rule before issuing an interpretation.
This is exactly what happened in 1789 when James Madison, member of the House of Representatives, looked at lists of offerings from various states to include Rights in a Bill of Rights. Some of the states had sent Madison dozens of Rights. Madison looked around and determined what would pass and what would not. He presented 17 Amendments to the Constitution, reduced to 14 (I believe). The Senate returned 12. The States ratified 10 Amendments; later in 1992 they ratified one of the original amendments to the Bill of Rights (27th Amendment). The subject matter of the last of Madison’s 12 amendments was subsumed by the 14th Amendment.
The advantage of learning and reading, analyzing and discussing the Remonstrance, is learning the process. Compromise and agree. Words in the Constitution mean something. What is being fixed, or what are the amenders trying to remedy? If a word says this, it does not mean that. Amendments like their human authors and interpretation are not prefect. No amendment grants absolute rights, and it does not bestow rights on some and not others.
If anyone were looking for a way to educate Americans to broaden their minds, put together a Constitutional Amendment, and sell it as often as James Madison did. But it is not helpful to refer to German philosophy.
Looking further in Bloom’s book, I happened upon,
The reality of separateness has existed since Kant, the last philosopher who was a significant natural scientist, and Goethe, the last great literary figure who could believe that his contributions to science might be greater than his contributions to literature. And, it should be remembered, it was not that they were philosopher and poet who happened to dabble in science, but that their writings were mirrors of nature and that their science was guided and informed by meditation on being, freedom and beauty. They represented the last gasp of the old unity of the questions before natural science became the Switzerland of learning, safely neutral whose life bridged the last epoch where gentlemen…(page 351)
Rather than dwell on Germans, the book is about the American mind. Contemporary Americans to Kant and Goethe actually provide better examples. Their work in the sciences is more significant; their work in politics (statesmanship) is among the best: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. How important is Franklin as an example providing philosophical and psychological direction? Davy Crocket had one book which he brought to the Alamo: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin and Jefferson were new men while Kant and Goethe were living in a world trying to represent the fantasy inclinations so appealing to the Germans, all the while avoiding any statements about politics or social matters which did not support indigenous customs and habits. On the other hand, Franklin and Jefferson were superimposing and replacing customs and traditions with direct, complete thinking and acts, hoping to raise the dignity of all human beings.
It is surprising that Bloom spends little time on America and Americans. He says there is a problem here. But someone who has stored up gobs of European customs, manners, traditions and cliches likely will reject one elementary American custom: change the rules, make your own rules, act, adjust. Americans know they must read the future to live and to be happy. It is difficult to anticipate and to act accordingly. It is annoying. Individuals may be wrong and have to change. But it is an American phenomenon.
Change is what Americans know will happen. Americans cannot learn that philosophy and psychology from non-American sources. Bloom believed otherwise and drops loads of names, rendering his analyses archaic and useless. He is incapable to addressing the problem.