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Analysis/Evaluation of "Books"
from Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind


In the Books section of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Dr. Bloom’s thesis can be found on p. 67: “But deprived of literary guidance, [students] no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.” This follows directly along with Bloom’s thesis statements in the Preface to the book, concerning the current state of the souls of American students and his desire, as a teacher, to push his students toward a goal of human completeness. Bloom bemoans the state of the soul, which is no longer challenged and uplifted by great literature, as it once was.

Bloom draws conclusions from three examples to support this thesis, all drawn from his experience as a professor. First, modern students no longer connect with books. Books mean nothing to them, and they do not understand why they should [Bloom, p 62-63]. He ends this example with a quote that could quite possibly be a secondary thesis: “The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.” [p 64] This loss of the past builds on Bloom’s statements in the previous section, The Clean Slate. Students don’t know where have come from, and so have no appreciation for where they are; books are the major means of telling us about the past. Also, a lack of knowledge about the great stories and myths of ages past causes other art to lose much of its meaning, as well. A knowledge of certain Biblical or mythical stories is assumed in many paintings, and the modern student, unfamiliar with these stories, cannot understand these paintings.

Second, students have lost the concept of heroes [p 66], taking instead the rather lesser concept of role models. Heroes are something more than human, giving the human something to strive for, an ideal that is better than himself. Role models are nothing more then an idea of what is currently popular. Rather than striving for heroism, or the desire to do great things for others, students are content to model themselves after successful men and women, who desire only great things for themselves.

Third, students have lost the concept of evil. This point is a corollary to the loss of the concept of heroes, for heroism is generally considered good. Not being exposed to the great books and the heroes and devils contained in them, today’s students have lost both good and evil. Both extremes are thrown out in favor of a far-less-interesting homogenized middle.

Bloom relies heavily on his own ethos to persuade us to believe him in this section. His examples are from personal experience, drawn from questions that he posed to his own students over the years and the responses he received from them. The other points he made are largely from his own observation, as well. Pathos plays very little part in his argument, apart from invoking a certain wistfulness for what we have lost, an effect that may itself be lost on the very people who most need to feel it and recover a love of books. Logos is present in any argument, as it is the argument itself, but Bloom does not seem to be relying on any specific logical argument here, as much as on his own observation.

I believe that Bloom’s point in this section is well taken, and needs to be carefully considered, especially by any who desire to be educators, at any level. The very first sentence of the section is: “I have begun to wonder whether the experience of the greatest texts from early childhood is not a prerequisite for a concern throughout life for them and for lesser but important literature.” It is not enough for the university to start students reading the great books, at least not in most cases. Most people’s tastes have been fairly well developed by the time they reach college, and if they have not been exposed to good books, reading them in college will be a chore instead of a joy. Children need to be brought up reading, first by their parents, the first educators, and then continuing on through grade and high school.

My own observation of the college students, as well as Americans in general, supports Bloom’s thoughts in this section. Very few people I know have read Shakespeare or Dante if it wasn’t required by a class. And teachers of literature, in general, have not done a great job in instilling the love of literature into their students. They know that the students don’t like it, and they give in to the dislike, rather than attempt to counter it.

Reading is seen as something that is strictly for pleasure, for when there is nothing else to do to entertain oneself, or, more accurately, to be entertained. C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating little book several years ago now called “An Experiment in Criticism,” in which he gives an outline for distinguishing good books from bad books by the way in which they can be read. A bad book may be enjoyed once, and primarily by a bad reader (characterized as someone who merely enjoys any book once—rereading a book is preposterous and time-wasting to this person), whereas a good book, when coupled with a good reader, will be returned to time and time again, and continue to give renewed pleasure, and indeed, new kinds of pleasure, each time. Becoming a good reader takes time and commitment. A very select few are naturally good readers, but the vast majority need to be trained in it, and from an early age.

I am not entirely certain how much of Bloom’s worldview can be determined from this chapter. He is primarily observing here, and bemoaning the loss of the love of reading in American students. But by the types of questions he asks his students, and by the response he was apparently hoping to get, based on their actual responses and his evaluation of them, as well as information gleaned from the rest of the book, I think that Bloom is an absolutist. Elsewhere in the book, he clearly believes that one of the main faults of modern thought is relativism, and I would find it very difficult to believe, based on the logical arguments that he uses, that he would be anywhere close to post-modernism. He is not making up truth, he is appealing to it. He is appealing to great writers of the past, wishing to recover heroism, and get back to the diversity of previous years. These previous writers were almost certainly all absolutist, and in recommending them as unequivocally as he does, I don’t think Bloom would disagree with their basic worldview.

I had already believed that the state of American education, especially as concerns literature, was in a sorry state, even before I read Bloom. His thinking and experience reinforced thoughts I already had. But I was convicted, reading this, that while I do enjoy reading and have an overall knowledge of all the works he mentioned, I have actually read very few of them, and most of those I read because of a class. I have been blessed with good teachers in most of my literature classes, which instilled a love for these works in me, but in reading Bloom, I have had my desire to read these books on my own, either again or for the first time, rekindled. I believe that education is a gift from God, and by doing one’s best, one glorifies God by exercising to their fullest the faculties that He gave to us. Learning will be a lifelong quest for me, because God has given us so much to find out, including many books to read and learn from, and I feel that He is pleased when we want to find out about everything He has done throughout the centuries.



This paper originated as an assignment for World Citizen, Missouri Baptist University, Spring, 2003.

©2003 by Jandy Stone