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
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