Opening The Mind for a Greater Understanding

The Closing of the American Mind“What each generation is can be best discovered in its relation to the permanent concerns of mankind. This in turn can best be discovered in each generation’s tastes, amusements, and especially angers.” –  Allan Bloom (1930-1992)

When the present times are in a state of chaos and upheaval, as they currently are with the student protests on college campuses, and seem to be lacking in reason and understanding it never fails to consult the past in search for clues that may shed some light on how we got here in the first place.

Allan Bloom’s book, subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students”, offers some clues that are indeed very enlightening.

The Closing of the American Mind is that rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book, born of a long and patient meditation on questions that may be said to determine who we are, both as individuals and as a society”, wrote Roger Kimball in a 1987 article about Bloom’s book for the New York Times.

Published in 1987 after thirty years of teaching politics and philosophy at Chicago, Cornell and Yale, Bloom wrote in the introduction:

“From the teacher’s standpoint…I have for more than thirty years, with the most intense interest, watched and listened to students. What they bring to their higher education, in passions, curiosities, longings, and especially previous experience, has changed…”

And for Bloom, whose book quickly and surprisingly became a bestseller and was regarded as “essential reading for anyone concerned with the state of liberal education in this society” (Roger Kimball, New York Times, 1987), the change he was witnessing and experiencing was not a change that was healthy and good for the soul of America’s young citizens.

Bloom felt that the contemporary universities had substituted the Great Books of civilization in which could be found timeless truths about life and humankind with the eroding force of relativism, the result of which is conforming, closed and incurious minds. As Anthony DePalma wrote in a New York Times article in 1992:

“The book – a long, sometimes dense account of two decades in higher education, as seen through his own experience teaching at Chicago, Cornell and Yale – attributed many university problems to administrators’ having acquiesced to student demands in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He criticized the passing of such traditional university ideas as the reliance on the so-called great books of Western culture, and lamented that even students at the nation’s most elite universities seemed to have “lost the practice of and the taste for reading.” ‘Essential Reading’.”

“Mr. Bloom argued that universities’ increasing reliance on “relevance,” and their turning away from what he saw as constant or universal truths had the unintended effect of actually closing the American mind.”

Below are a few enlightening quotes from the book to ponder:

  • “Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being. This intention is more or less explicit, more or less a result of reflection; but even the neutral subjects, like reading and writing and arithmetic, take their place in a vision of the educated person. In some nations the goal was the pious person, in others the warlike, in others the industrious. Always important is the political regime, which needs citizens who are in accord with its fundamental principle.”
  • “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.”
  • “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.”
  • “In short, there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is. The question has disappeared, for to pose it would be a threat to the peace. There is no organization of the sciences, no tree of knowledge. Out of chaos emerges dispiritedness, because it is impossible to make a reasonable choice. Better to give up on liberal education and get on with a specialty in which there is at least a prescribed curriculum and a prospective career. On the way the student can pick up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured. The student gets no intimation that great mysteries might be revealed to him, that new and higher motives of action might be discovered within him that a different and more human way of life can be harmoniously constructed by what he is going to learn.”
  • “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”
  • “Education is the movement from darkness to light.”

Also for consideration a few relevant quotes about history, human nature and the past:

  • “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity so that we can better face the future.” — Robert Penn Warren, American Novelist (1905-1989)
  • “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” — Machiavelli, Italian Renaissance Historian, Philosopher, Politician (1469-1527)
  • “Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.” — Abraham Lincoln
  • “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” — Winston Churchill

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