Readers of a certain age will remember the critical surprise—a mingling of delight and disgust—when, in 1987, a pair of books on our country and our culture, written by obscure university professors, sold like Tom Clancy. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy became, respectively, first and second on the New York Times bestseller chart, and they stayed in the top 10 for half a year.
The “closing” Bloom described was essentially a dumbing: not Mozart but Andrew Lloyd Webber, not Jane Austen but Stephen King, not Plato but Jacques Derrida. Or worse. Underlying all these fallings-off, for the philosophically trained Bloom, was the ascendency of Friedrich Nietzsche and his deconstructionist followers, heirs of a radical skepticism inaugurated in the late 17th century by John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. The skeptics’ purpose was to disqualify the certitudes of Plato, the Hebrew prophets, and the Christian theologians, who held that divinity—its attributes and laws—not only existed but could be known.
Philosophers call this view “foundationalism,” as in Thomas Jefferson’s references, more deistic than Jewish or Christian, in the Declaration to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and to people being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Jefferson was a dues-paying member of the Enlightenment, but as a moralizing deist he had drawn a limit to skepticism—as, indeed, had John Locke, who, though nodding to revelation, defended a moralizing Christianity on grounds almost entirely rationalistic.
Enlightenment thought was complicated, but, beginning in the late 18th century, philosophy’s Romantic, antifoundational tendency was toward simplification. God was either nonexistent or inconceivable; the good, our notion of proper conduct, was whatever individuals or particular groups said it was. People should, insisted the Romantics, be free to do as they like, or even to try to persuade others to follow their example. But farewell to all notions of absolute, divine sponsorship, vouchsafed either through the revelations of sacred scripture or through irrefragable argument.
Allan Bloom was appalled by the upshot. Like his Victorian precursor Matthew Arnold, he deplored the “anarchy” of “doing as one likes”—each class devoted to its own politics, entertainment, forms of worship—as an affront to “culture,” defined by Arnold not just as “the best which has been thought and said” but (to certify its being best) in tune with “reason and the will of God.” A student of Plato and a nonbelieving Jew, Bloom emphasized the rational, not the divine, foundation for culture. He didn’t expect his students at Cornell or the University of Chicago to suppose that they could fully embrace the truth, but he did encourage them to think that striving for full embrace was worthwhile—was, indeed, the right way for them to use their minds.
Now, under the title The State of the American Mind, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow have collected 16 essays that, with a little fudging, might have been called The Closing: A Generation On. Most of the contributors would agree with Bloom’s paradox: that Americans have closed off avenues for their minds—no striving after eternal truths for them—because of anti-foundational philosophers’ insistence that, absent eternal truths, it’s better to keep an “open mind” on all subjects, especially moral and artistic ones.
Not sure about the rightness of same-sex marriage, abortion, or affirmative action? The common liberal counsel is to declare such questions undecidable and keep an open mind, since opinions about ethics and aesthetics are forever changing. The majority, voting with their attention spans, will give us their pro tem judgment. But the resulting quarrelsomeness—these likings against those, all bound to shift in a few decades or years—has turned a public square in which partisans, agreeing to disagree, used to debate each other into a new Vanity Fair: all those booths filled with cliques facing not outward but inward.