The Closing of American Mind: A Review & Summary

Every once in a while you read an old book that seems like it was written yesterday.

The criticisms, observations, and analyses are so easily applied to a contemporary situation that they can be taken as further evidence that history does in fact rhyme.

This is how I felt when reading The Closing of the American Mind.

If you’ve ever listened to any contemporary critiques and debates about higher education and cancel culture on college campuses, you’ve probably heard some pundit paraphrase, often without citation, something in this book. It’s that influential in the intellectual atmosphere of these debates.

Published in 1987, the book is a critique of America’s higher education system, by one of its most esteemed philosophers, Allan Bloom, who uses a combination of reminiscences, philosophical arguments, and the occasional cutting phrase to make his points. 

He says in its pursuit of openness at all costs it is has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of its students.

A Critique of America’s Higher Education System

“In a nation founded on reason, the university was the temple of the regime, dedicated to the purest use of reason and evoking the kind of reverence appropriate to an association of free and equal human beings.”

Allan’s major criticism is that the American Universities (especially the humanities and social sciences which were once a haven for free inquiry and a model for critical thinking), are failing in their mission because they have become entangled with society’s goals and deeply politicized, and are thus subject to the academy’s greatest threat, and democracy’s nastiest habits: the tyranny of the majority and its distaste for the impractical intellectual life.

“The deepest intellectual weakness of democracy is its lack of taste or gift for the theoretical life.” 

To paraphrase, in society, the most rational ideas don’t always win. Public opinion, sophistry, and fads come into play. The academy was supposed to be the place where they were more likely to win, where those things didn’t influence the search for truth. But now that’s changing.

Once the Academy, and the professors, are forced to play by the rules of public opinion, which is not always the most intelligent or longlasting of opinion, the University and the theoretical life it protects and which can exist almost nowhere else in a democracy, decomposes, much like it did in Germany during the early 20th century.

Dissenters are silenced, students are afraid to engage in healthy debate, and solid, reasonable ideas lose out to shiny ephemeral ones that sound nice but are actually built on shaky dangerous foundations.

A Love Letter to the Great Books of the Western Canon

The book is also partly a love letter to and an argument for liberal arts education, the humanities, and the Great Books approach, where students simply read the classics as they were meant to be read.

“The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found cast away treasures…They are like a refugee camp where all the geniuses driven out of their jobs and countries by unfriendly regimes are idling.”

He finds this style of education to be the best way to reveal to students the important questions to ask about life and how to approach them. 

He also acknowledges and accepts the objections to this approach, but still finds it to be the best option for providing a core, well-rounded education, calling intro courses and composite courses (of multiple disciplines) ineffective by comparison for one simple reason.

“I am perfectly well aware of, and actually agree with, the objections to the Great Books cult. It is amateurish; it encourages an autodidact’s self-assurance without competence; one cannot read all of the Great Books carefully; if one only reads Great Books, one can never know what a great, as opposed to an ordinary, book is; there is no way of determining who is to decide what a Great Book or what the canon is; books are made the ends and not the means; the whole movement has a certain coarse evangelistic tone that is the opposite of good taste; it engenders a spurious intimacy with greatness; and so forth. But one thing is certain: wherever the Great Books make up a central part of the curriculum, the students are excited and satisfied, feel they are doing something that is independent and fulfilling, getting something from the university they cannot get elsewhere. “ 

College students are excited about the Great Books, and excitement among students is a hard thing to find.

I agree with him there. Today I find myself drawn to the classics, and even if I don’t understand them entirely, I leave feeling that the reading was a satisfying and intellectually enriching experience.

It’s a shame that most Great Book programs for adults have a strange religious undertone to them. If you’re Christian and enjoy studying the canonical works through a Christian lens, that’s great, and I’m happy for you.

But what of all the people who want to take a secular approach to Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Joyce, and Austen? Outside of the few remaining colleges that still have great book programs, that’s hard to find. 

A Warning Against Value Relativism & Nihilism

Lastly, and perhaps above all else, the book is a critique of value relativism and its unthinking openness to all ideas, cultures, and traditions.

His view is that by accepting even the most abhorrent anti-liberal views simply because we cannot judge the other culture that has produced them, is in effect a closing of the American Mind. It’s making us just accept everything.

“Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”

Relativism can go too far. If we discover a new planet and find a society where all people over 6 feet are immediately fed to an elephantine monster, we cannot judge it because it’s not our place. That seems wrong to me. 

It’s a tricky balance to strike, judging and openness. Sometimes, I think he’s right in that we go too far, and should start using critical reasoning to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong, something higher education should strive to teach us how to do. 

This of course leads back into his critique of the university. Openness leads to it not having an aim for students, a definition of what it means to be educated, and that this fails our students:

“The end result is that there can be no more truth or goodness and no need or even ability to make tough choices. Where the purpose of higher education once was to enable the student to find truth, the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only ‘lifestyle.”

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the book. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the culture wars going on in today’s college campuses, higher education in general, or the intellectual history of many of the popular ideas like Nihilism present in American culture today.

Grab it here: The Closing of the American Mind 


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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