The Closing of the African-American Mind: Allan Bloom, Western Civ, & Black Studies
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Perusing YouTube for cable news clips that peaked my interest, I became fed up with the poor quality of discussion, and reached for a favorite old book of mine, Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom.
When this book came out in 1987, it was a pretty big deal. Bloom was an Ivy League academic who studied and taught the ‘history of social thought’ in a Western Civ ‘great books’ style curriculum. Yet Closing was not academic or didactic in any ordinary sense of the term.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The book had a very causal style, so that it was capable of reaching a mass audience, but was not ‘watered down’ in any sense to achieve crossover appeal. Bloom himself indicates that he just wrote it for a few “friends”. It became a publishing phenomenon.
The most convincing and enduring aspect of Closing is Bloom’s demonstration of the value of a Western Civ ‘great books’ core curriculum in American higher education. Bloom achieves this by using a lot of ideas and vocabulary from centuries old ‘great books’, and shows how they can be applied to understand the social conditions of his time. This is rock solid.
Bloom’s actual interpretation of Western Civilization’s history and American social reality is arbitrary, in the precise sense of the word. It is arbitrary because Bloom gives little or no evidence to substantiate any of the claims or assertions that he makes. The book itself does not provide any standard or means by which we could judge Bloom’s claims to be true or false. The reader can neither verify nor invalidate the seemingly endless outrageous assertions Bloom makes in Closing. This is a problem, to say the least.
Closing is best read as historical fiction, like The Man in the Iron Mask or Gone with the Wind, or something like that. The characters in the story are based on real historical figures and events. In the case of Closing, the characters are the authors of the ‘great books’. Bloom appears to have taken artistic license for literary and dramatic effect. In fact, Bloom doesn’t want the reader to take what he says at face value, but instead prefers that he or she read the original authors themselves, and make their own interpretations and conclusions. This is Bloom’s pedagogy. The authors of the ‘great books’ are the teachers.
By far, the weakest part of Closing is Bloom’s interpretation of the American color line, the chapter called “Race”. It the most arbitrary, the least philosophical, and ultimately the most trivial portion of the work. It suffers from the same problems of verification as most of the book, but in addition, this chapter makes no references to any of the ‘great books’ or how they can help us to under the ‘race concept’ more philosophically.
As stated, the strongest, most enduring, and most convincing aspect of Closing is the argument for the value of a ‘great books’ core curriculum in American higher education. How these old books can help us to understand our current social reality. But when it comes to the ‘race concept’, Bloom has no ‘great books’ to point to in order to better understand this aspect of American social reality.
Most of Closing is generally very clever in how it combines Bloom’s own detailed anecdotal observations, with a deep book learning, in order to interpret his world. A major theme of the work is how the changing moral vocabulary of a society reflects a change of social attitudes, opinions, and mores. Bloom will trace the history of the language of concepts all the way back to ancient Greece, in order to show the transformation of Western and/or American cultural norms. Yet no such book learning is evident on the chapter called “Race”.
Neither does he appear to have any significant personal contact with black students or black people generally.
Instead, what we find is effectively a six page rant about how racial desegregation is a failure, is doomed to fail, and that we should get rid of all the programs and institutions that are based on its failed assumptions. Moreover, black people are entirely to blame for this in Bloom’s opinion.
Needless to say, none of these claims are self-evident. Effectively, Bloom adopts the traditional Anglo-American color-caste opinions and assumptions, without any evidence, proper means of verifying or invalidating his claims, or even any semblance of philosophical, historical, or theoretical inquiry.
The Historical Origins of Western (or White) Sovereignty
In 1987, when Closing was first published, the book’s blindness with respect to the color line would not have appeared to most of its readers as constituting a fatal flaw. But in 2018, as the traditional Anglo-American supermajority turns into an emerging white American plurality, this fatal flaw is increasingly apparent. Particularly as this emerging white plurality turns to increasingly extreme means of self-preservation. A man as learned as Allan Bloom should know that when white sovereignty becomes challenged, things become a lot more complicated. A brief reading of 19th century American history makes this clear to any reasonably observant reader.
When Closing was published, white sovereignty appeared unchallenged, both nationally and globally. Western sovereignty can arguably be traced to the smashing of the traditional European caste systems starting with the American and French Revolutions, and the energies that were released in their aftermath.
Before the Revolution, France had an antiquated caste system, in which an hereditary aristocracy had vast privileges, rooted in ancient traditions. Yet these privileges did not reflect the Aristocracy’s current function. These nobles were no longer providing an effective leadership function that would warrant such privileges still existing. Moreover, because the vast majority of people were peasants of little or no standing under a brutal caste system, France and the European continent generally were underdeveloped. Millions of European brains were unused because of a brutal and arbitrary caste system, which was holding back the entire continent from making real civilizational progress.
1789 is the key date, the year of the founding of the United States Federal Government in North America, and the beginning of a radical transformation of European social life. This is the year that the West, and in particularly the United States, became the “beacon on a hill” for the world. This year would set the stage for the West more or less determining the global agenda and being the model of human progress and civilization for the next two hundred years.
In 1989, exactly two centuries later, the West was still on top and the gap appeared to be widening. The Berlin Wall fell, and it became clear that the West had won the Cold War, under American leadership. A great triumphalism engulfed American leadership. The West was victorious, and it appeared positioned to be setting the global agenda for the next two centuries. We were told this was the End of History, and it culminated in American Liberal Democracy. The rest of the world must either follow the political and economic development model of the Washington Consensus or else fall hopelessly behind into the ‘dustbin of history’. The Soviet Union took America’s advice, implementing US recommended political and economic shock therapy to their system, based on the Washington Consensus liberal democratic free market model. Complete disaster ensued. This led directly to the existing Putin regime.
China took a more nuanced approach.
The Rise of China
Unlike post Cold War American experts, who attributed the Western victory in the Cold War to superior Western political institutions and culture, Chinese intellectuals interpreted the Western victory as being primarily a product of a superior economic development model.
After the genocidal disaster of China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), Chinese political luminaries, such a Deng Xiaoping, began to realize that while Marxism was a good revolutionary ideology, it was an ineffective and undesirable governing philosophy. China needed to incorporate some Western economic ideas into its system, including: some kind of decentralized economy, with a Chinese style market system, in which Chinese goods are produced by Chinese industries and sold in the international market, increasingly owned by Chinese capitalists, who increasingly employ Chinese workers for wages, determined increasingly by international labor markets.
From a political standpoint, this required the abolition of the ideologies of class conflict and Communist world revolution from official state doctrine. But the Communist Party itself could and should remain politically sovereign in a one party capitalist Chinese state.
China rightly viewed the post Cold war Washington Consensus model as spurious, especially after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union. It spurned the radical liberalization of its government and economy recommended by Washington as being too politically destabilizing. Instead, it chose not to approach the problem of economic development by relying on any particular ideology, free market or otherwise. Instead, it took an experimental approach, slowly implementing “market zones”, in order to see what worked practically and what didn’t, given their existing social reality. This would be capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Entering the international market system also required China to open its doors more than it had previously to outside influences. This was allowed and even seen as healthy, within limits. The government maintains a highly regulated inward flow of information into the country.
Since the end of the Cold War, China has lifted over 400 million of its people out of a state of miserable starvation and poverty, and into an increasingly powerful new middle class. In contrast, the policies of American post Cold War leadership have largely deindustrialized our own country, decimated the middle class, their wages and wealth, while concentrating the gains in the hands of a miniscule minority. This has resulted in a state of inequality not seen in the US since before the Great Depression. In turn, the US has slowed down to an anemic growth rate, while the Chinese economy has grown to the point that it is set to outsize the American, if it hasn’t already, with continuing excellent growth rates.
The Chinese leaders realized that the brutal caste that had been so deeply embedded in their traditional society had been holding back the country, from what the Chinese leaders viewed as China’s “rightful and traditional place” in the world, as the center and model of global human progress and civilization. Hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants were stuck in their pitiful lot under a corrupt and ineffective Aristocratic leadership with undeserved ancestral privileges. There were hundreds of millions of Chinese brains being completely wasted and unused.
Now this has all changed.
In fact, this was one of the few good aspects of Mao Tse-Tung’s generally brutal and tyrannical reign: a dedication to destroying the ancestral caste system and to educating the large formerly peasant caste. This mass education of Chinese peasants during Mao’s regime laid the groundwork for the success of the later Deng Xiaoping led market revolution, by building up Chinese human capital among the numerous peasants.
China would have been much better off if Chairman Mao had stepped down after a couple of terms as head of the Communist Party after the Revolution, like George Washington did here in America after its Founding. Obviously, President Washington showed more restraint and self-discipline in this respect than his Chinese counterpart, to the good fortune of the future of his country.
The Narrowing of the American Mind: Baby Boomer as Post Cold War Leader
One of the main themes of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is that the American higher educational system is broken, and that it is miseducating the youth, especially at the elite Universities, whose influence is felt over the entire country, in the long term. That this very higher educational system is contributing to the decline of American virtue, to our moral and intellectual corruption.
But who exactly are these students about whom Bloom is talking?
They are who we call the ‘Baby Boomers’. That is, those children born during the post World War II economic boom, when the American soldiers returned from Europe and the Pacific. We might define this generation as those Americans born in the twenty year period from 1944 to 1963. These are the students that Bloom is talking about in Closing. If we look at the facts, we can see that Bloom was right in this respect:
The Baby Boomer generation was in some way miseducated by the older generations. As a result, their virtue is far inferior to that of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
The best evidence of this is how their leadership misinterpreted and squandered the American Cold War victory, and have consequently brought American and more generally Western sovereignty to a rapid end. This is not a partisan issue.
This is the negligent work of the bipartisan Washington Consensus, in addition to more radical American decision and policy makers from both sides of the aisle.
What all these leaders have in common is that they are from the Baby Boomer generation. The best historical example of the how the Boomer virtue has declined from that of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, is to compare the 1945 US conquest and occupation of Japan, with the 2005 US conquest and occupation of Iraq.
The conquest and occupation of Japan was done with consummate skill and expediency. Great attention and respect was paid to Japanese culture, traditions, and institutions. The Emperor was not put on trial, but remained in place to help maintain political stability and continuity during a disorienting time. Military industries were turned into factories for cars and other mass consumer products. The new constitution was carefully and artfully crafted and then effectively implemented. It was more or less a complete success.
In contrast, the conquest and occupation of Iraq was a complete and reckless disaster. The policy and decision makers seemed to go in wholly ignorant of the social reality and political dynamics of the region. They appeared unable to foresee even the most obvious consequences of their actions. Needless to say, the execution of Saddam Hussein and the disbanding of the ruling Baath Party and Iraqi Army was a disaster, leading to a bloody civil war. It is directly responsible for morphing Al Qaeda into ISIL, who made Osama Bin Laden look like a choir boy. Overall, it destabilized the entire region, a state that very much exists to this day.
On the economic front, the Boomers policies have been no less disastrous. What we have are policies that have the logical consequence of rapidly increasing the deindustrialization of the US, traditionally its strongest asset. In its place is put a “service oriented” economy, where formerly good factory jobs are replaced with Walmart and McDonalds type jobs. Most importantly, the economy is redesigned so that most of the gains from technological advancement and the increased productivity that results from this technology, are reserved for a limited few, while the wages of the middle class continue to decline.
On the educational front, the Boomer leadership has decimated the public schools, both through lack of funding, as well as a reckless approach to charter schools. Charter school policy has its place, but if recklessly implemented can destabilize and bankrupt a public school system, forcing the closing of traditional city public schools that have existed for many decades. The Philadelphia Public School system is a good example of this.
In contrast, the Boomer’s parents and grandparents made sure the Boomers’ own public schools growing up were properly funded and functioned properly. Moreover, the Boomers’ parents and grandparents funded Universities in a way that would seem unimaginable today. When the Boomers went to college, school was basically free, compared to today. Student Loan Debt was an unknown concept. Yet the Boomers refuse to properly provide for the mass education of their children’s and grandchildren’s generations.
One of the things that is interesting about the Boomers is that they have been reared from cradle to grave on the largesse of the US Welfare State and the formerly supreme US economy, yet they do not appear to want their children and grandchildren to enjoy these same benefits. Undoubtedly, part of the reason is that they do not recognize themselves in the future generations. The Baby Boomer generation is primarily ‘white’, while their children and especially their grandchildren’s generation is increasingly tan and brown.
Here we run into the problem of the American color line, and how it affects American economic development, especially the development of human capital in children and young people. White Boomers have proven extremely hesitant to fund any programs that smack of benefiting people of color, even if white children’s education is also hurt in the process.
A Few Words on the American Color-Caste System
Beginning in 1789, free people of color in Saint-Domingue were inspired by the French Revolution’s attack on the traditional European caste system. These persons sought to apply the French Revolution’s principles to the color-caste system that had developed in the Americas, following the European conquest and the creation of the institution of Black chattel slavery. They sought the expansion of their rights from those that had existed under the traditional color-caste system.
Initially, the black slave population did not become involved in the conflict. However, on the night of August 22 1791, a Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, marked the start of a major slave rebellion in the north of the island of Haiti. The revolution ended in 1804, with the former colony's independence. This revolution involved blacks, mulattoes, French, Spanish, and British participants, with an ex-slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture, emerging as the Haiti's most charismatic hero. Needless to say, these events scared the bejesus out of Anglo-American slaveholders, who quickly abolished the importation of slaves from the Caribbean, partly for fear of the spread of slave rebellion.
All-in-all, the revolutions of 1789, which did so much to eliminate the traditional caste system in Europe and to contribute to the rise of Western sovereignty globally for two centuries, left the American color-caste system firmly intact. Within a century, however, this ancestral color-caste system, which pre-dated the American Founding and took the historical form of the Slave Regime, became an obstacle to Anglo-American progress and civilization. Consequently, a Second American Revolution occurred, taking the form of a Civil War, which used the abolition of slavery as a weapon to destroy the Rebel Slave States.
This Second American Revolution had more in common with the French Revolution than with its Anglo-American predecessor. In the end, an Anglo-American compromise was reached and a reformed color-caste system was instituted after Reconstruction, which came to be known as Jim Crow. While certainly better than slavery, this reformed color-caste system was still quite brutal and tyrannical. This color-caste system is why the American South remained so backward for so long. Well into the 1930s, American Southern sharecroppers, black and white, were still picking cotton with the same methods and technology that the slaves had used during the ante-bellum period. It was only with the capital investment provided by the New Deal agricultural programs, that farming techniques and productivity made significant advances in the Old South.
Ultimately, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of legislation during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration in 1964 and 1965, that the final remnants of the de jure color caste system fell, a full century after abolition, and nearly two centuries after the American Founding. This is where Allan Bloom starts his discussion of “race”, with the mass influx of black students into the elite white Universities, after the ending of the de jure color-caste system.
Allan Bloom’s Problem with Color: The Need for Reform in Western Civ and Black Studies
Allan Bloom is very hostile about the prospect black students entering the University in large numbers:
“There is now a large black presence in American Universities.” He makes this sound very ominous, like a specter of doom is overhead. Exactly why he is hostile towards this development is not entirely clear.
Bloom seems to be annoyed by the “black power” movement, but most black students were never involved in this movement, so it’s not clear that this explains his hostility to the larger black student population. He seems to be annoyed by the role black students took in campus protests and in occupying administrative buildings, but most of the student radicals and protestors of the 1960s and 1970s were white, so it’s not clear what role black student campus politics plays in his hostility. Honestly, some of the things that Bloom writes simply don’t make sense or are factually inaccurate:
“White and black students do not in general become real friends with one another.” That’s not true. I’ve seen it happen myself all the time.
“It is peculiar… that blacks seem to be the only group that has picked up ‘ethnicity’– the discovery or creation of the sixties…” This is not true obviously.
“But [the blacks] have, by and large, proved indigestible.” This is also not true. Blacks are very well assimilated into the elite Universities. One just became POTUS.
“[T]he movement of the blacks…to separate itself…goes counter… to that of the rest of society.” This is obviously not true.
Bloom talks about the fact that there was some discomfort when the Universities were racially integrated. He talks about how some black students sometimes sit together in the cafeteria or room together. It doesn’t really occur to him that white students do the same thing. Or better, it doesn’t really occur to him that the country has existed for four hundred years under a brutal color-caste system, and that breaking down this caste system isn’t easy. That there are necessarily vestigial aspects that remain of such a color-caste system, even after the laws that sustained it are abolished.
This is what any thinking man would expect. What makes it even stranger out of Bloom’s mouth is that he’s such a learned man, who has read every ‘great book’, from Homer to Jacques Derrida. But he knows nothing about the color line or its history. There’s no evidence in Closing that he’s ever even read anything about it. This next part is especially absurd:
“I do not believe this somber situation is the fault of the white students… It would require a great deal of proof to persuade me that they remain subtly racist.”
The “somber situation” of which Bloom speaks is the alleged failure of racial integration in Bloom’s eyes. Bloom effectively blames black people for all the failures of racial integration and desegregation, and all the negatives consequences of four centuries of the color-caste system. This is like blaming German Jews for the failure of the Weimar Republic. What’s even more absurd is that he would “require a great deal of proof to persuade” him that blacks were not wholly responsible for the difficulties in breaking down the four century American color-caste system.
Bloom’s blindness on matters of color is almost unbelievable. Obviously, blacks play an important role in breaking down the color-caste, and their mistakes can make this process more difficult. But ultimately, the Anglo-American created the color-caste, and blacks have traditionally been the brutal victims of this system. Consequently, to claim that all the failures and difficulties involved in trying to break down this color-caste system are the fault of blacks, and that whites have no role in creating these difficulties, is not a reasonable claim. It just makes it worse that Bloom provides no evidence for his claim. The arch-absurdity is that Bloom “require(s) a great deal of proof to persuade” him that blacks are not wholly responsible for the negative consequences of the four century American color-caste system.
Allan Bloom was noted for not only being a great teacher but being a professor who was unusually interested in the personal lives of his students. He never married or had children, so he had a lot of spare time to spend with his students. Yet in the chapter on “Race”, it becomes clear that Bloom doesn’t seem to know any black students. To be clear, this is a college professor who spends his free time delving into the personal gossip of his students, their romantic lives, family lives, friendships, etc. He uses a lot of energy getting to know the students. Yet he makes zero effort to get to know the black students.
“White students feel uncomfortable about this and don’t like to talk about it… There is nothing more white students can do to make great changes in their relations to black students…” What becomes clear is that everything that Bloom knows about black and white student relations comes from the mouths of white students. In the end, Bloom is not very interested in black people’s opinions about anything, even the color line itself. Consequently, the entire book has no reference to a single black American author, including his chapter on “Race”.
This is notable.
How can an Ivy League professor as learned as Allan Bloom write a nearly four hundred page book about his interpretation of American social reality, without talking to one black person or referencing one book authored by a black person? And Allan Bloom wonders why Black Studies departments exist.
Part of the reason that Black Studies developed is that some teachers of Western Civ, like Allan Bloom, were instinctively hostile to the mass matriculation of black students. They, like Bloom, didn’t think black people’s opinions, history, or books were worth paying attention to. That the color line was not a proper subject of philosophical or historical inquiry in Western Civ. Bloom and teachers like him are in fact part of the problem. As is his book, Closing of the American Mind, and its dubious and arbitrary interpretation of American social reality.
Bloom’s rants on Black Studies are in fact simply part of his larger attack on the influx of black students into the University and American racial desegregation, generally. Bloom is not so much a proponent of racial segregation as he is indifferent to the American color-caste system, whether it is broken down or not. Consequently, the fact that breaking down the color caste system causes him some personal discomfort, causes him to be hostile to efforts to dismantle it, for arbitrary reasons.
In fact, Bloom doesn’t seem to regard the breaking down of historical caste systems generally as a form of progress. It’s just one ruling ideology or faction that replaces the former ruling ideology or faction. I’m not certain he believes that progress even exists.
Black Studies does need reform. But one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Before there were “Black Studies departments” at Ivy League Universities, Black Studies arose during Jim Crow, under the guidance of men like W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, at historically and predominantly black institutions of learning. Sometimes these men were trained at elite white Universities in the US, or even at the elite German Universities, which were the most respected and cutting edge during that time. They would use the most advanced social scientific methods of the day to study black social reality, including other populations of former African slaves, throughout the Americas, as well as blacks on the African continent. This was necessary, because at the time, the study of black social reality was at best ignored by white intellectuals, and at worst used by white intellectuals as a weapon to supply arguments for the defense of the color-caste system.
This is exactly how Bloom treats black social reality in his book, so that ironically, Closing embodies the reason for the need for the existence of Black Studies, even as it tries to argue against it.
Undoubtedly, Black Studies is a vestige of the Jim Crow system. But that doesn’t mean it should be abolished, any more than one needs to abolish the black Church or the HBCUs themselves, which are also Jim Crow vestiges. Not every ancestral and vestigial institution needs to be abolished, just to satisfy the ideological purity of the Revolution. Some of these vestigial institutions have an important function, which is not so easily replaced.
Black Studies should be reformed by including major elements of Western Civ and the ‘great books’ program into its curriculum. Black Americans are a part of Anglo-American civilization, as well as Western Civilization, and black American social reality should be studied in that context. Moreover, elements of Black Studies should be incorporated into Western Civ and ‘great books’ programs. How can one adequately interpret American social reality in a scholarly fashion without having read Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, or W. E. B. Du Bois?
One close reading of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind will prove that one can’t. That one can’t even understand the true nature of Western Civilization and its rise without studying such authors.