I think I understand why this book got such raving reviews at its publication in 1987. Allan Bloom certainly documents his acute observations on how our society moved from one that had absolute standards to a society where everything is relativized and the only thing absolute is the maxim that all views are equally valid (except the view that holds that not all views are equally valid).
Through the book, Bloom takes the reader on a journey through three main sections:
Part One: Students
Part Two: Nihilism, American Style
Part Three: The University
While some places are easier to understand than others, throughout the book I was constantly scratching my head either because of a criticism he gave that offered a lot to think about or simply because he used such high-minded language I had no idea what he said.
I was reminded of a book published 11 years earlier called Foundations of Christian Scholarship, where the contributors' aim was to write for upper division college students and graduate students with the caveat that "If Christians had done their work properly in the field of private Christian education, these essays would be geared for high school seniors, or at the most, college freshman." That was in 1976. I would venture to guess even upper division college students and/or graduate students would have a hard time with the book at this point (although I will say it was still easier than Bloom's).
All that to say, I don't know with any certainty who Bloom's target audience was, but if it really was his students (to whom the book was dedicated), I have a hard time believing that (1) his students would have the ambition to read the book (given the nature of how he describes the typical student), and (2) that his students would have the ability to understand what he's saying in the book (again, given the nature of how he describes the typical student). Even more so would the case be at this point, being over 20 years removed from its initial publication, and the American mind being that much more closed.
Even so, the book did raise some good points in the nature of educating and the problem of a relativized world. But...it really seemed to fail at offering a viable, arguable solution. It seemed like his conclusion was to return to the great books (and I agree that would be good); but there was no argument for why that should be the case - other than that's his personal preference and that's what kept us from being a relativizing society. But he offered no authoritative reason for why a relativizing society is objectively bad and the great books society would be objectively better. Sure, he demonstrated well the chaos, gloom, and uncertainty of a relativized society; but he had no real authority to stand on other than personal preference for why that chaos, gloom, and uncertainty are inherently wrong.
I think really it comes down to the fact that without God (that is, the Christian God), there is no absolute standard by which to judge everything else. We may want there to be a standard (as Bloom demonstrated he did), but without God we have no basis for such a standard. As Bloom tries to give an answer to the problems he raises, it's clear he really cannot. He attempts a justification for his answers, but it still remained lacking even at the end of his work. The reason, however, is because for all the justice he does to affirming there is a right way to educate and there is universal truth, he failed to come face to face with the One who is The Way and The Truth - Jesus Christ.
Yes, he said we need to return to the great books. And yes, many would agree that that would be a great way to educate. But in that assessment alone we find that there is a distinction between a good way to educate and a bad way. But with Bloom's worldview, even while arguing against relativity, he cannot himself offer a cogent reason for why a world of absolutes is better than a world of relativity - other than pragmatic concerns or just mere preference.
So when it comes down to it...A+ for showing the ridiculousness of a culture that starts on the spiral of relativity; but D- for offering a solution to the problem. The American mind truly has been closing; but it's not simply because we've gotten away from the great books. It's because we've rebelled against THE GREAT BOOK and the God who has spoken it. And only with a return to Him will our minds be able to be open once again.
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