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The Closing of the American Mind

James Randi wrote The Faith Healers (1987) criticizing religious conmen, many of whom used magicians' tricks like cold reading. They have no supernatural healing powers, no special connection to God, and often lie about other stuff too. They take advantage of gullible and desperate people and get a lot of money from them. And the police and government were broadly unwilling to do much about it, plus made a lot of their scam income tax free for being religious. This tangential passage stood out to me:

These observations are echoed by Dr. Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago in one of the most talked-about books of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind. Professor Bloom says:

The ideology of passion has come to dominate America’s young. They generally believe that feelings are deeper than reason and that the two are in opposition—not that they develop one another, which was the old idea. They think that reason can’t help you decide whether to believe in God or not, whether to like democracy or monarchy.

Even in the rhetoric of conservatism there is the notion that reason can’t provide values. So there is a turn to religion. I’m not suggesting religion is unnecessary, but there is a widespread belief that religion can decide values and reason can’t. On the left, many young people turn to rock music. They say it’s deeper than words—that they don’t have to explain what role it plays in their lives. They just say: “That’s my taste. That’s the way I feel about it.”

I would add to that my opinion that not only is there “the notion that reason can’t provide values,” but there is a feeling that religion provides firm, inarguable values that are predigested, infallible, eminently acceptable (within the believer’s immediate social milieu), and satisfying. In addition, no intellectual effort is required to adopt them, and the pressure for adopting them is very strong. The pressure may be the strongest influence in the lives of some people. Dr. Bloom goes on to comment

There used to be an intellectual class in America.... These people kept the world of ideas alive. But today the distinction between intellectuals and nonintellectuals doesn’t make any difference; celebrity is the only standard.... Everybody has become a talker of cheap philosophy that anybody can pick up.

The celebrity status that the TV evangelists have attained merely by purchasing air time and putting on a good show gives them the charisma that attracts the faithful moths to their deadly flames.

I'm curious about whether things were ever actually better in deep ways like the existence of a genuine intellectual class, and curious if or how our culture changed. I got a copy of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students and started reading. I'll see if he's just ranting about the next generation being different or has some good reasoning and non-anecdotal evidence. The subtitle focusing on colleges is unfortunately not the focus I was hoping for from Randi's passage, and I've already read books criticizing our schools, but I still think it's a decent lead. Does anyone know about this book or others, or have detailed knowledge of relevant history from the 1900s? Please comment below if you can add something.

I think one of the big recent changes has been social media and the mainstreaming of the internet. People didn't get dumber as far as I know, but the dumber people (including a lot of the same people who are vulnerable to faith healers) got online more and started talking a lot, especially using smartphones.

First thoughts on The Closing of the American Mind:

It was not necessarily the best of times in America when Catholics and Protestants were suspicious of and hated one another; but at least they were taking their beliefs seriously, and the more or less satisfactory accommodations they worked out were not simply the result of apathy about the state of their souls.

I agree with this. The author likes religion more than me, but overall I agree with some of what he's saying. But he's kind of a snob who wants people to read real literature (as he sees it) like Dickens and the Bible, though.

BOOKS

I have begun to wonder whether the experience of the greatest texts from early childhood is not a prerequisite for a concern throughout life for them and for lesser but important literature. The soul’s longing, its intolerable irritation under the constraints of the conditional and limited, may very well require encouragement at the outset. At all events, whatever the cause, our students have lost the practice of and the taste for reading. They have not learned how to read, nor do they have the expectation of delight or improvement from reading. They are “authentic,” as against the immediately preceding university generations, in having few cultural pretensions and in refusing hypocritical ritual bows to high culture.

When I first noticed the decline in reading during the late sixties, I began asking my large introductory classes, and any other group of younger students to which I spoke, what books really count for them. Most are silent, puzzled by the question. The notion of books as companions is foreign to them. Justice Black with his tattered copy of the Constitution in his pocket at all times is not an example that would mean much to them. There is no printed word to which they look for counsel, inspiration or joy. Sometimes one student will say “the Bible.” (He learned it at home, and his Biblical studies are not usually continued at the university.) There is always a girl who mentions Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a book, although hardly literature, which, with its sub-Nietzschean assertiveness, excites somewhat eccentric youngsters to a new way of life.

I think the reading issue is important and has gotten considerably worse. A lot of people today who are interested in ideas heavily favor YouTube and podcasts over books and articles.

I'm going to keep reading despite the hostility to Rand. He writes like a professor (which he is) and that's amplified by it being from 35 years ago, so many people would have a hard time reading it, but I can deal with it fine.

It's a mixed book with good and bad stuff. I want to keep reading until I stop seeing new good parts (new = not repeating something I already read).


Elliot Temple on March 10, 2021

Messages (2)

I got Bloom's book sometime in the '90s because of a recommendation either from someone in college or a libertarian - don't remember which. It's probably still on a bookshelf somewhere in my house.

I never did more than skim a few sections of it though. I didn't notice or didn't remember that he was hostile to Rand. I remember learning the idea that the medium shapes the message around the time I got that book. But I don't know if I learned it from the book, or if I learned it from the person who recommended the book.


Andy Dufresne at 7:19 PM on March 10, 2021 | #1 | reply | quote

> I think the reading issue is important and has gotten considerably worse.

Here are some charts showing the declining amount of time that Americans spend reading, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s *American Time Use Survey*: https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/public-life/time-spent-reading#32150


Anonymous at 8:22 PM on March 13, 2021 | #2 | reply | quote

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