Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Report, Part Two

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken any way you please, is bad,
And strands them in forsaken guts and creeks
No decent soul would think of visiting.
You cannot stop the tide; but now and then,
You may arrest some rash adventurer
Who--h'm--will hardly thank you for your pains.

Vibart's Moralities, Rudyard Kipling


Further observations on the third strand: The author as curmudgeon

I had a few nit-picky observations on the third strand in the book, the generalised grumping about how everything has gone to pieces, but have decided to leave them behind and talk instead about the appearances of science in Bloom's book.


First they came for the philosophers...

Near the end of the book Bloom takes a tour of various disciplines, examining how they have fared in the twenty-odd years of the collapse of the idea of the university and to what extent they brought the calamity upon themselves. The hard sciences are the only ones that come out looking reasonable. They have not participated in the philosophical and political hijinks that have precipitated the crisis; their standards are maintained; their enrolments are solid; they are thought to be necessary: “Modern regimes were conceived by reason and depend on the reasonableness of their members. And those regimes required the reason of natural science in every aspect of their activity, and the requirements of scientific advance largely determine their policy.” Furthermore, the hard scientists are still essentially in touch with the 'philosophic use of reason' in a way that the rest of academia has largely abandoned. “The demonstrations of science come from within man, and they are the same for all men. When I think the Pythagorean theorem, I know what is in me at that moment is precisely the same as what is within anyone else who is thinking that theorem. Every other supposedly common experience is at best ambiguous.” From the vantage point of now, it looks like a perfectly splendid time to be a scientist. I can see why Bloom is at times a bit irritable with them.

Bloom sees the main flaw of the hard scientists within the university as rejection of community: collectively they are happy to hover Laputa-like over the chaos below; individually they are happy to pursue interests so narrow as to be 'immoral nonsense' to practical men, and do not lift their eyes to see the necessity of a philosophy to unify what they do. Both these criticisms are more or less true. On page 351 he says: 'inwardly they believe that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge'. So we do. So the desire to ignore all the tomfoolery going on around us is strong. And most of us are very narrowly focussed. We are aristocratic in Bloom's sense in that we believe details are important, and that progress is not often made through generalisations. When we venture into the wider world even the greatest of us are apt to write things that are shallow and silly.

Yet in defence: science is the radical democratic form of knowledge. There is room for all on the floating island. Join us. And, while most of us might not lift our eyes to make sense of what we do within a coherent philosophical view of the world, Bloom does not offer any philosophy worthy of our attention. Neither does he pay any attention to the great philosophy that was in fact created by a working scientist: pragmatism is not mentioned until p.378, only a few pages before the conclusion, and Peirce not at all.

And the last 29 years have not been kind to us. The natural sciences are no longer a 'Gibraltar' standing aloof from the relativism of the wider institution. The graduates of '82 are the movers and shakers now, the people at the top of their careers, and we live in the world they have made. The graduates of '82 were brought up under the shadow of nuclear war, with Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring”, and Three Mile Island, and they do not much like us. Seen only as a commodity for maintenance of a technological society, we are in oversupply in the developed world. It is easier to outsource our function to other lands. On this utilitarian basis science has been hollowed out across Australia: a scary number of Australian 'universities' have ceased to offer an internationally recognisable physics or chemistry major. In the country Bloom was writing about, science no longer commands the respect it once did. It is not exciting. There is no money in it. There are the best science departments in the world, and the native-born, still filled with Tocqueville's democratic spirit after all these years, stay away from them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Report, Part One

Through the trick of taking a lazy holiday I have made it to the end of Allan Bloom's “The Closing of the American Mind”, which my father sent me. I found it difficult going. It is a book that reads as if it was translated from the French – it has the opacity, the peculiar internal structure, and the sort of elliptical, rhetorical, arguments that abound in the few books translated from the French on philosophical matters that I have read and forgotten the titles of.

I am sure Bloom structured the book the way he did for some purpose. But to me the structure did not help. To my reading there are approximately three separate strands in the book, which I will go through in order of importance.

The first strand is the description, not of how higher education has failed democracy, but rather how democracy has failed higher education: how the democratic habits of mind described by de Tocqueville as corrosive to the idea of a university have proved, in fact, to be corrosive of the classical idea of a university. The hyperindividualism, the utilitarian view of knowledge as a means to profit, the disregard for the past: these are just American traits, not unique to American university students of the late 20th century. They are all traits observed and explained by de Tocqueville in the 1830s as consequences of democracy and of the peculiarities of the American circumstance.

Bloom asserts that a university ought to act as a counterbalance to the particular tendencies of thought encouraged by a democratic society. This is a perfectly reasonable assertion, and the problem then becomes the internal motivation for the members of universities to keep swimming against the current, so to speak. “To sum up, there is one simple rule for the university's activity: it need not concern itself with providing its students with experiences that are available in democratic society. They will have them in any event. … The universities never performed this function very well. Now they have practically ceased trying.” (p.256)

Why did universities perform this function badly? Why have they ceased trying? The explanation suggested by Bloom for them ceasing to try is the adoption of bad German philosophy, and an extensive discussion of the intellectual genealogy of this philosophy forms the second strand of the book. I found this part difficult to follow as an argument, though it is clear as a history of thought. Bloom traces the modern university to the Enlightenment, as an effort to bring philosophy to bear in the shaping of society, instead of remaining a separate thing. Of this enterprise he says: “It was not by forgetting about the evil in man that they hoped to better his lot but by giving way to it rather than opposing it, by lowering standards” (p.296).

Bloom is never clear about which thinkers he agrees with and which he disagrees with, so the extended history lesson serves mainly to show – to me, at least - that the ideal of the modern university is poisoned at the root. To my mind Bloom vindicates the American tendency to ignore the past and makes a very good case for ignoring Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, etc., as wreckers and blind guides. The fundamental assumption of political philosophy held by these thinkers – that man is by nature a solitary being - is rubbish. I think Bloom sees this, but he does not state it until much later in the book, and then obliquely: “Reading Aristotle helps to lay bare the hidden premise underlying modern social science, that man is by nature a solitary being, and could provide the basis for making a debate of it again.” (p. 366)

The culmination of the strand of philosophy which Bloom traces is Weber, in the early twentieth century, who says that old-style Enlightenment rationalism is dead. “All future discussion or study must proceed with the certainty that the perspective was a 'na├»ve' failure. Reason cannot establish values, and its belief that it can is the stupidest and most pernicious illusion.”[1] Thus the university, seen as an Enlightenment project, cut off its own legs. There are very conflicted and contradictory signals about the value of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers in Bloom's book. Like Simone Weil, but by demonstration rather than explicit argument, he seems to be saying that its all there in Plato and that all the philosophising done between us and Ancient Greece is bosh. I am not sure if that is what he means to say, but that is what he seems to be saying.

The third strand in the book is essentially cranky reactionary old man. He complains about the sexual revolution and the intellectually deadening effects of the kind of music young people listen to nowadays. To a large extent I find this congenial, but it isn't convincingly tied to the rest of what he says to make a coherent argument for how and why society has gone wrong and what the university can do about it. It is just grumbling garnished with learned quotations.

All in all 'The Closing of the American Mind' is not a very good advertisement for an open American mind. It lacks clarity, it lacks structure, it lacks a sense of proportion, and it lacks a positive program. The book is a good illustration of my (thoroughly unoriginal) analogy that religion and science are the two eyes of humanity: if you only have one, you will have a two-dimensional picture of the universe. If you don't have either, you will stumble around blindly running into things. To my mind the great enemy, the cause of the evils that have cast down the university, is relativism. To fight relativism you need to assert an absolute. And you need to do this with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees.

Further observations on the first strand: How Democracy Has Failed Higher Education
It is all there in de Tocqueville's “Democracy in America” As Tocqueville says: “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.”
The way organisation of society on democratic principles leads its members to distrust elitism in all its forms works against higher education, traditionally understood, making a significant impact. De Tocqueville again: “The nearer the citizens are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or a certain class of men. But his readiness to believe the multitude increases, and opinion is more than ever mistress of the world.”

And for a third time, here is one more long quotation from de Tocqueville: “Permanent inequality of conditions leads men to confine themselves to the arrogant and sterile research of abstract truths; whilst the social condition and the institutions of democracy prepare them to seek the immediate and useful practical results of the sciences. … Men living in democratic ages cannot fail to improve the industrial part of science; and that henceforward all the efforts of the constituted authorities ought to be directed to support the highest branches of learning, and to foster the nobler passion for science itself. In the present age the human mind must be coerced into theoretical studies; it runs of its own accord to practical applications; and, instead of perpetually referring it to the minute examination of secondary effects, it is well to divert it from them sometimes, in order to raise it up to the contemplation of primary causes.”

How can people who are themselves part of a society distance from themselves sufficiently in order to coerce it in an unnatural direction? Only if they are consumed with a fiery ideal. Since they are now divided, confused, and themselves steeped in the practical, egalitarian principles of democratic culture, it is quite beyond their capacity.

Bloom points out that in 1930 the American universities could have disappeared from the face of the Earth without any great impact on human intellectual activity, and that the dominance of American universities in the post-War period is due to the influx of refugee intellectuals from Europe. Thus, it seems to me that the failures he notes are due largely to the retirement of this generation, the reassertion of historical inevitability, and the failure of the exotic transplant to flourish on the infertile soil of the New World.
I think de Tocqueville's observations about the effect of democracy on higher learning are correct, and the decay of the university on American soil to a large degree historically inevitable. I do not see a remedy.[2]

To see how perniciously the anti-elitism encouraged by democracy, and the 'practical applications' (i.e., profitability as the sole criterion of value) encouraged by democracy, dominate Australian higher education today, I recommend perusal of the blog 'The Common Room' at the Australian newspaper. See here, for instance.

There is no discussion about the role of a university any more. We exist to perpetuate our own existence by doing things that are profitable. That is about it. Bloom's graduates of '82 are now the movers and shakers of the system, the people in the prime of their careers, and his conclusion is even more true today: “It is difficult to imagine that there is either the wherewithal or the energy within the university to constitute or reconstitute the idea of an educated human being and establish a liberal education again.”


Further observations on the second strand: Philosophical trends in higher education since the Enlightenment
I have been reading a lot of Chesterton so I will be essentially parrotting him here, but an analysis of the Western university that begins with the Enlightenment begins halfway through the story. There is no acknowledgment that the modern university grew out of an older institution that had a defined role in Western civilisation and went along fulfilling it without existential crisis for more than half a millennium. There are few and slighting references to Aquinas in this book, but at the end Bloom admits that Catholic universities will be one of the few places study of philosophy will cling to existence, thanks to the Scholastic connection with Aristotle. Higher education is not after all poisoned at the roots, but poisoned halfway up the trunk, by the Enlightenment. When Bloom says “because there is no tradition and men need guidance, general theories that are produced in a day and not properly grounded in experience, but seem to explain things and are useful crutches for finding one's way in a complicated world, have currency” (p. 254), whether he intends to or not, he is referring to all the theories of the Enlightenment.

The classical university of the Middle Ages recognised Man as a social animal: as a creature that is born into a society and cannot exist alone. The most 'primitive' tribe is a complicated net of social obligations, and this net of obligations is the main adaptation for survival of our species. Any theory based on the idea that 'man is by nature a solitary being' will fail. This agreed-upon net of social obligations also entangled the members of the university in its original conception. Without it, the cohesiveness of the university disappears and it becomes unable to resist the society in which it is embedded. A small group of zealots can perhaps maintain a cohesiveness based on shared principles other than those that animate it society: but as the university expands, this will inevitably be lost.

Bloom explains the failure of universities to hold their nerve to the corrupting influences of a philosophy that ended up by devaluing reason, the philosophy of Nietzsche and Weber. But I think this can only be of minor importance. As Bloom has outlined in the first strand of the book, the nature of democratic society is inherently hostile to the traditional university project.

In the later 20th century, as the university expanded towards mass participation, whatever capacity it had to resist the pressures of the society was diluted. The two things are strongly coupled: so long as participation inexorably increases, so will the fact of the university diverge from the idea of the university.

[1] Bloom says that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident' is an example of reason establishing values. Maybe that is how the framers understood it. But a truth that is 'self-evident' is by definition not established by reason! The muddy argument in this book is a far cry from the clarity of Chesterton: “The fault of the great mass of logicians is not that they bring out a false result, or, in other words, are not logicians at all. Their fault is that by an inevitable psychological habit they tend to forget that there are two parts of a logical process – the first the choosing of an assumption, and the second the arguing upon it; and humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption. It is astonishing how constantly one may hear from rational and even rationalistic persons a phrase such as 'He did not prove the very thing with which he started' or 'The whole of his case rested upon a pure assumption,' two peculiarities which may be found by the curious in the works of Euclid.” (From the essay on Carlyle in 'Twelve Types')

[2] Democracy is not the only social structure that discourages the university. The centralised authoritarian state also discourages it as any more than a training place for practical pursuits: it does not matter whether we are all equal under God or under the party. I am afraid that Bloom's assertion “There is no intellectual ground remaining for any regime other than democracy” (p. 330) has turned out to be overly triumphalist. In the past twenty years I have seen the universities of the PRC go from a joke to the arbiters of quality to the rest of us, through the Jiao Tong ratings!