Whoever Has Ears Ought To Hear

by | Apr 18, 2012 | Uncategorized

The Closing of the American Mind

The Closing of the American Mind

When teaching my 9 am philosophy class, I sometimes felt like the only civilized person in the room. The bodies of students, looking like extras from The Walking Dead, showed up, but their brains seemed to be missing. I imagined myself a philosopher-king, standing before the barbarian horde.

The always-interesting Eve Tushnet called my attention to Matt Feeney’s New Yorker piece, occasioned by the 25th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. It got me thinking about how teachers might be closing our own minds while trying to open our students’.

In Feeney’s reading of Bloom, the university teacher’s task is to get students to channel their youthful passion (yes, even the hormonal kind) into “an arousing and dangerous philosophical quest.” Basically, the teacher capitalizes on a “naive eros,” and instead of allowing raw desires to lead merely to partying, hookups, and Facebook-stalking someone cute from Calculus, they are sublimated into the search for wisdom. But this strategy may have run out of steam, as Feeney bluntly observes that “since many college students are either getting laid or widely versed in porn, or both” a contemporary appeal to unsatisfied desire may be a “non-starter.”

Since sublimation won’t work anymore, Feeney reframes the quest for wisdom as an “urgent battle for non-conformity.” But the modern project of making “good kids” — well-mannered, high-achieiving, socially conscious, etc. — has been so successful that the excitement of rebellion turns them off rather than on.

From a couple of years of teaching college, I share some of Feeney’s concern that the cult of the well-adjusted, high-achieving student seems to be involved in the closing of the American mind that we’re supposed to be fighting back against. These diagnoses may be largely correct — but knowing why minds might be closed isn’t the same as knowing how to help them open. A few weeks back, tackling the question of whether college led to unbelief, Mick McCarthy observed:

You cannot make young people listen to you. If you want them to listen to you, you must first listen to them.

For a teacher armed with the hammer of Bloom’s diagnosis, every student starts to look like a nail, their questions to be beaten down or pried up, as is necessary to overcome their naivete. If we’re concerned about students coming to know the truth, however, and we believe that God is already at work in them, then we can’t simply discard what they bring with them. McCarthy’s insight, that “what people in their twenties want above all is people to trust,” offers a more basic and more challenging truth: if we want students to open their minds, first we have to open our ears — and hear the questions they’re really asking, rather than simply the ones we’d like to answer.


Sam Sawyer, SJ

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