The Student News Site of University of Central Missouri


The Student News Site of University of Central Missouri


The Student News Site of University of Central Missouri


Openness, Biases, and Nihilism

An excerpt from Jake Kroesen’s Essay for The Vital Center

Here you will find in Jack Kroesen’s essay, which was an original work in The Vital Center, he examines the role higher education plays in our democracy and the issues that have come forward as a result of its influence on it. 

Jake Krosen

Higher Education plays a pivotal role in instilling values, helping to create a virtuous citizenry and to act as a barrier to public opinion. I also argue that as a result of many problems that have developed within the institution of the university, our democracy faces serious threats. One of the issues I examined in my piece was the problem of “openness.” 

Professor Allan Bloom, who studied under Leo Strauss and later taught philosophy at the University of Cornell, as well as Yale and the University of Chicago, wrote about his first-hand account of the way that this idea of openness has influenced America’s most important universities. In his book, “The Closing of the American Mind”, Bloom recounts his experience teaching at Cornell University during the late 1960s. In his section about the university, Bloom examines the culture surrounding these institutions. He argues that schools have become too “open” and that this attempt to push openness has had contrary effects on higher education: that it has in fact closed our minds. 

Openness of this kind seems to discourage both students and faculty from holding biases, or as Bloom refers to them, prejudices. While the word prejudice has today taken on a far more sinister meaning, the kind Bloom is referring to is best described as preconceived notions or one’s personal views about the world. During his time at Cornell, Bloom recalled a conversation he had with a psychology teacher. The teacher had told Bloom that as a teacher “…it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students.” This comment prompted Bloom to ask himself if the professor had any idea if he replaced these prejudices with anything else, let alone understand what the opposite of prejudice might have been. He wrote, “I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays – with the general success of his method – they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything. . . One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation.” 

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Bloom believed that prejudices, strong prejudices, were and are visions about the way things are. They served as “divinations” of the order of the whole, and therefore they served as a road to lead us to the truth, and by believing in and following these divinations, we go through a process of trial and error. Just as a coach or a parent may say “Failure is a step in the right direction.” Bloom argues the same point by saying “Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment.” 

Plato expertly characterizes this experience of coming from our prejudices and finding the light in his cave allegory. The shadows which dance on the wall serve as our prejudices. While these shadows may depict convincing images to us, they do not represent the full truth. It is the feeling of emerging from the cave that provides us with that liberating sense, but if we follow the line of thinking proposed by Bloom’s colleague the psychology professor, then we are not emerging from the cave but rather living below the cave. Below the cave is to not have prejudices, but also, what it’s like to replace those prejudices and leave them with nothing, to leave our mind empty. We not only remain in the dark, but we have blinded ourselves for the sake of losing our prejudices. The effort of teachers, and to many extents ourselves, to purge our minds of these preconceived notions instead of leaving us feeling liberated or more aware of our ignorance has left our minds empty. 

This current style of openness is supposed to establish a sense of “go with the flow,” or to be an accommodation for the present, but this is wrong. This “go with the flow” mentality has developed into what Bloom called “easygoing American nihilism,” a line of thinking that “…has descended upon us, a nihilism without terror of the abyss” and has left the students of our universities to believe in nothing. How often on college campuses, or in society as a whole, do we hear the phrases “live and let live” or “do your own thing”? While these statements seem harmless enough, these are the results of this kind of thinking which Bloom warns about. This idea that we can simply live our lives according to whatever floats our theoretical boat is extremely counterproductive to the role of the university and of a liberal education. 

It is not just the students who are to blame for this mindset. Universities themselves can be their own worst enemy. Bloom says that when university administration capitulates to demands of “more openness” or “less rigidity” or “more freedom from authority” that while these may all sound progressive and fashionable to us citizens in a democracy it instead can lead us to accept empty values without any substantive content or at worst extremely destructive ideas which can fundamentally change the university as an institution. 

To be genuinely open we must allow for an atmosphere that brings out our inner philosopher. As Bloom writes, “it means being closed to the charms which would make us more susceptible to being content with our present state.” It is through these views that we determine what we find to be right and wrong. When attending college, students should not be so eager as to throw out their prejudices with yesterday’s trash, but instead allow them to be tested to determine which are true. 


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