Cerebral Note:
Inquiring Minds
6 June 2019

It has always seemed clear to me that inquiring minds are rare. Most people — particularly very intelligent people — are simply too impatient to wait for answers that take a long time to settle. Not to mention the long wait for the right questions to emerge. It’s for this reason that, while curiosity is certainly a feature of the inquiring mind, it is usually unaccompanied by the stamina required to see genuine inquiry through — through, that is, not to the end, but just to the next step. Curiosity can be satisfied. The inquiring mind cannot. 

I’ve been thinking of this as a way of trying to hold on to something while being tossed on the roaring seas of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book from 1987 that I have not read since then. The difference between then and now is that, in 1987, I could understand about half of what Bloom was talking about. In 2019, I wonder how much Bloom understood. The advantage is somewhat unfair; I have survived middle age, which Bloom, cut down by AIDS, did not. 

Bloom himself does not appear to have had an inquiring mind. He was a pedagogue — an excellent one, by all accounts, and certainly on the evidence of his having conducted an honorable career as a gay man surrounded daily by bright young men (at the University of Chicago, which isn’t as hard to get into as it ought to be, because it is thought to be too hard to attend). Bloom was devoted to introducing fresh minds to what he regarded as the great question — How To Live — in terms that had been set by Socrates and Plato a long time ago. I myself do not think much of Socrates or Plato, although I give them a lot of credit for getting the ball rolling. (As for the third member of the trinity, I really do admire Aristotle, but I wish that he had been less eager to shine in public, a failing that led him to waste a lot of time on the Macedonians and to spread himself too thin to sit down and actually write his books — aside from the Poetics, he left us with his students’ rather boring notes.) Bloom seems to have been content to accept Greek priorities and analyses as dispositive. His belief in Reason makes me feel like a visiting time traveler, or maybe a Martian. 

And as for How To Live, I’m afraid that the young person who doesn’t have a strong, almost unteachable grasp of this question long before he arrives in the groves of Academe is probably never going to be more than an apparatchik. 

If inquiring minds are as rare as I think they are, then nurturing them cannot be a principal objective of the university as we know it, unless we adopt the position that two or three schools (Oxford, Cambridge, and maybe UCL) are enough. (This position was not held by anybody in the days when Oxford and Cambridge were all there was.) The inquiring mind in its academic phase is scholarly, and not at all pedagogic; I have always doubted that there is a real place for most undergraduates at a genuine university. It makes sense, at least to me, to concentrate scholarly activity (and the resources that it requires) in a few places. And there are never so many inquiring minds — assuming, optimistically, that these can be spotted in secondary school and shunted to the right place — as to require anything like the thirty leading universities in America, much less the plethora of outfits with such aspirations that dot the countryside. 

Once upon a time, there were Schools. As in Chartres and Reims; as in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Before the secular and ecclesiastical powers decided that it was best to confine inquiring minds to “a few places,” although certainly not for my reasons. Reims was particularly famous for its newly robust program in logic. Research had nothing to do with it; young men went to Reims because the discussions were, for a time, both livelier and more rigorous than they were anywhere else. (Dare we say that it was “hot.”) Most successful graduates went on to careers in the growing fields of church and royal administration — the Énarques of the day. Schools, headed by teachers like Fulbert of Chartres and Allan Bloom, are where undergraduates belong. And as I have argued elsewhere, real schools ought to be inexpensive to operate and to attend, with the lion’s share of revenues going to teachers. 

School and scholarship alike are wasted on many bright minds. What Bloom would call natural scientists are professionally obliged to subject their curiosity to a broad prohibition on many types of questions, most notably, What Does It Mean? Their inquiries are strangely (but very fruitfully) monophonic. They speak mathematics, not the humane languages, and if this is as it should be (and I think it is), there is little reason to clutter their lives with literature surveys. (Certainly we can agree that well-roundedness is an aptitude, not an acquired skill.) So I take science out of education altogether, just as we take doctors and lawyers out of “grad school.” Only by keeping science and humane letters apart can we stifle the latter’s occasional bouts of what has been aptly termed “physics envy,” the source of all the misbegotten “social sciences.” Scholarship — particularly historical scholarship — is not at all scientific in its rigors but rather a learned profession, like the law, a specialty whose rules appear woolly and capricious to non-initiates. 

Bloom’s physics envy is almost rank in his assessment of university disciplines. It leads him to the following rather tragic conclusion: 

The problem of the humanities, and therefore of the unity of knowledge, is perhaps best represented by the fact that if Galileo, Kepler and Newton exist anywhere in the university now it is in the humanities, as part of one kind of history or another — history of science, history of ideas, history of culture. In order to have a place, they have to be understood as something other than what they were — great contemplators of the whole of nature who understood themselves to be of interest only to the extent that they told the truth about it. If they were wrong or have been completely surpassed, then they themselves would say that they are of no interest. To put them in the humanities is the equivalent of naming a street after them or setting up a statue in a corner of a park. They are effectively dead. … On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, “There is no truth — at least here.” (371-2)

This is what spending too much time trying to be Rational will do to a man. 

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