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Reading: After the Bloom Boom

Reconsidering The Closing of the American Mind: Why did so many readers latch on to the crotchety complaints of an obscure elitist?



It's been almost two years now since Chicago's (or at least Hyde Park's) own cantankerous pedagogue--Allan Bloom--was the talk of the nation, his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students the publishing phenomenon of the decade. The professor's book was widely read and widely praised for grappling with "America's spiritual malaise" (in the words of the publisher)--but also often damned for its snobbish elitism and antidemocratic subtext. Some praised its elevated deliberations and marveled that a book that included a chapter entitled "From Socrates' Apology to Heidegger's Rektoratsrede" should be consumed in such numbers. Others protested his fulminations against today's college students (passionless "souls without longing," Bloom calls them in a phrase that provided his original title for the book), rock music (which "has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire"), feminism (abetted by "relentless propaganda on radio and television and in the press," feminism seeks to dismantle "the souls of men--their ambitious, warlike, protective, possessive character . . . the passion of attachment and loyalty"), affirmative action ("the source of what I fear is a long-term deterioration of the relations between the races"), and the 60s ("an unmitigated disaster"). The storm of discussion and debate has largely passed now, although the book still sells steadily in its paper edition. Maybe now is a good time to inquire into what the Bloom phenomenon has been all about.

In a recently published volume of reactions to the book, Essays on The Closing of the American Mind, edited by Robert L. Stone, you can find almost all the best-known responses to Bloom from both right and left. There's David Rieff's extended comparison of Allan to Ollie ("the themes North grasped intuitively, but expressed imperfectly, are given an erudite academic voice"), as well as my personal favorite from the anti-Bloom lit, in which Robert Paul Wolff construes The Closing, with its foreword by Saul Bellow, as a "coruscatingly funny novel in the form of a pettish, bookish, grumpy, reactionary complaint against the last two decades" by a "mid-fiftyish professor at the University of Chicago, to whom Bellow gives the evocative name, 'Bloom.'" On the other side there are effusive tributes to the professor from the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the National Review by William Kristol and John Podhoretz (sons of the neoconservative trailblazers Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz), as well as a long essay by Werner J. Dannhauser, broken into five replies to various Bloom critics. Several more pieces were commissioned for this volume; the editor even found a woman (Pamela Proietti, whom Stone calls a feminist, although it doesn't seem that she regards herself as one) to argue against feminist critics (in recognizing that the traditional patriarchal family is dead and gone, Bloom is not trying to bring about its return, she says, but "merely pointing out that we have found nothing satisfactory to take its place").

Stone's devotion to his project is impressive: he sifted through almost 300 responses to The Closing of the American Mind (all listed in the bibliography, which includes five unpublished essays as well as comments on Bloom from the American Journal of Agricultural Economics and Physics Today) and published a full fifth of them, grouped into 11 different sections with titles ranging from "How Did Allan Bloom Write a Bestseller?" through "The University in Democratic Society: What Is Its Proper Role?" to the inevitable "Bloom on Rock Music."

There are criticisms that could be made of Stone's selection policies. There are at least a couple of important responses that are neither included nor listed in the bibliography (those by Maria Margaronis in the Voice Literary Supplement and Dennis H. Wrong in the New York Times Book Review). And Stone has included some dull and unenlightening essays apparently written for this volume (by William R. Marty, Timothy Fuller, and Gregory B. Smith).

But there's a larger question: is a collection of the immediate responses to Bloom's book what's most needed now? Couldn't the Bloom phenomenon, now that we have a little distance, bear some examination along cultural-historical lines? More valuable, perhaps, would be an attempt to answer the question many of us were asking at the time, even as the justifiable charges of elitism, sexism, and racism were flying: why were the crotchety complaints and quasi-philosophical musings of an obscure professor so popular? Was the book simply another index of the Reagan era, or were deeper recesses of the educated public's mind-set being revealed? Unfortunately, Stone, a former student of Bloom's, isn't really prepared to answer questions like these. An enthusiast rather than a critic, and certainly not a cultural historian, he's more interested in celebrating the phenomenon than explaining it.

The Closing of the American Mind provoked heavy criticism--and deserved every bit of it. Yet most of that criticism was overwrought and superficial. It concentrated on Bloom's outrageous crotchets, which, though they grew a bit boring, failed to explain why the man's complaints found such a ready response. Anti-Bloomians tended to be so caught up in the attack that they couldn't admit his appeal might be based on some truths.

Bloom's primary train of thought is simple enough. Today's college students suffer from a lack of depth or passion, a lack brought on by the pervasive principle of relativism--the conviction that truth is relative and that all beliefs and ways of living are on a par--and consequently making fatuous openness the chief and only virtue. Ironically, as every reviewer must note, it is just this openness that is responsible for what Bloom regards as the closing of the American mind: being open to everything really means believing nothing in particular, closing the mind to any passionate conviction. In order to explain this condition, Bloom theorizes that Americans have been decisively influenced by Nietzsche's nihilism, as transmuted by Weber, Freud, and others--"the German connection." But this train of thought had been a profound and even despairing reflection on the death of God, the relation of man and nature, and the possibility of a rational social order. In America it is trivialized, adopted without thought of its consequences or knowledge of its origins. So we have the Disneyland or Woody Allen version of the European tragic consciousness--"nihilism with a happy ending."

For Bloom, however, the supposed happy ending is pure illusion, hiding the abyss into which we're falling. For what Nietzsche signaled was the self-destruction of the Enlightenment project of founding society upon the dictates of reason--whose history Bloom traces from Machiavelli through Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Kant. The consequences were felt in Hitler's Germany in the 1930s and '40s and in this country in the 60s, which Bloom compares to the Nazi era.

In the United States Bloom is concerned almost exclusively with the university, the institution he thinks suffered most from the onslaught of 60s radicalism, which caused not only "the decomposition of the university" but "the collapse of the entire American educational structure." Bloom supports his concentration on universities with his theory of their unique importance in modern liberal democracies, especially that of the United States. They are the repositories, he believes, of the "animating principles" of the country, as well as the only place where "timid reason" can gain protection from the tyranny of public opinion. He seems to see the university as the contemporary equivalent of the Dark Ages monastery, an exclusive institution in which learning and the study of the great books of the West can be kept alive, the sole refuge for the life of the mind from "the vulgarities of life outside the university." The college years are of extreme importance for an American, he says, for "they are civilization's only chance to get to him." Without the university, "all these wonderful results of the theoretical life collapse back into the primal slime from which they cannot re-emerge."

Small wonder Bloom has often been accused of snobbery and elitism. But it gets worse. Although Bloom thinks institutions of higher learning are useful to society, he believes the converse relation is more important. "Never did I think that the university was properly ministerial to the society around it," he writes. Rather, it's the society that ought to be "ministerial," that should exist for the sake of the university.

This idea is connected with the timeless figure of the "philosopher" invoked by Bloom: a tireless seeker of truth whose archetype is Socrates. Today philosophers find their homes in universities--not that all professors are philosophers, but a few are--and "the tiny band of men who participate fully in this way of life are the soul of the university." Bloom sees the philosopher as a wily type--men who through the ages have sought to reach accommodations with the political powers of the world in order to secure their own safety and freedom to philosophize, making sure they are "thought to serve powerful elements in society without actually becoming their servant." Engaging in a "gentle art of deception," they have always written in such a way as to appeal "to the prevailing moral taste of the regime in which they found themselves, but which could lead some astute readers outside of it to the Elysian Fields where the philosophers meet to talk."

Bloom derives his romantic conception of intellectual and political history from his teacher Leo Strauss, now dead but for many years a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, whose students include many intellectual and political figures in the "new right" of the 1980s. The Straussian method of interpretation, which involves reading between the lines of classic texts to discover what is supposed to be their esoteric meaning, has been widely (and hotly) criticized. (David Greene, the distinguished classical scholar and translator, once characterized Strauss as "a bloody lunatic.")

All of this raises the question of just how seriously Bloom means his defense of American democracy and traditions. Is this merely the philosopher's traditional prudential deference to the regime under which he happens to live? It's understandable that critics such as Benjamin Barber (writing in Harper's and reprinted by Stone) can expostulate: "What we have here is an extraordinary and adept exercise in the Noble Lie aimed at persuading Americans that philosophy is superior to ordinary American life and philosophers superior to ordinary American citizens; and consequently this nation's higher education ought to be organized around the edification of the few who embody philosophy rather than the many who embody America."

This liberal critique is not surprising. More interesting are the attacks from the right. Of course many conservatives hailed Bloom, seeing him as a standard-bearer in the great battles of the Age of Reagan: the efforts to beat back affirmative action, feminism, and the welfare state; to reassert American military might and family values; and generally to get the country back to "the way it used to be." At the time it appeared, The Closing of the American Mind was linked with E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, the furor about raising educational standards, and the dispute at major universities about whether to revise the core curriculum so as to include works from non-Western cultures. Doubtlessly Bloom's book--with its relentless 60s-bashing, its fulminations against feminism, and its frequent invocations of "standards," the "Great Books," and the "old moral order"--has generally had in practice precisely the reactionary (salutary) effect that liberals decried and Reaganites acclaimed. But some found his conservative credentials wanting.

Included in Stone's anthology, for example, are a couple of religionists who decry Bloom's apparent atheism. More arresting are those who accuse him of ideological failings as a true American man of the right. Paul Gottfried finds him "at bottom a welfare state Whig who welcomes the spread of modern progressive ideals" (such as liberal democracy and secularism). Charles Kesler takes him to task for a failure to hail the Reagan-era "counterrevolution" or some of its concomitants such as "the revival of Protestant evangelicism and the new prominence of country music." Harry V. Jaffa (coauthor with Bloom of Shakespeare's Politics) charges him with neglecting the "so-called 'gay rights' movement," which "has emerged as the most radical and sinister challenge, not merely to sexual morality, but to all morality" (this because it represents "the ultimate repudiation of nature, and therewith the ground of all morality"). Actually this last charge is a bit unfair, since Bloom, who regards feminism as a revolt against nature, does say "the fact that there is an open homosexual presence"--with rights, yet!--"tells us much about current university life."

The chief bourbonic plaint against the professor is that he does not sufficiently esteem the genius of this country's founding fathers. Snobbishly infatuated with European philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger ("He can breathe freely only in the presence [and ruins] of Europe's aristocratic past," writes Jaffa) and ensconced in the protective environs of the university, Bloom neither recognizes the greatness of American civilization nor appreciates the moral-majoritarian conservatism of the ordinary American.

There are some more or less technical philosophical-historical issues mixed in here, involving Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the exegesis of Leo Strauss. But the bottom line is that Bloom is un-American. What's interesting about that is not only the historical echoes of the accusation, but the way in which it meshes with the main line of Bloom's liberal critics, who arraign him on charges of elitism, neglect of the real traditions and genius of this country, and contempt for the real America, here identified as the world of "just plain folks" (Benjamin Barber). Both critiques take a populist stance in opposition to the highfalutin schoolman with his foreign tastes and snobbish ways.

Now, it's perfectly true that Bloom is a snob and an elitist, and a lot more besides. His theory of history is eccentric and in the last analysis absurd. (Following Strauss, he not only identifies the history of ideas with the history of events, but then interprets the ideas expressed by the great thinkers as a timeless discourse, causing history to disappear altogether.) The concrete attacks in The Closing of the American Mind on the 60s, affirmative action, feminism, and rock are thoroughly reactionary. (Stone's collection contains the best reply to Bloom on rock I've seen, an essay by Steven Crockett.) Bloom's critique of higher education in this country is not only overblown, but neither original nor particularly new. (It's a lot like that contained in Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism--the intellectual-alarmist best-seller of a decade ago--and even more like William F. Buckley Jr.'s complaint of some 35 years ago, in God and Man at Yale.) But one thing I wouldn't criticize him for is un-Americanism.

This is a traditionally philistine and antiintellectual country. Why shouldn't that be said and criticized? The trouble with Bloom is that he doesn't make this criticism, at least not in a straightforward way. Instead he retreats into waspish distaste and self-absorbed intellectuality. Yet the guy is, to some extent, putting his finger on something that's real and disturbing among students and others in this country.

The passionlessness, the relativism he points to, is all there. Even his much-maligned chapter on rock has its insights, at least in pointing to the singular role music plays in the lives of today's youth. And it's true that there's a terrible lack of direction, an uncenteredness, among people today (I feel it myself). Rolling Stone writer William Greider, attempting to confute Bloom's attacks on this point (in an essay reprinted in Stone), manages to demonstrate them: "The smart young people I know today have a brainy hipness that people like Bloom can't handle. . . . If I suggested to these young people that they were searching for the Good, the True and the Beautiful, they would laugh. They study philosophy, they would say, only because it is a challenging mind game. If Plato nourishes the soul, so does Vanna White." You don't have to hold any quasi-religious conceptions of the "Good" and so forth to see this as a horrible sort of soullessness.

It's like postmodernism, the current buzzword that does pretty well define our cultural condition these days. The mixing of genres and styles, borrowing freely from the past, putting everything on a level--are all connected with the feeling that we're not going anywhere. There's no special direction forward in art, culture--or the world. Eclecticism, anything goes, a thousand styles to choose from, including life-styles--all more or less equal. Deviance and rebellion are quickly co-opted, becoming one more style, one more cultural niche, part of the semipermanently existing melange of choices. You can choose one or combine several. Wonderful freedom! But it exists only insofar as it has no real effect. Everything is allowable so long as nothing makes a difference.

I'll even agree with Bloom in tracing the origins of our present state to the 60s--but I think our lamentable condition, rather than being caused by the success of the liberation movements of that decade, is due to their failure. Powerful enough to smash a lot of cultural structures (which is what bugs Bloom), they weren't strong enough to build a new hegemony. After the neoconservative counterattack of the past 10 or 15 years, we have a sort of uneven stalemate, unsatisfactory to all--unless you're into brainy hipness, yuppie acquisitiveness, or plain old capitalist predator-style greed.

So sure--Allan Bloom is a reactionary snob. But his crazy, crotchety complaints are a direct reaction to a real disorder in contemporary American society. And yes, many who bought his book were probably responding to its reactionary or elitist messages. But its best-seller status was also a sign of something healthy: an awareness that we're stuck in a spiritual desert, and a longing to get out of it.

The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students by Allan Bloom, Simon and Schuster, $18.95 cloth, $7.95 paper.

Essays on The Closing of the American Mind, edited by Robert L. Stone, Chicago Review Press, $11.95 paper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Nicole Ferentz.

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